'Slate Plus' Offers Readers Inside Access, For A Fee

Concerned about digital advertising revenue, Slate Magazine has started raising money through a paid-membership program. Media correspondent David Folkenflik explains the move to NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Since the dawn of digital news, publications have been trying to figure out how to make money. Newspapers and magazines have experimented with paywalls and subscriptions. Few have been successful. Slate, the online magazine, is trying a new way to raise much-needed revenue. They were one of the first to erect a paywall back in 1998, but it didn't work. They had to open up the site to get readers back.

In its latest efforts, Slate articles will be free but for $50 a year, members of Slate Plus will have access to private events and Q&As with Slate writers. We should note, by the way, Slate once produced a daily show with NPR News. David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent, has been reporting on the ways in which media is trying to respond to the changing financial landscape. He joins us from New York. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Great to join you.

SIMON: What are they trying to achieve here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they're looking around, and they're looking at their competitors who are making a lot of moves to shore up their finances. And they're looking at long-range trends. They're saying, you know, we can't simply expect that online advertising and some of the revenue they get from their podcasts, from which they derive about 20 percent of their revenues, will be enough to sustain the journalism that we've come to expect from Slate.

SIMON: Does this raise some concern, or is it a manifestation of the concern that advertising alone is difficult to support a news site?

FOLKENFLIK: Oh, I think that's exactly right. If you look at the New York Times, for example, they recently announced that, you know, more than half of their revenues now come from their subscribers. You know, for a long time, it was more like 3-to-1, advertising revenues to subscriber levels.

For Slate, which has no subscriber payments, readers get their articles for free - and will continue to do so, I must say. They're looking at that and saying, how do we do this? So if we offer some sort of membership, some sort of club people can join, a way in which people who value us can realize how much they value us and place a worth on that, $50 a year doesn't sound like so much to ask for.

SIMON: Is this also because in major markets, obviously, newspapers are no longer the most effective - necessarily the most effective form of advertising. The want ads have all gone to, have all gone online. And the number of national and even international advertisers has vastly increased because of online sites. I mean, for example, the New Yorker used to stand alone for a certain kind of audience. That's not the case anymore.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think the way people think about it is this - you know, in the printed publication, which Slate simply doesn't have, advertisers value that because they feel once people have paid to pick up a copy, that they're showing that they care about the publication they have in their hand. Online, there's an infinite amount of inventory for advertising. The Internet does not end. It will go on and you know, without horizon. And therefore, they find it tougher to say they value the digital advertising as much, even though so much of the audience has shifted there.

SIMON: And I do have to ask, does this mean that online publications are now asking for money the same way, it must be said, public broadcasting entities do.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, when I asked Jacob Weisberg about that - the chairman over at the Slate Group - what he said was, he looked to two things. He looked to NPR's model, really the public broadcasting station model. And he looked to Amazon Prime, too, which is, you know, you charge folks a nominal amount of money and in that, you know that you get free shipping that probably, over time, will vastly outstrip the membership fee you charge.

But the idea is that people are invested in doing things with you. They're invested as a subscriber or a member of an NPR member station. They're invested as a member of Amazon Prime. In his case, he wants readers of Slate to think of themselves as customers of Slate, or even as members of Slate.

SIMON: At the same time, does it put public broadcasting entities in competition for certain dollars?

FOLKENFLIK: I don't think Slate asking for $50 a year from its most hard-core readers and podcast listeners will imperil NPR. I do think that the podcasts they offer inhabit some of the same space as the kinds of programmings that public radio offers. And I think that there's sort of an empathy and collegiality between the two institutions. I do think that everybody, in a sense, is competing with everybody else. And what Jacob Weisberg liked about the public broadcasting model is that nobody is forced to pay a dollar, but that people who value it most can continue to do so.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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