annals of communications
The New Yorker - May 13, 1996
the re-education of michael kinsley
What's been going on since the Beltway contrarian and the corporate cyber whizzes in Seattle got together to create a new kind of electronic magazine? Some very interesting ideas about journalism.
When Michael Kinsley announced, last November, that he was leaving Washington, D.C., to edit an on-line magazine in Seattle, colleagues and friends reacted as if he were moving to another planet. And, in a sense, he was. In Washington, Kinsley was celebrated as an editor and writer, and he had won fame and large lecture fees as the co-host of CNN's "Crossfire." Telephones rang; attention was paid.
On Kinsley's new planet--Microsoft's corporate headquarters, in Redmond, just outside Seattle--the phones rarely ring. There are nearly nine thousand employees on this college-like campus, and they converse, silently, by E-mail. Ties and jackets are shunned, jeans and uncombed hair are "cool," and the denizens speak a language of their own. A person might say, for instance, that he needed to locate the "owner" (person in charge) and then "drill down" (learn more) in order to "achieve granularity" (grasp the complexities) and then get to "2.0" (the next level) while avoiding "a bandwidth problem" (an overloaded schedule) or a "communications disconnect."
Kinsley has always thought of himself as a contrarian, an impression he fostered as the editor of The New Republic and as the writer of the magazine's "TRB" column. At Microsoft, he maintains that role because he has become the observant anthropologist. The Microsoft natives "have their own inside-the-Beltway culture here, too," Kinsley says. "They're not following primaries. They're following the new release of Netscape." The young men and women who work in each of the thirty Microsoft buildings receive the same free sodas and coffee, eat the same subsidized meals, and inhabit the same one- or two-"module" windowed offices. "Corporate socialism," he marvels. He also notes, "I'm the oldest person I run into all day." At forty-five, he is eleven years older than the average employee, and is older than every senior executive but one at Microsoft.
Even Kinsley's appearance sets him apart. He wears L. L. Bean chinos and cotton shirts, white socks, and the round clear-plastic-framed eyeglasses he first purchased from England's National Health Service--the kind of austere "war-criminal glasses," as he calls them, that were worn by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. But, since few of his new colleagues are concerned with appearances, he blends in. "Someone said to me that going from CNN to here is like going from a company where men wear makeup to a place where women don't," he says.
The relevant question about Kinsley, though, is not sartorial; it is whether the electronic magazine he is conceiving will be real. He is, metaphorically, jumping off a bridge--only he doesn't know whether water or cement awaits below. He does, however, know this: more than a third of all American households have computers, according to the national research firm Odyssey, and a rapidly expanding quarter of these households are connected to the Internet. Kinsley also knows that an on-line magazine is dirt cheap, since there are no costs for paper, printing, or postage. And he knows a larger truth: traditional middlemen--the Post Office; billing services; travel agents; department stores; video, record, or book stores; movie theatres; or bank tellers--are threatened by new delivery systems, from cyberspace to wireless technology. Those middlemen--who get between the product and the customer--will become "roadkill" on the information superhighway, in the phrase of Microsoft's technology guru, group vice-president Nathan Myhrvold. Myhrvold, a thirty-six-year-old Ph.D., writes lively, term-paper-length missives every cou-ple of weeks, and circulates them among fellow-executives. Myhrvold believes that cyberspace is to America in the late twentieth century what Frederick Jackson Turner said the frontier was to America in the nineteenth century: the engine driving an economic democracy. A Myhrvold memo from September of 1993 declared:
One of the most general and dramatic aspects of the information highway is to virtualize space and time. Put another way, the highway will break the tyranny of geography--the stranglehold of location, access and transportation that has governed human societies from their inception. . . . Assuming that the network is there, a person in Redmond or Manhattan or nearly anywhere else will have equal access to goods and services presented on the network.
But this is stargazing. Back on planet Earth, none of the hundreds of electronic magazines started in the past year or so--not HotWired, or Word, or Salon, or Feed, or Mr. Showbiz, to name a few--have satisfactorily solved the puzzle of how to bill and collect from subscribers, or how to justify rates for advertisers. As for the audience, emerging technologies could make lots of information available, but it is not clear how aggressive--and invasive--these electronic publications are prepared to be. Nielsen Media Research can't even agree with itself about the number of people using the Internet: it reported last October that there were twenty-two million adult users and this April that there were just over nineteen million. One of the most widely trafficked entertainment magazines on the Internet is the year-old Mr. Showbiz, but its mixture of entertainment-industry reporting and gossip attracts only twenty-three thousand daily visitors, according to its deputy editor, Jim Albrecht. "Like every other site on the Internet, it's a money loser," Albrecht, who is twenty-eight and is based in Seattle, says. "I've never heard of a site that makes money. The gamble is that this is going to be a big advertising industry." Build it, and they will come.
What Kinsley has set out to build is a weekly public-affairs magazine somewhat to the left of The New Republic but much quirkier than the pigeonhole he found himself imprisoned in as the "liberal" on "Crossfire." The new weekly magazine, which will be called Slate, will run to about twenty-five thousand words (The New Republic runs to about forty thousand words), and the most optimistic goal, according to Russell Siegelman, who until recently was the general manager of on-line services for Microsoft, is a paid circulation of about a hundred thousand. Siegelman, who is thirty-three, is Kinsley's immediate superior.
To retrieve Slate, those who subscribe--Microsoft is discussing rates of between twenty and thirty dollars a year, and about three dollars for a single issue--will connect to the Internet and type "http://www.slate.com," and it will appear. Other magazines are "read" in the same way--sometimes to the consternation of World Wide Web users, who find that text and pictures are occasionally retrieved with ex-cruciating slowness, or sometimes, when traffic is very heavy, not at all. As we've seen with bold promises to provide video-on-demand and five hundred channels and handheld computers, technology sometimes moves more slowly than the human mouth.
What will set Slate apart from most electronic magazines, Kinsley hopes, will be a traditional, linear sensibility. He will run pieces longer than seven hundred words, which is generally thought to be the maximum attention span of those who scroll cathode-ray screens and skate from site to site with a mouse. He will try to navigate between becoming a data bank, as are many Web sites, and a hip, dripping-with-irony magazine where people write faster than they think. Kinsley is an unabashed elitist, dismissive of the tell-me-what-you-think Zeitgeist of the Web. He does not apologize: "I'm too old to go whoring after twenty-somethings." Later, he adds, "I'm operating on the assumption that you can give people a meal."
But there are those who think this is the wrong approach to the Internet. Esther Dyson, the president of EDventure Holdings, who was a Harvard classmate of Kinsley's and later an Internet pioneer, believes that an electronic editor must be more "an intellectual bartender than a chef." She says, "Michael doesn't suffer fools gladly. Generally, you want someone who's a little kinder. You need to understand; you're not in control. In the interactive world, the bartender doesn't do all the talking. The bartender knows who should talk to whom." If Dyson's guess--and it can be only that--is cor-rect, then Kinsley the editor is destined to become another middleman, an-other roadkill in the abyss of cyberspace.
"I WAS your classic nonathlete" is how Kinsley describes being brought up as the only son in a Jewish home in Birmingham, Michigan. His younger sister, Susan, is a lawyer and writer who is now working with refugees in Sarajevo. Michael's father, George, who was a surgeon, died of a heart attack in 1974, at age sixty-seven; he was by most accounts, including his son's, a modest man who worked far too hard. His mother, Lillian, a former high-school debating champion who now lives in West Palm Beach, pushed Michael to excel in school and to take piano and art lessons. He starred as a student at Harvard; as an editor at the Crimson; as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where, he says, he "turned into an Anglophile"; and then at Harvard Law School. In 1976, he was a twenty-five-year-old third-year law student when Martin Peretz, who had been a college teacher of his and had bought The New Republic two years earlier, proposed that he become its managing editor. He accepted and moved to Washington. Two years later, he ostentatiously quit The New Republic after a spat with Peretz, who almost instantly lured him back with a raise and a grander title, editor. For the next dozen years, he alternated in that job in three-to-four-year stints with Hendrik Hertzberg (now the editorial director of The New Yorker). Kinsley had a kid-in-a-candy-store sort of journalistic experience: in 1981, he moved to New York to become editor of Harper's (for a troubled twenty months); returned to Washington and The New Republic in 1983 to write "TRB" for the next eleven years; again became editor of The New Republic in 1985; went to England in 1989 as the "American Survey" editor of The Economist; and crossed the Atlantic again seven months later, to sign up with CNN. By contrast with his hot, snarling "liberal" posture on "Crossfire," his "TRB" columns, op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal, and articles in Time and The New Yorker were models of clinical precision.
Somehow, Kinsley's journalistic reputation survived the "Crossfire" food fights--six and a half years of shouted battle with the "conservative" bunker. Kinsley made no secret of a yearning to run a magazine again. Yet when an offer came to edit New York magazine, in January of 1994, he agonized for weeks. Then he said yes. And then, seven hours later, he said no. A man who had grown up in a leafy Detroit suburb and owned a house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, he dreaded the idea of living in New York City. He also dreaded making a decision. The New York-magazine episode, he admits now, "was a midlife crisis."
What the decision did do was put Kinsley in a frame of mind to change his life. He grew a beard. He gave up his "TRB" column. "I spent a year and a half sulking over my stupidity in turning it down," he says. He saw himself, correctly, as skilled at spotting and nurturing talent, as someone who knew how to make a home for writers, treat them as peers, serve them potluck dinners in Chevy Chase. By the spring of 1995, he recalls, "I was determined to be on the next train to pull out of the station no matter where it was going--provided that I was the engineer."
He talked with the Time Warner, Inc., editor-in-chief, Norman Pearlstine, and others about editing either what he calls "a highbrow news magazine, roughly like The Economist, or an overtly liberal magazine to occupy the space The New Republic used to occupy." But the conversations were proceeding slowly, partly because such publications have high fixed costs and low circulation. What ignited his imagination was a chance conversation with Jeffrey Dearth, then the president of The New Republic. Kinsley recalls, "He mentioned to me that there are now storefronts in shopping malls in suburban Virginia that will set you up with a Web page for a magazine and that it could be like The New Republic." Only a lot cheaper. Kinsley was not entirely computer illit-erate. He had been exchanging E-mail for years with the writer Nicholas Lemann, his closest friend, and had just begun to explore the Internet. "I would say I have computer-nerd tendencies but keep them suppressed," he explains. The conversation with Dearth, however, galvanized Kinsley to write Pearlstine and ask, "Would you be any more receptive to a magazine on the Web?"
Pearlstine arranged to meet him on August 7th. In preparation, on July 27th Kinsley sent a five-page, single-spaced memorandum sketching what he, interestingly, called "a traditional magazine, or something fairly close to it, distributed on the Web." Kinsley calibrated his "motivation" this way: only one per cent was "because of the new technical possibilities of presentation on the Web (e.g., hyperlinks, sound, video)"; fifty per cent was "because it miraculously sidesteps all the printing and distribution problems/costs of a traditional mag-azine"; and the remaining forty-nine per cent was based on his sense that this was "a new medium, it's almost certainly the wave of the future, and . . . we want in." Kinsley's focus was more on the message than on the medium, and he vowed that those who worked on the magazine would not get distracted by technological "bells and whistles."
In his memo Kinsley contrasted his approach with that of other electronic publications by saying that his would have "an attitude," but it would dif-fer from the voguish "free-floating cynicism and snideness" that is the "cheap attitude" prevalent on the Internet. He proposed to charge subscribers for the magazine rather than offer it free (as most on-line publications do). He proposed a weekly print version as well.
The presentation to Pearlstine went well, and further discussion followed. But, as days and then weeks passed, Kinsley grew impatient. Then he saw the September 4th issue of Newsweek, which mentioned that the Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, was "looking to hire a big-name editor" for a new news division, the Microsoft Network. Kinsley knew the Microsoft executive vice-president, Steven Ballmer, slightly from a Harvard connection. Kinsley wrote to Ballmer and asked, "Do I qualify as a big-name editor?"
He did, even though Ballmer said Newsweek was wrong--Microsoft was not then searching for an editor. But, as Newsweek had reported, the software giant was eager to expand into the content business, to develop new products as well as new technology, thus avoiding the fate that Nathan Myhrvold had predicted for most middlemen. In fact, by the summer of 1995 Microsoft had concluded that investing in new technology alone would not permit the company to maintain its astonishing growth--net revenues soared to nearly six billion dollars last year, and net income was one billion four hundred and fifty-three million dollars. The company was belatedly beginning to focus on the Internet and three areas of content: an on-line content provider like the Microsoft Network; a small number of "branded" properties, which could include a magazine like Kinsley's; and consumer software. Ballmer telephoned Kinsley and told him he was interested, and said he'd get back to him.
When Ballmer got off the phone, he E-mailed several colleagues. All expressed eagerness to explore teaming with Kinsley. The most passionate proponent was probably on-line-services chief Russell Siegelman, who read The New Republic cover to cover each week and calls himself "a huge fan" of Kinsley's. Another executive drawn to Kinsley was Myhrvold. In a memo that Myhrvold distributed internally last July 16th, "Principles for Online Content and Brands," he noted that records, most books, and movies were " 'published' by companies which play essentially no role in the actual creation of the material," and that for most entertainment-information companies, with the exception of entertainment companies like Disney, "a strong brand is not a large source of value. People do not buy records because they were published by Sony Records, or Geffen Records--instead they buy Madonna, Aerosmith or Zubin Mehta. . . . The best model for online content in the existing media world is the magazine business, where editorial brands can become the primary enduring sources of value." Such magazines, Myhrvold argued, would be cheap to produce and distribute on-line, and didn't require a vast audience to succeed.
In Ballmer's view, however, there were two drawbacks to Microsoft's aligning with Kinsley. As Ballmer, a prematurely bald man of forty who wears bright crew-neck sweaters and whose booming voice is often enlisted to fire up the troops at corporate rallies, spelled out the drawbacks for me, the first was "Is this a business?" and the second was political: "Does this company have to worry about having him in terms of having a point of view?" Kinsley describes himself as "a perennial malcontent." He relishes skewering public figures and, just as frequently, public pieties. "I am honestly bewildered by the frequent complaint that American culture is hostile to religion--that religious be-liefs are routinely belittled and held up to scorn," he once wrote. "Does anybody really think it's harder to stand up in public, in 1993 America, and say, 'I believe in God,' than it is to stand up and say, 'I don't'?" He once deflated Vice-President Al Gore by describing him as "an old person's idea of a young person." As a thirty-year-old, Kinsley eviscerated the very Washington talk-show circuit he later became part of in a savagely funny piece, "Jerkofsky & Company," with sendups of George ("George III") Will reciting from Bartlett's quotations and Hugh ("Sidewall") Sidey boasting of "my major lunches around Washington" and Marvin ("Jerkofsky") Agronsky lowering his voice to say, "Concern mounts in Washington about any number of things. Life on earth continues, but doubts arise about its purpose or justification."
Russell Siegelman invited Kinsley to visit Microsoft in mid-September. Siegelman and Peter Neupert, the vice-president for strategic partnerships, took him to dinner, and the three discussed Kinsley's ideas and the possibility of a marriage with Microsoft. Kinsley welcomed their thoughts. What he said he wouldn't welcome was any limitation on his editorial freedom. The magazine had to be "lively," he recalls saying to them, and "the only way to be lively is to make trouble. You understand?" They said they understood. "In my experience," he continued, "trouble comes not when you attack a company but when you attack the owner's friends. For example, Warren Buffett"--a friend of Bill Gates. Understood, they said. Were they prepared for the possibility that he might attack Microsoft? No problem.
On September 18th, a Monday, as is the Microsoft custom when recruiting an executive, Kinsley was scheduled to be interviewed individually by most of Microsoft's hierarchy, except Gates. Kinsley pressed each about editorial independence but also talked at length about his vision for an electronic magazine. In turn, they pressed him on politics. The group vice-president Pete Higgins, who, along with Myhrvold, presides over the Applications and Content Group, remembers worrying about whether Kinsley was too "left" and wondering aloud whether his magazine might be paired with a conservative counterpart. The Microsoft executives, despite their belief that geography was becoming irrelevant, told Kinsley that, "for synergy reasons," he should edit the magazine on their campus, and not from Washington, D.C., or New York.
On this first visit, there was "syn-ergy" between Kinsley and Microsoft. "I thought he was a kindred spirit," recalls Patty Stonesifer, who, at thirty-nine, is the senior vice-president of the Interactive Media Division. "He has a kind of intellect that likes to break down issues and consumer needs and marketplaces into an understandable and manageable and parcellable challenge." At the end of the visit, Kinsley told Siegelman, "If you guys are interested in doing something with me, I'm interested."
They were interested. That very night, in an E-mail sent to seven Microsoft managers at ten-thirteen, Siegelman wrote:
Having him be an MS employee would legitimize MS as a content company to a large degree. . . . I think we can get him, but it will take the right offer and selling. His one big issue is church and state: everyone today gave him the right message about senior mgmt not mucking with editorial decisions, but I think he will need constant reassurance of this. My bottom line: I think that Mike is super and would be a fantastic catch.
The following Friday, Kinsley E-mailed Siegelman:
A few more thoughts as you guys decide whether/how you want to proceed. . . . Pete Higgins seemed to have some concern about my being "on the left." I hope you can reassure him that my politics are pretty eclec-tic, averaging out I suppose as a moderate-liberal with a libertarian streak. One thing I would NOT be interested in would be being "paired" with a conservative product. That would be unfair to me, and unfair to the real left. It's one of the things I'm trying to get away from at Crossfire.
But it did occur to me that, even if whatever-it-is-we're-talking-about starts out as a single "magazine" product, it might contain (let's call them) "modules" or mini-magazines from different political viewpoints. Not just left/right, but mainstream conservative; mainstream liberal; progressive left; libertarian; agrarian/luddite/unabomber (!); etc.
Even before Microsoft made Kinsley an offer, these exchanges with the technology-oriented company had planted an idea that would flower. "I like your idea of 'mini-magazines,' " Siegelman E-mailed to Kinsley. He went on:
This makes sense. In the world of the Internet it is not always clear when the "boundaries" between "publications" start and end because everything is hyper-linked. We def-initely want to create an online magazine that has brand, and everything hangs together as "one" magazine. But one way to think of this is as a conglomeration of "mini-modules" that can be linked together in several ways.
"Glad you like the 'modules' notion," Kinsley E-mailed back, revealing that this new medium was beginning to alter his message.
I've been thinking further about that and a variation (or addition) might be a sort of on-line McLaughlin Group, only more sophisticated and intellectually honest: really smart people . . . discussing some issue (eg, Medicare reform) in a dialogue supervised by me, purged of sound bites and cheap shots, and with some hope of dialectical progress toward agreement/solution.
The internal Microsoft debate persisted for six weeks, largely because the debaters were vexed by the "political" issue. But they knew that an association with Kinsley would "teach us a lot," Patty Stonesifer recalls. The Microsoft people also knew that they were late to see the potential of the Internet and needed content for it.
By late October, Kinsley had heard nothing concrete from Microsoft or Time Warner, and was becoming anxious. "I then called Microsoft and Time Warner and said I needed a decision," Kinsley says.
The ultimatum led Siegelman to go see Nathan Myhrvold and Pete Higgins and say, he recalls, "Look, we've got to nail this down. If we wait much longer he's going to work for Time Warner. . . . Can I send an E-mail to Gates that you will back?" Gates had been briefed by Ballmer and Myhrvold and was in agreement. Although Gates had yet to meet Kinsley or even exchange an E-mail with him, he was telling people that Kinsley's initial electronic-magazine memo was "brilliant." Gates gave his assent.
Siegelman thereupon called Kinsley with an offer to make him the editor of Microsoft's on-line magazine based in Redmond. The company would pay him "two-thirds of what I was getting just to do 'Crossfire,' " Kinsley says, refusing to confirm his previous salary. (His pay, a Microsoft insider says, is just under two hundred thousand dollars, not counting a bonus.) He would be an employee, not an owner, but if the magazine was successful he would be likely to see the results reflected in bonus checks and stock options. Time Warner also came through with an offer. Unlike Microsoft, it proposed an employment contract that would run for three years, with a heftier salary. But Time Warner would not pledge to back his magazine and promised only to take a hard look at it. Kinsley weighed the two offers, agonizing much as he had done when he turned down New York magazine. The safe thing to do was to stay at CNN. But Kinsley was ready now to change his life.
Microsoft announced the appointment on November 6th. Within Microsoft, executives congratulated themselves that by hiring Kinsley they had achieved "name branding." He was welcomed as a "media star" by the Seattle Times. In D.C., the reaction was that he was simply mad to walk away from a visible and prosperous platform. Friends like Lemann praised his courage. "It's a kind of present-at-the-creation feeling," Lemann said. "I'm intensely curious about what he comes up with." Others were dubious. "There are decent on-line publications like Word and Suck and Salon," said New York's founding editor, Clay Felker, who directs the Felker Magazine Center at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley. "Nobody wants to read very much. If Kinsley is thinking he can put on a version of The New Republic or his column, they won't read it. . . . Our eyes get tired quicker on a computer screen. Plus it isn't very practical. People look at a screen as work, not pleasure. It doesn't have the portability of print. As a result, you have to write differently in order to keep people interested." The new medium, Felker added, requires more graphics, more interactivity, more diversions. In a discussion on the WELL, a bulletin board based in San Francisco, the news was greeted with some of the "attitude" that Kinsley had deplored: "It's very VERY nice to know that Mr. Kinsley will be coming in to save us from the veddy tedious web magazines we are forced to sludge through . . . all tepid pieces of crap for cyberfreaks" (kieran); "Some-how, despite his dweebish nature, I don't picture Kinsley as someone who hangs out online and is up on digital culture" (srhodes).
And Kinsley was soon reminded that his project was only a wavelet in the Microsoft ocean. The on-line magazine was just one of more than fifty product lines reporting to the Interactive Media Division. On December 19th, five days after Microsoft and NBC announced a joint effort to fashion a twenty-four-hour cable news channel and on-line news service, Kinsley told me, "I had no idea about it. I didn't know they were planning to become a direct rival to CNN. That was a little embarrassing to me." Not enough to dampen his enthusiasm, however. "Even if it's a total flop, it's an adventure," he said. In a matter-of-fact tone, he add-ed, "There are lots of people who are good writers, many of them are better than me. I think there are fewer people who are better magazine editors than I am."
THE first thing Microsoft em- ployees noticed about Michael Kinsley when he appeared for work in Building 25 on Jan-uary 2, 1996, was not the mail-order khakis or the green four-door Honda Accord, though these stood out as somewhat preppy. They noticed that he was wearing a white "Department of Justice" baseball cap. This was a flashing-neon reminder of the four-year federal probe of Microsoft, as well as a reminder of Kinsley's independence. They might have noticed, as well, that his closet-size one-module office contained no pictures of family or friends. Like many of the driven employees on this sprawling campus, Kinsley has Spartan tastes. A lifelong bachelor, he is thrilled to live in a self-contained world, where there is food and everyone can look out a window and see nothing but grass--and Microsoft buildings.
Physically, Kinsley has about him a languid, professorial air. His long fingers rarely move as he talks, his arms stiffly by his side; his eyes seem stretched open, for he seldom blinks, and from behind his oversized McNamara glasses his dark eyes stay glued to the person to whom he is speaking. Unlike the performer on CNN, Kinsley the editor speaks slowly, deliberately, quietly. Nothing about him--not the short, neatly parted black hair, not the parsimonious gestures, not the bland clothes--detracts from the feature that people at Microsoft or at The New Republic usually mention first: his intelligence. It is in this respect that Kinsley fits right in at Redmond. "It's a little like a summer math camp for high-school kids," Steve Ballmer says of the Microsoft culture. "People have to prove they have the right answer--'I challenge that!' "
To walk the mazelike corridors of Building 25, or any of the other buildings on the campus, is to encounter a sameness, where everyone has the same glassed entrance, the same space in which to toil. From his first day at work, Kinsley had the same office with the same adjustable desk and Compaq notebook computer with docking station used by many of his colleagues. What Kinsley didn't have was a plan for his magazine. "All I had was this vague memo," Kinsley remembers. "I had no business plan, no staff, no anything. All I had was an office."
He didn't even have a name for the magazine. He spent the first few days writing a memo that added flesh to the bones of his skeletal periodical. The memo--ten and a half single-spaced pages, which he finished on January 9th--began by defining his magazine's audience as the kind of "politically and culturally engaged people" who read The Economist, The New Yorker, and The New Republic. For those without a computer, there would be a weekly mailed version of the magazine to "reinforce the idea that we are putting out a real magazine." He remained opposed to getting swept away by the technology: "Our guiding maxim should be, 'It's the journalism, stupid.' . . .In much on-line stuff now, the tail wags the dog."
The magazine, he continued, would not "push any particular political viewpoint." Nor would it obsess about "objectivity":
This will be a weekly magazine. Obviously, "weekly" is a metaphor, just like "magazine." Material will come and go all the time. But, at least in the early days, we need to reinforce the metaphor, to make traditional magazine readers feel comfortable in this new medium. . . .
There should be a notional moment each week when we "go to press" and "hit the stands" (one and the same in this medium). I would say Friday midnight. This will allow us to summarize the week, and allow people to read us "fresh" over the weekend. It will also highlight our advantages over traditional weeklies. Time and Newsweek "close" on Saturday; they reach subscribers and newsstands Monday at the earliest, and often Wednesday, Thursday or later.
Even with a Friday closing, Kinsley stressed, the magazine--"the site"--would "not be 'dead' for a week." Here he demonstrated some movement toward Microsoft colleagues who had been pushing him to use their on-line advantages and also to accept the industry view that these "Webzines" be updated with reliable frequency: Kinsley proposed to change features during the week. Again, however, he raised a cautionary flag: "Obsessing too much about being up-to-the-minute is, I suspect, a potential trap and distraction. We are selling analysis and commentary, not news."
As for a title, "this is the biggest single editorial decision we make, and we must make it soon," he wrote. "We want something that doesn't scream 'cyberspace' (or, worse, 'Microsoft'), but suggests it with a wink." The contents of the magazine, Kinsley said, would require "a combination of little appetizers, solid meat-and-potatoes, and dessert." He expanded the definitions of the features presented in his July memo to Time Warner, starting with a cover, or home page:
We need a signature look, like The New Yorker's illustrations. My idea would be a political cartoon, either by the same artist every week, if we can discover a great new one, or from various artists. . . . Also, would it be possible, with a click, for readers to install the cover cartoon as their screen saver for the next week? That might appeal to a lot of people, and of course would be a constant free ad for us. And what about a musical logo: a theme song (say, a few bars of jazz piano, or of Bach) that plays whenever our cover pops up?
A section he was particularly excited about--a "mediated forum," which he envisioned as a cross between the "McLaughlin Group" and the letters column of The New York Review of Books--would also benefit from technology. With "written, not spoken" responses composed overnight, the dialogue could extend through the week, producing "a far higher level of debate, especially if the participants are chosen for genuine knowledge and intellectual honesty rather than TV charisma." An ideal "first topic," he wrote, "would be antitrust: 'Is Microsoft a Dangerous Monopoly?' " The editor, who had frequently lambasted "spin doctors," added this spin: "A lively and balanced forum on that would get us lots of attention and prove our editorial independence from the start. Maybe Gates would even participate?"
Other departments would include a "short, highly judgmental profile of some important figure in the news"; a "kinetic visual" feature that might offer "an interactive map"; perhaps "interactive fiction," though he confessed to a "strong, ignorant prejudice that it must be crap." The memo pleaded for help from Microsoft to locate a publisher to handle business matters. He noted that he had budget authorization for eight people, including himself and an administrative assistant. If the publisher worked full time, and if he needed two technical people, that left him with three editorial slots: a deputy working alongside him in Redmond, and an editor in both D.C. and New York. Defending this geographic division, he wrote, "Does it make sense to try to put out a national magazine from Seattle, without any presence in the cultural and political capitals? Even in cyberspace?"
As for a great mystery of cyberspace--how to make such ventures viable businesses--Kinsley envisaged revenues coming from advertising, subscribers, and syndication of pieces. Another mystery: Who was reading the stuff? On-line services often boast of the number of "hits" they receive, equating this with readers. On many sites, however, when a visitor clicks on the title page it is counted as a hit. So is each click on an article or a piece of art. A single reader may be credited with twenty separate hits. Kinsley was also discovering truths that others had encountered before. Last November, David Zweig, a former Time Warner magazine executive, launched Salon (www.salon1999.com), a magazine close in spirit to the one Kinsley envisioned. Zweig met resistance from advertisers, which he considered normal for any new medium. The tougher obstacle may be the emotional resistance of subscribers. "It's too early to charge," Zweig told me. "I'd love to charge," but customers are "allergic." Kinsley, in his January memo, anticipated this resistance, and separated it into three categories:
a) Technical. Can you safely give a credit-card number over the Internet? I gather this problem is rapidly being solved. b) Materialist. It's hard for people to feel that they should pay real money for something that has no physical existence. (Software itself originally had--and has largely overcome--the same problem.) c) Spiritual. A widespread feeling that charging for content amounts to "fencing off" cyberspace, and violates the ideology--almost the religion--of the Web.
Kinsley explained why he wanted to charge readers: "One purpose of this whole exercise should be to help people over the conceptual hump of thinking that when they buy a magazine, they're buying the paper and ink rather than the words and pictures. You do that by offering a product so good that people are willing to pay for it." He hoped the first issue would be ready by late April. And, because the first issue would be treated as a Broadway opening, "we don't have the luxury of an out-of-town tryout. We've got to be good from the start."
AFTER his first month at Microsoft, Kinsley was still thought to har-bor certain Luddite tendencies. "When he first came here, he was very-- I won't say 'anti,' but he didn't want to do 'technology for technology's sake,' " recalls John Williams, who is thirty-one and had been a Microsoft manager for five years before becoming Kinsley's publisher in late January. Bill Barnes, a twenty-nine-year-old self-described "geek," who had been at Microsoft as a programmer for seven years and transferred in January to serve as the program manager for Kinsley's project, prodded Kinsley to confront the consequences of his new medium. In an E-mail Barnes expressed enthusiasm for his editorial ideas but warned that to deliver a printed version of the maga-zine posed problems, including the poor quality of "print on a typical computer paper."
Barnes also cautioned that the technology they were reliant on was still relatively primitive. Their billing system, for example, would initially depend on "old technology like users entering passwords for authentication" and customers phoning an 800 number to subscribe. "Predictions: billing on the Internet is the hardest problem. And one we're not chartered to solve, though we need a solution from MSN (or Microsoft, or somebody)."
All these issues, and more, were pressing on Kinsley as January expired. He felt swamped. He still had not met, or even exchanged E-mail, with Bill Gates. He felt like a Martian. He would go to Russ Siegelman's weekly staff meetings and listen to the people chatter about "P & L's," "boot," "DPI," "IMD," "Schedule +," "domains," "Gantt." He once whispered to me, "I have no idea what they're talking about." He couldn't even figure out how to make his office less hot, and ended up sending an E-mail to "Furnfac Account" on January 26th which read, "Is this the place to write about office temperature? If so, could mine be cooled down a bit?"
Kinsley had not yet had a chance to see Seattle by daylight. He had purchased an apartment in Redmond after telling a real-estate agent that he didn't want to look at more than one. The place, with its bare white walls, had an unlived-in look, except for a fussy arrangement of mostly nonfiction books and CDs, ranging from Bach to Fats Waller. Aside from a Falcone piano, most of the functional furniture was new, since Kinsley had sold much of his before leaving Washington. Over morning coffee, he would read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, glancing out the bay window at Lake Washington and, on a clear day, at the Olympic Mountains. Then he would get his Accord from one of the rows of parking spaces allotted to the primarily youthful residents of this bland suburban village, drive to Building 25, work, eat lunch and usually dinner in his office, and get home just in time to go to bed. Because the frugal Kinsley would be content living in a medium-sized closet, he was not unhappy, but he told me, "I miss my friends. I miss the buzz a little bit. They're not talking around here about who wrote 'Primary Colors.' "
Bill Barnes E-mailed Kinsley on January 24th, saying that they needed:
A codename for the product. This is almost certainly different from the actual product name, which is help-ful for discussions with the outside world before we've gotten trademark on the real name, etc. This also helps confuse the media before we're ready to announce. Do you have any pref-erences? Your favorite bird? The name of your sled as a child? A literary or journalistic idol?
Kinsley E-mailed back:
How do you like "Boot"? Short and snappy. Besides the obvious computer reference, and the image of a kick in the pants, Boot is the hero of the most famous novel about journalism, "Scoop," by Evelyn Waugh.
Despite his frustrations, Kinsley was happy with the career choice he had made. There was an easy rapport in the office. On January 30th, Kinsley E-mailed Bill Flora, his art director, whose title is Visual Interface Designer:
Bill, there's a site called Naked Pavement (found at www.razorfish.com/bluedot) that seems to have a version of yr idea about page numbers. Also a lot of naked people. Either of these two elements (or both) may be of interest.
By the end of January, Kinsley felt he was making some progress. He had come up with the name Slate. It was "crisp, clean, short, easy to remember," and suggested "toughness," Kinsley E-mailed Russ Siegelman. With the hiring of John Williams as publisher, he was able to spend more time contemplating the editorial content. Williams had worked as group manager of Content Strategy and Business Development for the Microsoft Network, as lead product manager for Microsoft Works for Windows, and as a product manager in the Consumer Division. He knew how to borrow bodies and push buttons; he assumed responsibility for steering the lawyers and delving into business matters, and, unlike most publishers, he reported to the editor.
By February 1st, the magazine was coming alive in Kinsley's mind, and, as his thoughts travelled from idea to execution, the new medium took him to unexpected places. To help navigate, he wrote a third memo, code-named Boot. The memo bulged with practical questions, which he directed to the two Bills--Barnes and Flora. Kinsley had selected a theme song he wanted played when someone got the magazine's home page or cover cartoon on the screen--Fats Waller's "You Meet the Nicest People"--and asked Barnes and Flora if they had to acquire the rights to this song. Should they change it once a month or more often? Should they have a "How to Read This Magazine" section, explaining how to read on-line? How to download in order to read it later and to save the on-line telephone charges? How to order a subscription?
The questions kept coming. Kinsley and his team planned to have hyperlinks, or highlighted words, accompany certain articles, so that readers could click on them and take, say, a detour through the origins of national health insurance. When the link allowed a reader to visit another site--say, an advertiser's--would the technology automatically remove the reader from the magazine's site (undesirable) or could they keep the reader within the magazine's frame? To minimize monotonous scrolling, should they sometimes treat a screen as a page, insisting that some features be squeezed onto a single screen? How much of an impediment was a low-speed modem for a subscriber who wanted to download art or a video clip? In book reviews, should they link a chapter of the book, allowing the reader to sample it? In movie reviews, could they run clips from the movie? How would they maintain an archive of previously published pieces? By topic? By issue?
The memo shifted from technical questions to a further refinement of Kinsley's editorial ideas, which were being infected by this new interactive medium. He wanted a weekly cartoon strip, and wondered whether it could be "moving and/or interactive in some way." Similarly, he hoped that someone like the Democratic media consultant Robert Shrum might do a feature, "Shrum's Ad of the Week," analyzing a political TV commercial and providing a window so that the reader could also watch the ad. Since the magazine offered sound, he proposed to publish a poem every week, and invite the poet to read it.
Much remained to be done before the first issue, including the recruitment of the three editors. To buy more time, in early February it was decided to postpone the inaugural issue a month, to May 31st. There were minor setbacks. Kinsley dropped the code name Boot when the natives at Microsoft reported that to Generation X the word meant "barf." When he decided to go with the name Slate, Microsoft's lawyers reported that "www.slate.com" was owned by a man named John Slate, who lived in the South and never used it. The lawyers would try to buy the Web address without inflating the price by re-vealing that they worked for Microsoft. Microsoft executives, not surprisingly, wanted to have the Microsoft brand name as part of the magazine's Web address. Kinsley and his team successfully pressed for Slate to be perceived as independent by having an address without the Microsoft name.
In a way, Microsoft was winning a larger battle. By March, those who saw Kinsley every day noticed that he was changing in a fundamental way. The man who had insisted that the technology was only one per cent of the attraction was finding that he was dazzled by "all the cool things you can do." He oohed when they showed him how a subscriber could read a story on Bosnia and click a map and glimpse how the geography had been altered by the war. He was enthusiastic about using sound so you could read and hear--and feel--a writer's words. He even succumbed to the idea of publishing interactive reader bulletin boards: in one E-mail he borrowed a phrase John Wil-liams used--"the Rubber Room"--and described it as "a padded room where participants can bludgeon one another to their heart's content." Kinsley told me, "I came around that it's not just a sop to readers to have a little interaction. It's one of the most satisfying things about working for this company. You can think of something"--like having poetry read--"and you ask Bill Barnes, 'Hey, can we do that?' "
The Microsoft people were equally enthralled. Russell Siegelman says he welcomed Kinsley's resistance to the lure of technology: "We know how to do that. We needed someone who understood journalism." To them, Kinsley was proving to be a fellow-scientist who was open to new ideas. By March, instead of ascribing a one-per-cent role to technology, Kinsley said, "It's up about thirty or forty per cent."
On some things, Kinsley was implacable. To Esther Dyson's claim that a good Internet editor was "an intellectual bartender" who listened more than he spoke, Kinsley conceded only, "I have come several steps in her direction. Originally, I said no to bulletin boards. But I think Esther has the idea that this technology changes the nature of life itself. I think she's slightly carried away. Even if her vision of the Internet as a community for current users is true, it will be less true for future users. I don't want to sound like an arrogant asshole who's become an Internet fascist, but there is a reason that some people get paid as writers and some don't. I don't want to go to a restaurant and be told, 'This is a community restaurant, and the guy at the next table is cooking for you!' "
IN early March, Kinsley conscripted Jodie Allen from the Washington Post, where for the past six years she had been the highly regarded editor of the Sunday Outlook section. Allen says she signed on as Washington editor because she admires Kinsley and because "it was new--it was an exciting opportunity." Besides, the on-line element held a particular allure for her: "How many Mondays have I wished we could take back something we printed on Sunday?" Kinsley had already hired much of his Redmond staff, but he had not yet been able to recruit a deputy editor, and was still negotiating for a New York editor. "When you ask me what I've done the last two months, I have a hard time saying," Kinsley told me. "I call my mother every Sunday and she asks me what I've done this week. It's not like 'Crossfire,' where you're doing it each night."
He continued to be engrossed by the puzzles that the new enterprise posed. In mid-March, I watched him struggle with several of them during a Tuesday-morning staff meeting in the cafeteria of Building 25. At one point, Kinsley said, "My original idea was that the magazine would close the less urgent stuff first"--the reviews, and other material that often falls under the heading "back of the book." He continued, "My view is that we should post material earlier in the week when it was done. So the idea is that if you log on anytime during the week you'll get a whole week's worth of stuff. Although we publish on Friday night, there will be something different every day. If we post a new book review, it would re-place the old review, even if we post it on Monday."
The problem with that, Bill Barnes said, his sandals stretched under the Formica table, is that some readers would miss the review that was yanked.
"I'm not sure the benefits outweigh the confusion," John Williams said.
"It's good if we publish stuff as it's ready," Barnes said. "But it's not good if we erase last week's issue because we have an early close in, say, the arts."
"It will require some new behavior on the part of readers," countered Kinsley, now cast as the nontraditional champion of technology.
"Why not post both--what's the disadvantage?" asked Betsy Davis, the production manager. "If we keep changing stuff in the old edition, how will the reader know what's new?"
"I'm amenable to saying 'Keep the whole edition all week,' " Kinsley said. "But if you add it all up it gets a little long. And what do we do with the table of contents?"
"I may be anal, but I like the idea that I have read the whole magazine," said Davis, who has worked at the company for twelve and a half years.
"It rubs me the wrong way," Barnes said, also chiming in on the side of tra-ditionalists. It offended him that read-ers might miss something simply be-cause they called up the magazine on a Wednesday.
Kinsley reminded them that they were in a new business: "We're looking for ways to leverage our differences with other magazines. One of our advantages is that the reader can get our reviews 'hot off the press.' "
"Why not a daily magazine, then?" Barnes asked, echoing a question he had asked Kinsley in a March 8th E-mail devoted to whether they were publish-ing a weekly or a constantly updatable magazine. Instead of addressing this larger issue directly, Kinsley told the staff that he wanted to make use of the magazine's advantages as an electronic publication.
Barnes asked if Kinsley planned to update the printed version of the magazine that would close and be mailed on Fridays.
No, Kinsley said. The projected forty-eight-page printed version would be like a regular weekly magazine.
None of these issues were resolved at this meeting, which lasted a couple of hours, and the discussion only left them in murkier waters. They could, for example, technically update a customer's copy of the magazine by noting whether the reader had already logged on for the new issue. But Barnes asked af-ter the meeting, "How do we know what a person has read or not read?" What if the subscriber scanned the magazine but did not read it? Or didn't finish it, and now it was gone? And if they were constantly updating an issue, as Kinsley asked Barnes in one E-mail exchange, how would they then date the magazine?
Later on the day of the meeting, Kinsley used E-mail to summarize for the staff their discussion about posting daily or just weekly, and he concluded:
We will still "go to press" once a week, on Friday afternoon, in that (1) this is when our paper version will publish; (2) this is when our print-it-yourself version will be made available, and won't change throughout the week; (3) this is when our most timely features will close and be posted. But certain other features, such as the reviews, will be replaced on other days, on a regular schedule. People who are most interested in, say, the book review will know they can read it "hot" on, say, Monday or Tuesday. People who want to read last Friday's edition exactly as published last Friday can get it out of the archive.
Kinsley knew that this summary would trigger a torrent of E-mail, and he welcomed it. But it would not re-solve the larger "philosophical issue" Bill Barnes had referred to: Would what was published be a weekly or a continuous magazine?
THE business problems were no less daunting. Most print magazines generate the bulk of their revenues from advertising rather than from circulation. Yet with scant experience to rely on, the publisher John Williams admitted that "it's not clear how the revenue streams will break out." Microsoft was upgrading the software, and Williams expected that by March the company would be able to securely accept credit-card numbers and bill customers from Day One. He had no way of knowing whether there would be customers for Kinsley's product, since anything so new involved guesswork. "It's like asking someone who never had a car whether he'd like one," he said. One problem was resolved by March: the magazine would have an ad on each of what would arbitrarily be called a page, and would charge more for ads that appeared on the top of a page.
Then there were the larger, more philosophical things. Kinsley and his team, like others, are roaming the dark side of the moon, trying to avoid the menacing cultural, business, and editorial craters. Apart from the question of charging subscribers, there is another cultural crater--what may be the duelling assumptions of his magazine and the Internet. The two are at war, Jim Albrecht, the deputy editor of Mr. Showbiz (www.mrshowbiz.com.), asserts. "The difference between an Internet design and a magazine design is not bells and whistles," he says. "It's about how you get the information. In a magazine, you get what's in that issue. In a Web site, people get what they want." This is an extension of Esther Dyson's argument that an editor must be an intellectual bartender. The Internet is personal. It is about me, and Kinsley's magazine is about him.
Indeed, CompuServe has a new on-line product--called Wow!--that invites users to customize by clicking next to "My News," "My Mail," "My Places." Microsoft Network News, which is housed in a large, open newsroom around the corner from Kinsley's office, is perfecting personalized software tools of a kind that Kinsley abhors. When Steve Forbes made a flat-tax proposal the centerpiece of his quest for the Republican Presidential nomination, the Microsoft newsroom, with the help of the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, devised an interactive form. Individuals could type in a few figures--income, approximate deductions, etc.--and the screen would instantly announce how much you would pay in taxes under the Forbes plan versus the current tax law. Some people see this tool as advancing the trend in journalism toward "news you can use," by giving individuals vital information with which to make intelligent choices. To Kinsley, however, "all these how-it-affects-you things bother me because they play into what's wrong with American politics, which is that too many people take the short-term, selfish view." What if the Forbes plan is good for you, he asks, and bad for the country? "One of the bad things about E-mail is that it's too easy to reach your congressman!" But if the customer insists, Kinsley will become just another talented entrepreneur who guessed wrong.
The dark side of the on-line moon contains other business-editorial craters. Journalism's traditional church-state wall, the one that acts as a stop sign to an ad salesman who would like to suggest a story or urge a reporter to indulge a big advertiser, has not yet been erected in cyberspace. And current trends may work against such walls. "The most popular Web sites are run by corporations," Kinsley notes. "The Pepsi Web site is the most popular. It's like the early days of television." In those days--and, increasingly, in TV's present--advertisers both sponsored and produced programs, weaving their products into the show. So we now bump into hidden ads. If a subscriber summons the magazine Salon on the Internet, and clicks the "shop" icon at the end of ten books reviewed in the "Sneak Peeks" section of each issue, he can order one of those books from a Borders book store. Since Salon's publisher refers to Borders as one of the magazine's "marketing partners," Kinsley asks, "Is that too close a nexus of editorial and advertising? I'm not sure. It makes me a little edgy." And, since Borders wants to sell books, will it exert pressure on Salon to publish only positive book reviews?
Another instance of a conflict between technology and journalism may be news packagers like Microsoft Network News, soon to merge its on-line efforts with NBC News. At Microsoft, the rows of editors who work at computer screens labor over news stories supplied by what the news director Andy Beers says are "content providers," which "we edit and then add multimedia elements"--video, audio, music, pictures, personalized interactive features (like how the Forbes tax cut would affect you). Every three hours, the editors update stories off the news wires, and in a typical day, he says, they will condense and add "multimedia elements" to a hundred and sixty stories. What they don't provide is original reporting. "The editor operates more in the model of a television producer," Beers says. But his editors don't leave the office. So as the editor gets more distant from the news, and comes to view the news as stories that best lend themselves to a multimedia package, inevitably the package may become more important than the content.
Still another crater: corporate gigantism, which can also vie with journalism. The favored buzzwords at communications companies like Microsoft and Disney and Viacom and Time Warner and A.T. & T. and News Corporation are "synergy" and "leverage." Microsoft, for example, seems to announce an alliance a day, and has already formed partnerships with NBC to produce news, with M.C.I. to provide Internet access, with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to promote Windows 95 in his London newspapers, with John Malone's Tele-Communications, Inc., to offer a new cable channel that is dedicated to the personal-computer market, with America Online to exchange access to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser in return for making AOL available to users of Microsoft software, with Hughes Electronics to deliver DirecTV satellite services, with DreamWorks SKG to create interactive games. The resultant back-scratching need not take the sinister form of censorship imposed from the top but, rather, the more subtle form of self-censorship: If we do this story we hurt the company, and maybe ourselves. Kinsley says he's raised all these questions with Microsoft, and adds, "I got all the right noises. It's in Microsoft's interest. They want to be a media company. They understand you've got to have credibility." They understand now, when the magazine is an abstraction. But what happens, as Kinsley asked before he accepted the job, when he attacks their friends? Or their business interests clash with their editorial interests? This is uncharted terrain for Microsoft.
FOR Kinsley, pesky business problems kept intruding, and sometimes pitted him against his staff. On March 14th, he huddled knee to knee in his office with John Williams to review the budget presentation that Williams, accompanied by Kinsley, would make to Russell Siegelman at one o'clock that day. Looking over the numbers that Williams had prepared, Kinsley appeared placid, except for those unblinking eyes. He skipped over the money set aside for the next three years' editorial budget and homed in on what he thought were profligate expenses for marketing and public relations. "This is what I wanted to get away from," he told Williams.
"You want to put this magazine out there and just expect people to come?" Williams asked. He refused to cede the high ground to Kinsley, believing this part of his brain was still controlled by a reflexive, knee-jerk traditionalist.
"We'll get a lot of free press," Kinsley countered, so why spend the money?
"You've got to spend to get customers," Williams said. To help launch the magazine, they needed mailings, and targeted E-mail, and ads, and a P.R. firm.
Kinsley said that he'd like to slim down those numbers, although he realized that there was too little time to do it before their meeting with Siegelman.
"It's a stupid exercise," said Williams, holding his ground. "You can't assume people will find us on their own."
"I'm not pretending we do nothing," Kinsley said.
"You still need someone to make press calls," Williams said. "P.R. is not enough. It dies after two weeks." Williams said they needed a launch party and ads and people to field press calls so that Kinsley didn't have to do those things himself and could focus on editing and writing.
But on the subject of promotion Kinsley was an unshakable Luddite. "The typical way a magazine fails," he said, "is they create enormous expenses in P.R. and parties."
Williams thought that Slate's over-all budget (a corporate secret) was modest, and said he expected to turn a profit in the third year.
"Every magazine says they're going to turn a profit in the third year," Kinsley said. "It seems to me we're spending too much money for things we can leverage free. And, if we spend, it will be harder to reach a profit."
It was all made-up, conjectural numbers, anyway, Williams cautioned.
"The revenue numbers are made up," Kinsley argued. "The expenditures are not."
They were going around in circles, and Kinsley suggested that they end the discussion. Let Williams present the numbers to Siegelman in a few hours and they could cut the budget later.
"It's important for Russ to understand where our differences are," Williams said, as he took his budget sheets back to his computer, leaving Kinsley at his desk, his khakis pulled up to mid-calf so that his white socks were fully visible. Kinsley sighed, and said, "I don't know to what extent I should give in. It's Microsoft's money . . . I always dreamed if I ever started a magazine I'd take a pot of money and say, 'Let's put out the first issue and sell ten copies. And let us find our natural audience and save a pot of money to put out more issues.' Maybe that's a crazy idea, but that's what I imagined."
The meeting with Siegelman took place in his third-floor conference room, with him and Williams on one side of a long table and Kinsley sitting across from them. As the general manager for all Microsoft's on-line services, Siegelman was the executive who signed off on Kinsley's budget. Siegelman, with curly hair, orange-and-black-laced hiking boots, and youth and open enthusiasm for this project, was a comforting figure to Kinsley. Every time Siegelman says he cares more about Slate's becoming "a model Web site" than he does about how many subscribers they initially attract, or laughs off what he expects will be a Kinsley punch at Microsoft--"He'll probably do that in issue No. 1!"--he cements his stature with Kinsley.
Williams began the meeting by presenting their circulation and revenue projections. Within three years, he said, they hoped to about match The New Republic's paid circulation (a hundred thousand), and expected that eventually the bulk of their revenues would come from advertisers, many of whom would advertise not because they could precisely identify the audience but because of their "psychographic" interest in being associated with a brand (Kinsley). But Slate was also relying on something else: the largesse of the very folks Kinsley often attacks--lobbyists.
"The biggest issue here is: Can we attract PAC money?" Williams said.
"Not just PACs. Trade associations," added Kinsley, now spinning himself. "You don't mean PACs at all. You mean the trade associations." It was a distinction without a difference.
The subject got around to marketing, including the budget for public relations. As Williams spoke and Kinsley was silent, Siegelman knew enough to tweak a debate. "Speak up, Mr. Kinsley," he said.
"We're not entirely in synch," Williams volunteered.
"What's the issue?" Siegelman asked.
Public relations, Williams answered.
Why pay for free press? Kinsley countered.
Is it in Microsoft's interest to attract intense press interest for the first issue, Siegelman asked, or would it be better to wait until the staff got "the kinks out"?
"You can't say to Jay Leno, 'Put Kinsley on for the second-month anniversary,' " Kinsley said.
"There'll be a lot of buzz on it in May," Williams said. "We're keeping the lid on what this is."
"It's easy," Kinsley said. "We don't know what it is!"
They came back to the marketing costs associated with a May debut. Williams proposed that they launch the magazine with a party in Washington, D.C.
"That's just the kind of thing I don't want to do," Kinsley said, and he argued that it was a waste of time and money. "What you get out of it is a piece in the Style section anyway. And it's embarrassing to me, personally."
Williams said it wasn't a waste, since they would invite journalists, present the magazine's plans, and entertain questions.
"I'd rather send the journalists a mailing," Kinsley said.
They agreed to defer this particular matter and instead returned to the marketing budget, starting with public relations. Siegelman said he thought the figure budgeted was discreet, but Kinsley demurred: "I have a special problem with P.R. for a journalism product. P.R. is about spin, and our message is that we are cutting through spin."
"When magazines call and want to find out what this is about, whom do they call?" Siegelman inquired, and he added that they would need statements and facts and some background on Kinsley and the magazine. That took time. And professionals.
"Assign an interne to do it," countered Kinsley, who wouldn't budge.
"So you just want to hire nonprofessional P.R. people to do P.R.," Williams responded.
At this point, Siegelman stepped in and ruled: If Kinsley feels a decision "impacts his product," he intoned, "my rule is that Mike rules."
Afterward, Kinsley had reason to be pleased. His twenty-month stay at Harper's had featured fractious battles with the chairman of the board. Although under him Harper's had won a National Magazine Award for general excellence, the board scolded and briefly suspended him for accepting a policy-oriented junket to Israel, and he embarrassingly whined in a letter to the board about his meagre salary and "ordinary one-bedroom apartment in an unfashionable neighborhood." At The New Republic, money was always a problem. The magazine continued to lose money under his tutelage, though circulation rose slightly. And although he was a close friend of the owner, Martin Peretz, he had not been free to make marketing decisions, or fully free to set the editorial line (especially on such subjects as Israel), or to make hiring and firing decisions on his own, or to control the back-of-the-book sections. Now he already had enormous freedom, a publisher who reported to him, and a good feeling about Microsoft. "The one thing I don't question is: Is Microsoft behind this?" he told me. It didn't perturb him that he had not yet met Bill Gates. And, reflecting on the meeting in Siegelman's conference room, Kinsley said of John Williams, "I hope I didn't hurt his feelings. I think he's doing a great job. He's been on board a month and a half. Look how far he's progressed."
In truth, they had not, together, progressed far enough, for it was already mid-March and they were behind schedule. Kinsley needed to spend time matching writers and stories, and developing a bank of pieces to fill the magazine in June and July. He told me that he planned to entice writers by claiming that pieces in Slate would generate "buzz," that it was a new medium, that some pieces could be published instantly, that technology could enhance their journalism. "And," he added, "in some cases I'm going to beg, which is also an editorial tradition."
By April, the lawyers had secured the Web address for the name Slate, and Kinsley had hired his other top editors: Jack Shafer, the former editor of the City Paper, in Washington, D.C., and most recently editor of the San Francisco Weekly, would become his deputy in Redmond; Judith Shulevitz, the former editor of Lingua Franca and deputy editor of New York, would supervise the Gotham office and much of the arts coverage; Jodie Allen would start work as the Washington editor on May 1st. In addition, he had signed up Herbert Stein, who had been the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Nixon, as moderator of Slate's upscale electronic version of the "McLaughlin Group," and, Kinsley said, Mark Alan Stamaty, who draws "Washingtoon," was "ninety-nine per cent" certain to join as the magazine's cartoonist. To buy two more weeks, Kinsley pushed back the inaugural issue to June 14th. And he had scaled down the expensive public-relations campaign and would rely on Microsoft's local P.R. firm to perform what he called "almost secretarial duties." When he rejected the idea of a big Washington, D.C., launch party, he said, "It's supposed to be in cyberspace. Why do I have to go to Washington?"
Also in April, Russ Siegelman left the job of running the Microsoft Network, but Kinsley was relieved to know that he would retain responsibility for Slate. And, on April 8th, Kinsley at last met with Bill Gates, in a pleasant hour-and-a-half discussion of the magazine. Gates was full of questions, according to Siegelman, who accompanied Kinsley to the meeting. The Microsoft chairman focussed particularly, both Kinsley and Siegelman recall, on questions relating to whether the magazine was weekly or continuous: If they updated material, how would the reader know what was new and what was old? Would they date it? Would they retain the old information? Would they update the print version as well?
That same week, Kinsley also made a fairly momentous decision, one that suggested the distance he had travelled since he wrote his proposal last July for Time Warner. Kinsley remembers that, bothered by the constant back and forth over how to date the cover and how to post new pieces in the middle of the week, he had an epiphany: "This is artificial!" The Education of Michael Kinsley was nearly complete. He now decided to abandon the idea of a magazine that went to bed every Friday and replace it with a publication that would never sleep. The decision was announced in an April 9th E-mail Kinsley sent to the staff:
In short, I propose that we embrace our destiny as a new form of journalism and abandon the conceit that any particular article or feature is attached to a particular weekly "issue." . . . Each article in the ToC [table of contents] could simply indicate the day it was posted and the day we're planning to archive it. . . . As we and the readers get used to this new form of journalism, we could abandon the one-week-up convention completely, and simply have a smorgasbord of stuff to which we add new dishes and remove old ones on no fixed schedule, but simply to keep the whole meal tasting as delicious as possible.
But, as Kinsley's ride through cyberspace cleared one obstacle, others arose. Because of the expense, he was rethinking the idea of a weekly print version of Slate, and was inclined to publish it monthly. By May, Kinsley had collided with the reality that this "new form of journalism" was going to remain dependent on old software that made it impossible to assure customers that their credit-card numbers would not be pirated if exchanged over the Internet. To insure customers complete security, he told me over the telephone, "we're not going to be able to bill people from Day One. We're going to have to wait a few months. The software won't be ready." Yet later the same day Kinsley E-mailed:
The latest . . . we probably WILL be able to charge from the beginning or very near it. At any rate, we still plan to charge as soon as possible.
I then E-mailed:
Are you "spinning" me? If Carville & Co. sent me such an e-mail I'd interpret it this way: trying to figure way to charge from day one, but unlikely; what is likely is what Kinsley said earlier . . . we'll probably charge by August.
Kinsley E-mailed back:
Let me "respin." We're going to charge as soon as it's technologically possible. . . . It looks now like we'll have to give it away for a month or so (ie, until July).
A small crater, perhaps, but just one of many lurking in cyberspace. (c)