purists who long believed that Slate, the online magazine founded by
Michael Kinsley and bankrolled by Microsoft,
was never a bona fide digital media service now have a final,
damning piece of evidence.
In the first quarter of this year, Slate took in more money than
Of course, given $20 million in investment and all of the
traffic-generating muscle of the MSN Network behind it, it is tough
to call that fiscal state of affairs profitability indeed, company
officials are specifically prohibited from doing so because Slate's
financials are not broken out in Microsoft's filings. But it is
still a milestone for a general-interest magazine that publishes
only on the Web.
So after almost seven years, Slate could be the exception that
ends up disproving the rule that held that content sites generally
serve as a trapdoor for good intentions and prodigious amounts of
money. These days, Slate is enjoying a combination of growing ad
revenue and, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, traffic that has
doubled in the last year, to six million unique visitors a
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and co-founder, is happy that
one of the original conceits of Slate that a magazine of ideas
could make money if it did not have to pay for printing,
manufacturing and distribution may end up coming true. Even if it
takes a long, long time.
"Over the years, as we have reviewed Slate and refined its
strategy, we have always believed it would be a moneymaker," Mr.
Gates said in an e-mail message. "The readership levels we have
today have gotten us past break even and those levels will continue
Slate was hardly the bold 2.0 version of journalism promised by
its founders. And throughout its development, the leadership of
Slate declined to participate in dot-com mania and shied away from
grandiose claims about putting ink-and-paper publications out of
But the site's skeptical, brainy challenges to the conventional
wisdom were well received and its ability to summarize other media
outlets made it a favorite desktop resource when big news occurred.
Slate quickly became part of the conversation, at least among the
politically inclined. And within the last year, it matched its
reputation for Beltway deconstruction with more comprehensive
cultural coverage that has brought greater numbers of women to the
More recently, Slate responded to the war in Iraq with vigorous
critiques of the military campaign and the accompanying media
But if Slate along with Salon, another online magazine
managed to prove that the Web was a viable publishing medium, it
never threatened to demonstrate that it was a lucrative one. True,
other Web publications, built on the power of long-established print
products, have struggled into the black, but Slate had further to go
because it was its own thing, with no editorial legacy to
Now Slate is hoping to get noticed for something besides its tart
With annual revenues of under $7 million, any profits that Slate
produces will not be the kind of results that drive Microsoft's
stock price. Still, Slate's readership puts it below The New
York Times on the Web and above Time.com, Time magazine's
digital component. That is pretty fancy company for a site that
started as a tabula rasa from Mr. Kinsley, the former editor of The
New Republic magazine and a self-professed technophobe who did not
know e-mail from junk mail when he agreed to leave his Beltway perch
as a commentator on CNN's "Crossfire" and move to Microsoft's campus
in Redmond, Wash.
Mr. Kinsley, who retired as editor in chief a year ago and was
replaced by Jacob Weisberg, a longtime editor and writer at the
site, ran Slate on the cheap from the start. Not only did Slate
avoid an initial public offering, it also refrained from the lavish
parties and wild spending sprees on acquisitions that helped ruin so
many other Internet publications.
Slate hardly breaks the mold of magazines of ideas supported by
men of means The New Republic has several wealthy backers,
including its owner, Martin Peretz, and The Weekly Standard is
dependent on the largesse of Rupert Murdoch but Mr. Kinsley said
that approaching break-even status had editorial consequences.
"The only guarantee of editorial freedom in the long run is to be
self-supporting," he said. "If you are perennially losing money, the
only reason someone is going to own you is to be able to get their
point of view out there."