Slate first became profitable last year, but hasn't remained consistently so. As Microsoft's MSN Internet network has focused on expanding search functions and software, developing custom advertising solutions, and cultivating broad-reach content to serve mass audiences, it didn't make sense to hold onto the niche-oriented, albeit high-profile Slate, according to MSN executives.
Slate attracted 6 million unique visitors in November, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. MSN, through which Slate has been distributed, will continue to offer the publication in an estimated three-year deal. WPNI and Microsoft executives declined to comment on bidders other than the Post Co., although the New York Times Co.'s New York Times Digital is known to have expressed interest in the brand.
Scott Moore, general manager, MSN Network Experience, and Slate's publisher from 1999 through 2002, said that MSN is more focused on online activities such as general news, sports, and health. "Slate was always a little bit of an outlier. MSN is mostly about focusing on big content categories," Moore added, saying, "because we wanted to see Slate thrive, and continue on with its success, we think it will be better served long-term, with an owner like the Washington Post Co."
Microsoft and the Washington Post Co. aren't strangers to one another. Microsoft's MSNBC, a joint venture with NBC News, has had a relationship with the Post Co. for several years; content from the Post Co.'s Newsweek.com and Washingtonpost.com is distributed on MSNBC.com.
Cliff Sloan, WPNI's vice president of business development and general counsel, is Slate's new publisher, reporting to Caroline Little, WPNI's CEO-president. Cyrus Krohn, Slate's publisher since taking over the reins from Moore, will remain with Microsoft at the company's Redmond, Wash.-based headquarters working on MSN's video business. Jacob Weisberg, Slate's editor in chief, continues in his role based in New York. Of 29 staff members, 13 are based in Redmond, and five of them plan to relocate to either New York or Washington, D.C., according to Moore. Post executives and Weisberg say no major editorial changes are planned in the near-term.
Weisberg is pleased by the news: "I think this is a move that's going to ensure our continuing editorial independence. We're pretty happy with the magazine as it is, but if we reach some of our financial goals, we'll be in a better position to expand editorially if we want to, and if that makes sense."
Slate shares the same affluent target audience with WPNI publications. The publication is also likely to enjoy expanded distribution under the Post Co. umbrella.
"It's been tough for us to really develop the business of the magazine at Microsoft, mainly because of our small scale relative to their hugeness. But for nearly nine years, Microsoft was a terrific home for us," Weisberg said candidly. "At this stage in our development, it makes a lot more sense for us to be at a media company."
WPNI will run the business and support functions for Slate, "just like we do with Washingtonpost.com and Newsweek.com, in terms of ad sales, technology, operations, and all the non-editorial functions," said Sloan, who's been with WPNI since 2000. Slate will run as an independent editorial unit.
"We think it's a terrific fit because we've got two premier online publications in Newsweek.com and Washingtonpost.com--now we have a third superstar publication," Sloan said. "We've already been having tremendous success and momentum with our online advertising efforts. The addition of Slate will further accelerate that momentum."
Sloan declined to comment on ad revenue projections and said the Slate play wasn't motivated by an overarching desire to offer marketers bundled ad opportunities: "This is driven on the ad sales side by a desire to offer advertisers as many compelling options as we can. Each one is a terrific sale in its own right. Advertisers may want to combine sales on all three properties, but we're certainly also going to be selling each one individually, very aggressively," Sloan added.
In November, Washingtonpost.com attracted 4.5 million unique visitors, according to comScore Media Metrix. MSN's home page will continue to include Slate headlines, and Slate's home page will also carry a link to Washingtonpost.com. Conversely, Washingtonpost.com will trumpet Slate stories.
"I'm sad to see it go, but I feel tremendously happy to see Slate go to one of the icons of American journalism," Moore said, adding: "I have no doubt that we will see Slate thrive."