Diary of a mild CEO

When Microsoft Corp.'s online magazine Slate launched in 1996, it made all the right moves.

It immediately declared its independence from its heavyweight parent. It lined up a series of well-known journalists, including the highly-respected Michael Kinsley, former editor of the New Republic. And during its debut week, it even allowed foes and fans of the software giant to weigh in on the still-burning question "Is Microsoft Evil?"

But this week Slate took a turn that casts doubt on its commitment to being a separate entity from Microsoft.

Monday -- exactly a week before the online 'zine plans to start charging for subscriptions - Slate began publishing a series of diary entries by Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates, detailing his trip to Washington to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It's not that Gates uses the journal entries as a platform to spout serious Microsoft propaganda. Their content is much tamer than Gates' Senate testimony or comments his executives have made in court. The diaries contain only passing references to the company's plans to integrate everything under the sun into the operating system for the greater good of man.

Still, the magazine doesn't make it absolutely clear on the diary page that it's owned by Microsoft, and it puts the musings of its head publisher right on the front page.

"Who would believe for a minute that in his thoughtful, contemplative self-reflection, he feels the need to explain the operating system and integrating Explorer and Windows?" said Dianne Lynch, a journalism professor at St. Michael's College in Vermont, who's writing a book on ethics in online journalism. "It's like an ongoing press release."

The journal entries consist of a string of simplistic stream-of-consciousness sentences that read -- as one columnist put it -- like a 12-year-old's description of "What I did last summer."

Gates talks about the mundane details of a tech guru on the go -- from chomping on donuts with senators to waiting endlessly for a cab from Radio City Music Hall back to the hotel.

Basically, the diaries try to convince readers that Bill's just a guy who wants what everyone else does: to spend time with his toddler and sleep in his own bed.

But the timing and the benign content of the diaries bring up questions about whether Slate -- which has been held up as a model for thoughtful, magazine-style Web journalism - is playing into the hands of Microsoft's PR machine.

Three months ago, Microsoft began a kinder, gentler image campaign, in the face of a federal lawsuit and investigations by approximately a dozen state trustbusters. The diaries propel the image of Bill the Regular Guy.

"The issue for me is his relationship to the site and whether there may or may not have been pressure for him to have this forum," Lynch said. When asked about the connection, Slate associate publisher Colene McBeth said: "That's not the intention. You may be trying to make something out of nothing. It's really a non-event."

McBeth said Slate's editorial staff approached Gates, asking him to file his thoughts from the road. "Any publication that has a feature like our diaries would love to have Bill Gates," said McBeth, adding that the diary invitation wasn't limited to her boss. "We'd be happy to have [Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman] Scott McNealy or [Netscape Communications Corp. Chairman] Jim Barksdale be a diarist as well."

Neither McNealy nor Barksdale could be reached for comment, but a Netscape spokeswoman downplayed the likelihood that the company's sharp-tongued chairman would participate. "We aren't going to comment. He's not interested in getting involved in that," she said.

Meanwhile, Slate plans to start charging readers a $19.95 annual subscription fee beginning Monday.

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