Pity they can't use the technology

'Slate', the latest Net magazine, may have a real editor, but it fails to exploit the medium. Simon Waldman reports
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The Independent Online
The arrival of another magazine on the World Wide Web (a "webzine" in common parlance) is hardly news. A morning spent clicking your way round the Net will bring you dozens of them, ranging from the innovative to the downright awful. The word has got round that anyone can be a publisher on the Net and, unfortunately, a few too many people bereft of talent have taken that literally.

Slate, however, is something different. It comes with two thing that most webzines lack - cash and editorial clout. The cash comes from the dollar-lined pockets of Bill Gates's Microsoft, which owns the title; and the clout comes from its editor, Michael Kinsley, formerly of the New Republic.

The result is that the launch of www.slate.com has been big, big news. Judging from the first issue, however, the Microsoft/Michael Kinsley line- up has produced something more interesting to read about than actually read.

The contents are standard, slightly uninspired weekly fare. The cover story "The Temptation of Bob Dole" examines the arguments for a tax cut. There is a letter-inducing piece of simplistic social analysis "Jews In Second Place", a Committee of Correspondence - which takes an issue every week, while a collection of clever people add new opinions every day - a summary of other weeklies, and The Week/The Spin, which looks at how other people have covered the news.

What we have is a worthy attempt at a magazine. The writing is a distinct improvement on about 98 per cent of what you find on the Net. And the presence of Kinsley, a proper editor rather than a Net-head who fancies dabbling in journalism, has given the Net credibility as a publishing medium.

But what is so shocking about all that? Throwing an editor of Kinsley's clout at the Net, and then finding that he has produced something better than the mass of amateur online zines is as about as surprising as watching Mike Tyson step into the ring with Dale Winton and give him a good thrashing. The victory might be convincing, but what does it really prove?

The main problem is that Slate is crying out to live on paper. Its lengthy static features plead "print me". They even have page numbers, which really takes the print metaphor too far. This would be acceptable in an old title doddering to online status, unable to break out of its paper-based format. But for a magazine that has been launched on the Net, for the Net, it simply will not do.

Kinsley has been eager to state that he is no Net-zealot, which is fine. A healthy amount of scepticism about the Net is essential if you are to see through the endless amounts of ill-informed hype. But also crucially needed is the will to experiment with this medium, to see it as an exciting new development that allows you to do things differently. It is not enough simply to produce a magazine without paying for paper, printing or distribution.

Kinsley and his team seem to be aware that Slate is not great screen material, which is why they offer us the chance to download the entire magazine and then print it out. This seems like a nice touch, until you find yourself with a 43-page print-out with a layout that is only slightly better than that of a student newsletter. This is worth bearing in mind when you consider the annual subscription charge, $19.95, which comes into effect 1 November. It sounds cheap, until you start to include your own costs for dialling up and getting to the site and for the paper you use to print it out.

Annoyingly, the one "interactive" element, The Fray, a collection of discussion forums where readers could debate the content, were not ready in time for the launch. Sorry, but why not? Was there not a single programmer available among the Microsoft minions who could set this up for them? This is pretty basic technology, after all.

Perhaps they did not want to encourage a full, frank and open debate about their first Committee Of Correspondence, a rather heavy-handed attempt to prove editorial independence entitled: "Does Microsoft Play Fair?".

Slate is ultimately a hybrid. It sits awkwardly halfway along the evolutionary scale between the worlds of print and screen, and as such it fails to satisfy on both counts. The Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, New Republic or Spectator all make better (and more convenient) reading.

Webzines such as Hotwired (www. hotwired.com), The Word (www.word. com) and even the ultra-worthy Salon (www.salon1999.com), funded by Microsoft's arch-rival Apple, all work much better online.

In his opening editorial Kinsley admits that Slate is far from finished, and claims that they "plan to have all the answers by Christmas". We shall see. But this seems like a typical Microsoft product. It is by no means the best on the market, and the launch is something of a disappointment.

There is one caveat, however. Given Microsoft's enviable track record, it is never wise to bet too handsomely against Bill Gates.