Sheafless In Seattle: Will This Cyber Mag Fly?

MICHAEL KINSLEY'S long-awaited new magazine debuts in mid-June. But don't look for it on the newsstand. The former New Republic editor and liberal TV pundit has joined computer-software behemoth Microsoft to pioneer a publication circulated in cyberspace. In honor of this novelty, Kinsley has dubbed his brainchild Slate, ""as in blank,'' he explains. But the name is also subversive. After all, slate, as defined by Microsoft's electronic encyclopedia, is ""dense, fine-grained, fissile rock'' -- a rather low-tech association for an electronic magazine. This reflects the tricky balancing act that Kinsley is attempting: a magazine that maintains traditional journalistic values, yet is distributed in the nascent, raucous medium of the World Wide Web.

Skeptics from two worlds question the effort. The ink-stained crowd scoffs at Slate's prospects of making money in a medium known as a financial black hole. And Web loyalists view Kinsley as an interloper who doesn't get it; Hotwired refers to him as ""Bill Gates's Beltway boy toy.'' All before anyone's seen a screen's worth of Slate.

We do know this: Slate's format will be strikingly familiar, especially to readers of literate general-interest fare like The New Republic or The Atlantic. The idea is not to remake the concept of a magazine, but to do a good one; on the Web, that's almost a new concept. There will be an opening column, most often penned by the editor. There will be features written by professional journalists, not Gen-X wireheads. (Pressed for names, Kinsley cites Nicholas Lemann and Michael Lewis -- ""I'm calling chits in on all my friends.'') There will be a virtual back-of-the-book, with film and book reviews. And in the very first issue, as a show of independence from Bill Gates's mother ship, economist Herb Stein will lead a round-table discussion on whether Microsoft is flouting antitrust laws -- the closest thing to a taboo subject in Red- mond, Wash.

Yet Kinsley realizes that it would be absurd to ignore that he's working in an evolving new medium. He'll use some multimedia tricks, like poetry ""read out loud.'' And his team is concocting innovations to overcome the hurdles of presenting thoughtful content on the computer. Will readers slog through a long piece on their monitors, no matter how fascinating? ""It's a very serious problem,'' says Kinsley. Pushing this envelope is essential. ""If they want [only] 400 words,'' he says, ""this experiment will not work.''

The thorniest questions deal with the bottom line. One of the attractions of an electronic magazine, of course, is that there's no need to pay for costly printing and postage. Even so, no one has turned a profit on a Webzine yet. Slate will not only carry advertising but will require its readers to pay. (For the first month or so, however, it'll be free -- Microsoft is still perfecting the billing procedure.) This leads doubters to wonder whether Slate can meet its circulation goal of 100,000 within three years. ""Difficult? That's an understatement,'' says David Talbot, editor of Salon, a Web-based culture magazine. Slate's publisher, John Williams, concedes that it will be a chore to win online readers when the ""brow level'' is higher than the punchy, attitude-based efforts that proliferate on the Web. Slate, he says, will have to lure its natural audience onto the Internet -- maybe by distributing samples on floppies to nonconnected computer owners.

In the past few weeks, Kinsley's project has been the subject of lengthy articles, and now its editor is beginning to worry that the hype will overwhelm the product. ""This isn't going to change the world,'' he says, with classic Beltway spin. ""It's a learning experience.''