Photograph by Jörg Carstensen — Picture-Alliance/AP
By Mathew Ingram
June 8, 2015

When it comes to online media, Slate magazine is like a grizzled veteran next to young upstarts like BuzzFeed and Vice. The publication launched in 1996 and was originally owned by Microsoft.

In fact, the site has been around so long that its current membership plan is its second attempt at launching a pay system: it originally rolled out a subscription-based model in 1998, but eventually removed it.

Unfortunately for Slate, its current “Slate Plus” model doesn’t seem to be wowing readers. According to Digiday, the online magazine has only seen 9,000 readers sign-up for its membership plan since it launched a year ago. This means the site, most likely, is generating less than half a million dollars in annual revenue from the program. Nevertheless, the company says it’s taking the paywall idea international—although the foreign version is more of a straight metered wall than a membership plan.

By way of comparison, Andrew Sullivan’s independent online magazine The Daily Dish managed to convince 35,000 users to sign up and pay a monthly and/or annual fee in less than a year after it launched. By the time Sullivan decided to shut the venture down due to exhaustion, the Dish was bringing in close to $1 million in subscription revenue.

De Correspondent, a crowdfunded Dutch online-media venture, had 30,000 paying subscribers after a year and was pulling in about $2 million in subscription revenue. Even Slate’s previous 1998 paywall convinced about 20,000 people to sign up and pay within the first year it was operating.

Much like De Correspondent and The Dish, the Slate premium plan—which costs $5 a month or $50 a year—is marketed as a form of membership that brings extra benefits for devoted readers, including the chance to interact with the site’s editorial staff and discounted Slate merchandise.

Despite low numbers, editor-in-chief Julia Turner says the magazine is expanding its paywall approach to international users—although what the site is calling “Slate Unlimited” is a straightforward metered paywall, rather than a membership-based model like Slate Plus.

Turner said in her post that Slate is moving to a paywall internationally for the same reason that other media entities have—because it isn’t making enough money from foreign readers in the form of advertising revenue.

“Our U.S.-based sales team sells primarily to domestic advertisers, many of whom only want to reach a domestic audience,” Turner wrote. “This may sound provincial, but there are decent business reasons for it: Maybe the car company buying ads on our site doesn’t sell the model it’s advertising in your country. Or maybe the marketing strategy where you live is different. Whatever you think of the logic, the fact is inescapable: Many U.S. advertisers won’t pay us to reach readers outside of the United States.”

As a result, the Slate editor says the site isn’t covering its costs outside the United States, and “that leaves us, as a business, with two choices: either make up for low ad rates by increasing the number of ads on the site, or turn to our readers to pay a fair share of the costs of producing the site.”

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