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Michael Kinsley, Opinion, and the Evolution of Media

In June of 1995, a two-hour debate aired on the PBS program Firing Line titled, “Resolved: All Immigration Should Be Drastically Reduced.” Among those supporting the resolution was Arianna Huffington, who had not yet embarked on the transition from acting as the power behind her husband’s Republican bid for California Senate into the liberal media empress we know today. Among the opposed, former New York City Mayor and ongoing liberal Ed Koch.

The discussion at hand considered the cessation of immigration in its entirety. (The consensus on illegal immigration was expressed by Koch: “I’m absolutely opposed to the illegal, as we all are, and I want to root them out, kindly, and ship them back.”) Firing Line creator and host William F. Buckley, Jr., provided the panel with gentle lashes in the spirit of a cattle driver – traveling with the group, but with a destination in mind.

Guidance in perhaps a different direction came from the episode’s moderator Michael Kinsley. A recap in The Times relates that Kinsley:

…departs from his assumed objectivity at the end to chide the anti-immigrationists for supporting their case with polls that show that most Americans want restrictions on immigration…. Mr. Kinsley points out that the premise of “Firing Line” is that even majorities may benefit from persuasive argument.

This from the man who, a few months later, would become the founding editor of Slate.

The past decade has seen the worlds of technology and media blend to a degree nearly unimaginable in 2000. You know this, of course: Apple is the world’s largest music retailer; blogs drive information sharing; the most popular way to watch videos is through Google-owned YouTube, etc. The world of traditional media has shifted – been upended – accordingly.

Few have ridden the crest of this wave more savvily than Kinsley. That spirit of challenging conventional wisdom has been demonstrated both in his articulated opinions and his willingness to embrace new systems for sharing those thoughts. As a pundit on CNN’s Crossfire, editing Slate, leading the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, and now at The Atlantic, Kinsley’s philosophy has been an open desire to speak truth to power, and to bend the boundaries of where and how the media engages with its audience. It’s a philosophy that blends nicely with the Internet – and mirrors the core tenets of the American experiment. It’s an idea, if widely adopted, that could rebuild the public conversation.

From an Adolescent CNN to an Infant Internet

The predicates for Kinsley’s worldview are in the old-school world of journalism: as an editor of The New Republic, a brief stint at the New Yorker, and later, Harper’s. He was baptized into the world of television by joining Buckley on Firing Line, eventually transitioning to a still-youthful, pre-Gulf War CNN in 1989. As the sitting liberal gladiator on CNN’s Crossfire (replacing founding host Tom Braden) he battled a rotating cast of conservatives including Pat Buchanan (when he wasn’t running for President), Robert Novak and John Sununu. (This was the time period when he coined what became known as a Kinsley gaffe: that a true mistake on the part of a politician was when he told the truth.) Crossfire, particularly in its Kinsley iteration, was one of the progenitors of debate-entertainment – and is regularly mentioned as something that could be integral in saving CNN.

At the time of the 1995 immigration debate, Kinsley was a few months away from leaving the show. That August, he was invited to Microsoft’s offices in Washington to discuss the founding of an online news magazine – a conversation which resulted in Slate.

It’s easy now to forget the nature of the web during Slate’s early years. Content was structured for dial-up visitors; Kinsley’s original idea for the magazine was that readers would print out the articles and staple them into a magazine. As early as 1998, Slate experimented with a subscription fee – one of the earliest attempts by a content publication to do so. Kinsley’s rationale for doing so is elucidated with his typical humor:

For a publication, like an individual, financial independence brings intellectual independence. The technical term for this, I believe, is “fuckyouability” (FUA). If you’re self-supporting, you can say “fuck you” to anyone, which is one important function of a magazine on almost any subject and in any medium.

Michael Kinsley on Charlie RoseThe challenge, as publications have learned, is when readers and viewers confronted with appeals for payment return the sentiment. In his tenure at Slate the magazine never reached the goal of self-sufficiency with regularity. Kinsley stepped down as editor in 2002, shortly after revealing that he had Parkinson’s disease; he left the publication for good in 2004 to become opinions editor for the Los Angeles Times. In an interview with MSNBC at the time of his departure, he indicates that Slate was breaking even; in a history of Slate‘s first ten years, he admits that such success was sporadic.

In 2006, he expounded on the difference between the web and traditional magazines in seeking advertiser dollars.

[S]ubscribers don’t really pay for print magazines: Even very successful glossy magazines often don’t get enough from subscribers to cover the cost of finding them (through junk mail) and signing them up. The reason they bother to extract money from people is to persuade advertisers that these people really want the magazine and therefore are likely to actually read it. On the Web, you don’t have to do that indirectly: You know exactly how many people have clicked their way onto a page. That makes the whole system of soliciting and charging subscribers unnecessary. There will probably be a small role for subscriber-paid journalism on the Web, but not a large one.

This statement reflects an optimism about advertising that hasn’t been borne out. We’re seeing signs though that what didn’t work for Slate in 1998 – subscribed content – may work in 2010. Rupert Murdoch, and others, are demonstrating that it can. In 2006, though, few were in a better position than Kinsley to understand this debate.

>>>NEXT: When ‘Wikitorials’ Sounded Like A Good Idea

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