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Clicking on to gray matter Magazine: Michael Kinsley's Slate adds a touch of respectability to the Web

You can't say it's "hot off the presses." Or "coming to a newsstand near you." Even "this just in" doesn't quite do it.

When it comes to publishing in cyberspace, the old cliches don't work anymore. And so it was with this week's debut of Slate, a magazine that arrived not with the day's mail or the latest offerings at the newsstand, but with the double-click of a mouse on computers around the world.

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While it's not the first to publish online rather than on paper, Slate drew much advance hype because of its sponsor, Microsoft, and its editor -- Michael Kinsley, the ultimate inside-the-Beltway pundit. With his owlish glasses and Eastern preppiness, the former New Republic editor and CNN "Crossfire" commentator seemed an unlikely bird to flock to the anarchic, more West Coast leaning world of Internet publishing.

And, similarly, Slate, whose first issue went online Monday afternoon, brings a certain bookish sensibility to the rowdy world of e-zines, as electronic-based magazines are called. Unlike its counterparts, Slate is text-heavy and fairly traditional, without the wild graphics, tricks and gizmos that the new technology allows.

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But Slate has both the electronic and print editors paying attention, and perhaps worrying as well. It is like the old explanation of why the pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers worked -- he gave her class, she gave him sex appeal. Slate gives e-zines a certain respectability, and cyberspace offers Slate, which would be just another New Republic or Atlantic, a dash of hipness.

Gary Wolf, executive producer of HotWired, the online version of Wired magazine, praises Slate as well-written and -edited, but questions whether it is lost in cyberspace.

"I don't see why it's on the Web," Wolf says. "It seems like a print magazine."

Wolf says Slate currently lacks the interactive qualities of other e-zines, which allow readers to talk to one another as well as the staff, and an awareness of what's going on in the rest of the Web.

He thinks Slate might do better on paper -- and, indeed, it will be offered in that medium both by mail and in Starbucks cafes. "Everyone needs something to read while they're waiting for their Frappuccinos," he deadpans.

And yet he welcomes Kinsley's foray onto the Web -- his celebrity in the traditional journalism world has drawn attention to the newer frontier online, and can only help other e-zine publishers, he says.

"In a sense they're competitors, but because this is a new industry that we're all rooting for to succeed, I guess we're also co-conspirators," Wolf says. "We are the early pioneers."

The Internet, as radio and television before it, has forced the print media to adapt to an audience that has become accustomed to more immediacy. Slate, although a weekly, has several features that are updated regularly, such as a current diary being compiled by David O. Russell, director of "Flirting with Disaster" and "Spanking the Monkey."

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Even as traditional a magazine as Life has a Website, for example, and it features a "Picture of the Day" that changes every 24 hours, compared to its magazine precursor that has a monthly life span. But the paper magazine can only do so much.

"Print can't compete with the Web for immediacy, and for us to try to do so is to enter a battle we can only lose," says Life editor Daniel Okrent. "What a monthly can do best, traditionally, is offer the opportunity for reflection and the long view."

Applying that long view to magazines, Okrent points to coverage of the Vietnam War, which although known as the first televised war remains in our collective memory as still photographs, such as the young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack.

"You don't remember anything about Vietnam from TV," Okrent says, "you remember the still pictures."

For Kinsley, Slate is yet another opportunity to put his stamp on a magazine. It was 20 years ago that, as a 25-year-old law student, he was hired to edit the New Republic. His first issue, Jan. 1 and 8, 1977, now seems a capsule of its era with an editorial on the OPEC oil crisis, Ken Bode on why Robert Byrd would defeat Hubert Humphrey in the race for Senate majority leader and a review of serious books on fashion by Anne Hollander.

Flash forward to January 1982, and you have another Kinsley first issue, this time of Harper's magazine, another capsule of its time with a story on Miami as a modern-day Casablanca and an excerpt from Miss Manners' latest book.

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And then on Monday, Kinsley presented not just a first issue, but one of an entirely new magazine on a new medium. Slate, though, isn't a complete break with the past: In it, Kinsley announces one of his regular commentators will be Hollander, and offers another reviewer's take on, yes, Miss Manners' latest book. (Not a very polite one; in fact, it's teased with the headline, "Miss Manners Gets Forked.")

E-zines, despite having archives -- Slate calls its "Compost" -- are by nature ephemeral, and thus browsers have come to expect that they are free. With backing from the industry-dominating Microsoft, Slate is also free to anyone who can access its Website (http: //www.slate.com), but only for now. (Slate's sponsorship has drawn much controversy, which Kinsley seems to address by offering an ongoing debate in the first issue titled, "Is Microsoft Evil?"). On Nov. 1, Microsoft will begin charging $19.95 a year to subscribe.

That will be the true test of its success, says Clay Felker, who revolutionized magazine journalism and spawned dozens of imitators when he created the hip and glossy New York in 1968.

Felker, who currently runs the graduate magazine program at the University of California, Berkeley, lauds Slate for its grown-up approach in a world dominated by juvenalia. But whether there are enough people willing to read long, intellectually challenging articles on a screen rather than on paper remains to be seen, he says.

"I applaud what he's attempting to do, and I fervently hope it works. But I don't know if you have 2,000-word articles if anyone will wade through," Felker says. "It really is asking a lot to wade through that much on a screen."

Unlike other e-zines, Slate doesn't break up all that text with many hyperlinks, underlined words that take you to other sites both audio and visual and allow readers to jump about rather than reading from beginning to end. And some of the hyperlinks it does offer are daunting rather than tantalizing, more than the casual reader probably wants: A brief item in The Week/The Spin column, for example, hyperlinks you to the 800-page Senate Whitewater Committee Report.

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"The hyperactivity is one of the things people seem to like about the Web," Felker says. "The thing about the World Wide Web is you can enter at any place and exit at any place. But with hyperlinks, you may not come back. An editor, however, wants you to finish an article."

(Still reading this, are you?)

Pub Date: 6/26/96


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