By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post Co. said yesterday it is buying Slate in an effort
to boost the media company's online traffic but does not plan any
editorial changes at the eight-year-old Web magazine.
In announcing a deal to acquire Slate from Microsoft Corp. for an
undisclosed sum, said to be in the millions of dollars, Post
executives said they would keep Jacob Weisberg as editor and most of
the 30-person staff.
Asked for reaction, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said by e-mail:
"Mostly I'm really proud of Slate's pioneering role in online
journalism, and confident it will continue to lead the way. As one of
the early -- albeit minor -- participants in Slate's diary section,
I'll always feel incredibly close to it -- and will definitely remain
an avid fan and reader." He added: "Graduating to media ownership
seemed the obvious next step for Slate, and I'm confident it will
thrive wonderfully under The Post."
Weisberg pronounced himself "delighted" with the move. "Microsoft has
been a great place for us for the last 8 1/2 years," he said, but "it
was a tough place to develop our business because it wasn't a media
company and doesn't want to be a media company. They're really big and
we're really small. The joke was always that we're almost a rounding
error, but a rounding error probably exaggerated our status."
Ann McDaniel, a Post Co. vice president, said: "Our goal is not to in
any way change Slate. We think it's important that it keep its
personality. Over time, we hope to find a business model that will
make money. You're not suddenly going to see a different kind of
Jeff Jarvis, who writes a blog called BuzzMachine.com and is president
of Advance Publications' Internet arm, called the sale "a smart move"
because "The Washington Post has been in many ways clever and smart
about online. It will support Slate in a good environment that
understands media in a way that Microsoft, God bless them, which tried
many times, didn't." Had the sale fallen through, Jarvis said,
Microsoft "wouldn't necessarily have been a happy home" for Slate once
"they already tried to give you up for adoption and failed.
As if to underscore Slate's independence, the magazine ran a piece
yesterday by media columnist Jack Shafer that criticized a front-page
Washington Post series on the murders of new and expectant mothers. "I
was glad to whack the new master one more time," Shafer said
yesterday, adding that he plans to continue doing so and has found
that the newspaper "has a remarkably thick skin" about criticism.
The Post reported in July that Microsoft was looking for a buyer and
that the leading contenders were The Post Co. and the New York Times
Co. The Times did pursue a possible deal, according to people familiar
with the matter. The Post's Web site already has an alliance with
MSNBC.com, which is partly owned by Microsoft, and former Microsoft
executive Melinda Gates, the wife of the company's founder, was named
to the Post Co. board in September.</p>
Cliff Sloan, general counsel of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive,
will become publisher of the money-losing magazine when the deal takes
effect next month.
Scott Moore, general manager of MSN Network Experience, called the
sale "bittersweet," saying: "It's a little like seeing your kid go off
to college." But Microsoft now has "a mass-market publishing
strategy," he said, and "Slate is more of a niche publication. Slate
wasn't going to get as much attention as it really deserved."
According to Nielsen Net Ratings, washingtonpost.com drew 7 million
unique visitors last month, compared with 6 million for Slate. Another
service, ComScore Media Metrix, says washingtonpost.com drew 4.5
million unique visitors last month and Slate 4.8 million, but that
people spend more time on the Post site: 120 million page views,
compared with 25 million for Slate. Much of Slate's traffic is driven
by being part of the Microsoft Network, whose home page will continue
to feature Slate headlines. Post executives say that Slate's home page
will include some reference to the newspaper's Web site and that
washingtonpost.com will also promote certain Slate stories.
Sloan called the acquisition, which will become part of
Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, "a great fit" in part because
advertisers could be offered a package that would include The Post and
Newsweek sites as well as Slate. Post stock closed up $26.95
yesterday to finish at $60.01.
Slate was founded in suburban Seattle, where Microsoft is based, in
1996 when former New Republic editor and CNN commentator Michael
Kinsley launched what was then an unusual experiment in online daily
journalism. But the software giant and the liberal magazine proved to
be an odd combination. Weisberg said it was difficult, for example, to
pay freelance writers on a timely basis because "a company like
Microsoft isn't geared to write a check for $400."
In editorial terms, Slate will be losing its Seattle flavor while
keeping its offices in New York, where Weisberg works, and on
Washington's M Street. While a few copy editors now based in Redmond,
Wash., will work from home, several other Slate staffers, including
publisher Cyrus Krohn, have decided not to move east.
Slate, which has competed with another liberal online journal, San
Francisco-based Salon, has made a mark not just with feature articles
but also with columns and digests such as "Pressbox," "Chatterbox,"
"Moneybox," "Kausfiles," and the "Dear Prudence" advice column. Slate
also co-produces the National Public Radio show "Day to Day."
Given its Web-based DNA, Slate does some things differently than The
Post. A week before the election, nearly all its editorial staffers,
including Weisberg, disclosed that they were voting for John Kerry
over President Bush. On Election Day, Slate posted leaked numbers
from the early wave of exit polls made available to the networks, the
Associated Press and such clients as The Post, something the newspaper
would never do.
Asked if he was worried about editorial interference from the new
owner, Weisberg invoked the name of The Post Co.'s chief
executive. "Don Graham and everyone else we've dealt with at The Post
Co. made very clear they wanted to buy Slate because they like the
magazine the way it is," he said. "I don't think readers are going to
notice much difference."
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