Slate, funded by (but independent of) the United States software giant Microsoft, is the latest of hundreds of free "web-zines" - magazines that exist only on the World Wide Web on the Internet, the global network of computers.
But if other webzines are anything to go by, it will attract a rush of readers in its initial stages, but lose money all its life. Jim Albrecht, deputy editor of an entertainment magazine on the Internet called Mr Showbiz - recently said: "I've never heard of a [Webzine] site that makes money." And how long Slate will survive if it cannot make a profit is open to question.
The new magazine can be read only by accessing its site at an address on the Web, which can carry text, graphics, sound and video. Its editor Michael Kinsley, former editor of New Republic magazine, promised before Slate's launch that it would contain high-calibre journalism for "politically and culturally engaged people". It would have articles longer than 700 words - usually reckoned to be the maximum attention span for the Web's gadfly consumers.
Webzines have proliferated over the past two years because they are enormously cheap to start. Anybody with a computer connected to the Internet can launch one.
But experience has shown that the people who browse the Web - about 20 million world-wide by conservative estimates - are both impatient and unwilling to pay for anything, partly because no widespread system has been developed for people to pay for low-cost items directly over the Internet. Thus almost every webzine is free. Mr Kinsley has said that he may charge for Slate from November.
Webzines thus have to pay their costs - principally salaries - by persuading advertisers to buy space on the magazine's "pages". They can justify the cost based on readership because whenever someone accesses a particular page, their name is picked up by the webzine's computer.
Dan Conaghan, editor of Conde Nast Online, which offers electronic versions of Vogue, GQ, Tatler and World of Interiors and is viewed by about 2,000 people a day, said yesterday: "It affords much greater data that can be returned to the advertiser. You can tell precisely how many people have looked at a page."
But so far, most advertisers have preferred to take space on the pages of Web sites that are known to have high traffic - especially the "search engines", which can locate information on any topic wherever it is on the Web. Webzines tend to attract high traffic when they start, but the difficulty of maintaining standards has frequently meant that people have lost interest. As a result, some webzines have ceased publication.
"I think that at this point all webzines have to be viewed as partly experimental," Oliver Morton, editor of the United Kingdom edition of Wired magazine, said yesterday. "When or if they will become lucrative remains to be seen. Many of them are making money but they're spending it too."
Nor are webzines expected to take over from printed newspapers and magazines now, or in the foreseeable future. "Printed versions are highly portable, you can bash them and carry them around. A laptop isn't that robust," Mr Conaghan said. "And printed magazines have a different feel. A Web site is more of a televisual experience."
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