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Michael Kinsley Is Logging Off As Editor Of Online Slate

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2002; Page C01

Two months after telling the world that he's battling Parkinson's disease, Michael Kinsley said yesterday that he was stepping down as editor of Slate.

The 50-year-old columnist, who moved to Seattle six years ago to launch the online magazine for Microsoft, said he's resigning mainly because he needs a change. "I was feeling a little bit stale, and I didn't want the magazine to seem stale," said Kinsley, who will continue to write a weekly column and contribute to other Slate projects.

He said his health was "a small factor in the sense that it overcame any inclination I might have to stick with it longer. If you're yearning for a new adventure, do it now. It's a license for immediate self-gratification."

Slate will be run temporarily by Deputy Editor Jack Shafer, then by political writer Jacob Weisberg, in the months that it takes to pick a successor. Both are vying for the top job.

Kinsley acknowledged in a Time essay that he was in "denial" about the disease he has quietly grappled with for eight years. Friends say that some simple daily tasks have become a chore but that he remains an avid hiker.

After two stints as editor of the New Republic and a six-year tenure as the liberal co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," Kinsley was a high-profile hire for Bill Gates when Microsoft was making a major push online.

"Kinsley may be the great editor of his generation," Weisberg said. "Mike invented this magazine, and to a large extent he's invented [this] journalistic medium. At the time, people were extremely skeptical that this kind of magazine made any sense at all online. To a pretty substantial degree, he's been vindicated."

Shafer agreed, saying: "He brought a kind of editorial shine and journalistic sharpness to the Web in its infancy. He's really willing to experiment. I don't think I've ever worked with a boss who was so willing to try something new."

Longtime rival David Talbot, the editor of Salon, praised Kinsley as a "worthy adversary" who focused Slate's "editorial firepower" on commentary. "They were good at finding flaws in mainstream news logic and offering an alternative, often contrarian point of view. They have not excelled as reporters. I don't think they've broken any stories that I can remember."

When Kinsley left Washington for the other Washington, most Internet types regarded him as an interloper -- especially after he declared that "most of what's on the Web now is crap."

Feed magazine said, "Kinsley's ideas are derivative ones." Salon said he "might be reinventing the wheel." HotWired accused Microsoft of trying to "buy its way into the journalism business."

Kinsley admits that his views have evolved. "When I went out here, I thought I was going to start a weekly magazine, basically like the weekly magazines that already existed, that you would download and print out," he said. "It turned out to be something that's very much of the Web. The other thing I was totally wrong about was that the right format was to charge subscribers."

On that score, Slate cannot be described as a success. Like most Web sites, it has never turned a profit, and a one-year experiment in charging $19.95, while attracting more than 25,000 subscribers, was junked in 1999.

At the same time, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, Slate ranks among the top 15 news and information sites, with 2.3 million unique visitors in December. Although it trails the likes of CNN.com, MSNBC.com, NYTimes.com, Time.com, USAToday.com and washingtonpost.com, Slate is the only such site (along with Yahoo! News) not spun off by a network or publication.

One of Kinsley's innovations was to run regular digests of other media outlets, such as newspapers, magazines, arts reviews and one-person Web logs. He has created a sub-genre of diaries and e-mail debates involving prominent writers.

Kinsley has also learned to harness the Web's speed. "Mike has a funny line," Shafer said: " 'Slate doesn't believe in instant analysis; we always want to wait at least 15 minutes.' "

Can Slate thrive without its founder? "Sometimes publications become so intertwined with the personality running them that they don't continue at the same level," Talbot said. "I hope they find someone who is Michael's equal."

Kinsley, whose weekly column appears in The Washington Post, says he will write more pieces for Time to fulfill a contract but otherwise will remain immersed at Slate. He plans to develop a "corner" that will "let the reader play with the technology in a totally unprofessional, amateurish way."

As for the continued speculation about his health, "managing something like Parkinson's does take time and energy," he said. "It's important to exercise and sleep regularly and eat healthy, and all those kinds of things are hard to do if you're also a busy professional. I'm going to be a slightly less busy professional."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company