MEDIA BRANDS: Microsoft's ownership of webzine <I>Slate</i> sets example of good parent-outlet relationship

It would be an understatement to say that owning an important news media outlet isn't necessarily the easiest move for a major corporation.

It would be an understatement to say that owning an important news media outlet isn't necessarily the easiest move for a major corporation.

After all, boasting a newspaper or broadcast TV news division entails many obligations that might not make shareholders happy. Gathering news costs a lot of money, and the return on investment may not be especially clear with the ever more competitive media space that's mired in an advertising slump.

But even more sticky than the costs are the social obligations, those unwritten, increasingly unlegislated expectations that reporters in the employ of a major conglomerate will be given the resources and freedom to produce solid journalism, even if that means at times being critical of the parent company. The perceived failure of major media companies to do this - best manifested in the populist outrage at the FCC's support of media consolidation last year - put many of them in a complicated situation, only made more so by a subsequent FCC-inspired predicament, the obscenity witch hunt.

There is, however, one Fortune 50 company that's managed to steer clear of all these quagmires. Microsoft isn't the first corporate media behemoth to spring to mind in a world of Time Warners and Viacoms, but, over the past eight years, the company best known for its office software and web browser has been a model owner of a media outlet. During that time, its webzine, Slate, has offered a glimpse of what online journalism can be. With insightful commentary on politics, business, culture, and media, it has become a way for people to make sense of the surfeit of reporting and opinions in the world. It often trashes conventional wisdom and is a reliable place to find a new perspective on an overhyped topic.

Compared to, say, the relationship between NBC and its owner, General Electric, the link between Slate and Microsoft is blatantly apparent. Slate's home page is festooned with MSN logos, which I'm sure makes many a purist blanch. But when you consider the site's editorial approach to its parent, the MSN presence seems more of a nod to transparency - or a token of Microsoft's pride - than it does the kind of clumsy groping for synergy that is so prevalent in the media industry. Even when Microsoft was the target of one antitrust attack after another, Slate, then in its infancy, offered ample coverage. More recently, a tech writer for the webzine wrote an ode to the Mozilla Firefox browser, a rival to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, showing that there are no sacred cows there.

Even in its recently revealed talks to sell Slate, Microsoft has shown class, apparently talking only to prestigious companies like The New York Times Co. Making it clear it's not looking to simply dump the venture, Microsoft executives said they will not sell unless they find the right deal. With deft handling like this, Microsoft may have succeeded the business with no harm done to its reputation, and left behind a model for other mega-corporations with media ambitions.

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