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New leash for Slate watchdogs

Post slates Web mag buy

NEW YORK — The Washington Post Co. announced Tuesday that it’s reached a deal to buy online mag Slate from computer titan Microsoft.

Both sides stressed that Slate will remain editorially independent from other Post properties and maintain its own Web site.

Slate is known for its brash and uncensored coverage of politics, culture and the media. The Post has been a frequent target of its stories.

On Tuesday, Slate published a typically barbed column from house media critic Jack Shafer lambasting the Post for a three-part series on pregnancy and homicide.

“They are very comfortable with our media criticism,” said Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who will remain in the top job.

Slate and Salon are pioneers in the relatively youthful world of Internet journalism. Michael Kinsley, now editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Times, originally approached Microsoft with the idea of creating Slate. The magazine was initially available by subscription only, but it soon abandoned that practice. Weisberg took over as editor in 2002 when Kinsley departed.

Slate will now be part of a stable of media properties at the Washington Post Co., rather than an independent player in the relatively apolitical Microsoft palace.

Sale is expected to be completed by mid-January. Pricetag wasn’t disclosed, although it was rumored to be in the multimillions. Slate will keep its offices in New York and Washington and maintain one in Seattle.

Microsoft launched Slate in 1996 at the beginning of the dot-com boom, when it had high hopes of merging content with technology. Slate has been both a source of prestige and a money drain for Microsoft.

Computer conglom commenced the sale process this summer, luring a heavyweight crop of suitors that included the New York Times.

Weisberg, who announced the news with Washington Post Co. chair-CEO Donald Graham, said it now makes more business sense for Slate to be owned by a media company.

“Don G., as we shall now call him, recognized early on the journalistic potential of the Web, making a significant long-term investment in Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI), the Post’s online wing. Don wants Slate to become consistently profitable, but he is a patient man and prepared for this to take a while,” Weisberg said.

The business operations of Slate will be run by WPNI, with WPNI veep of business development and general publisher Cliff Sloan tapped as Slate’s publisher.

Sloan will replace present Slate publisher Cyrus Krohn, who will stay on at Microsoft with the MSN Video Team.

Washington Post Co. properties include the Washington Post newspaper, Newsweek and TV stations.

Weisberg said revenues exceeded fixed costs during one quarter last year and that he believes the potential for profit is strong as an online mag doesn’t have to worry about printing costs or filling subscriptions.

In recent times, Slate has taken advantage of its form in launching a number of blogs. Top film critic David Edelstein and TV critic Dana Stevens write “Reeltime” and “Surfergirl,” respectively. Slate political correspondent Mickey Kaus also now has a blog, which saw heavy traffic throughout the 2004 presidential campaign.

Weisberg said Slate would maintain a “distribution” agreement with Microsoft, whereby Slate headlines will continue to appear on the home page.

It’s unclear whether the sale of Slate bodes any changes for MSNBC, which is owned jointly by Microsoft and NBC Universal.

As to the site’s ongoing coverage of the media, Shafer told Daily Variety he doesn’t see himself becoming any sort of de facto ombudsman for the Post.

“The ombudsman has to be sort of judicial in his wisdom, and I think a press critic can be a hanging judge in a way the ombudsman can’t,” Shafer said.

(Willa Paskin contributed to this report.)

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