Salon: The best pure-play Web publication?
Salon’s savvy blend of new and old media has made it a pacesetter for online journalism. It may also be a harbinger of journalism’s future on the Internet.
This in-depth profile of Salon magazine appeared in the June 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review.
By J.D. Lasica
When the editors of Salon heard the reports about the White House sex scandal on the morning of January 21, their daily newspaper instincts kicked into overdrive.
Andrew Ross, who caught the news on the radio over breakfast, surfed the Web for the latest developments and banged out a 630-word commentary from home that went up on Salon’s site before noon.
Editor David Talbot, news editor Gary Kamiya and the rest of the newsroom went into “standard journalistic feeding frenzy mode,” Kamiya recalls. By the time the exhausted staff trudged home that night, they had reported, written, designed and posted the following pieces for that evening’s edition:
• The first detailed report on the contents of Linda Tripp’s tapes, based on Washington correspondent Jonathan Broder’s interview with literary agent Lucianne Goldberg.
• An analysis by contributing writer Alexander Cockburn recounting Clinton’s history of surviving career-ending scandals.
• A no-holds-barred interview with Camille Paglia on Clinton’s pattern of alleged sexual promiscuity.
• Beyond-the-Beltway reactions from an assortment of authors, political observers and think tank analysts.
In addition, within hours of the news breaking, readers were sparring in dozens of heated discussion forums on Salon’s site.
All in all, it was a dazzling display of Web journalism that demonstrated the vitality of the young online medium: the ability to cover breaking news as it unfolds; the compelling voice, frank language and honest sexual discussion that mainstream media typically filter out; the interactive component that lured readers into the dialogue.
Such a feat would have been unlikely two years earlier. In November 1995, when Salon hung out its Open sign on the Web, the fledgling literary magazine published just once every two weeks, featuring book reviews, author interviews, cultural criticism and social and political commentary. Today, says founder Talbot, “Salon has evolved from a literary magazine into a daily Web newspaper providing a full spectrum of editorial content.”
Along the way, it has garnered gigabytes of praise: Time magazine’s Best Web Site of 1996; Advertising Age’s Online Magazine of the Year; two straight Webby awards for best electronic zine; a fat collection of flattering press clips for its lively writing and sleek design. And, most tellingly, a loyal and growing audience. Salon attracts roughly a half million distinct readers a month, with more than 8 million individual pages viewed each month. The average reader spends 35 minutes on the site, far above the Web’s average — and longer than most people spend with a newspaper.
What accounts for such success? A savvy blend of the best of old and new media.
On the new media side of the equation, Salon offers immediacy by covering topical events, and it delivers on interactivity through its hugely popular reader forums. But it’s Salon’s old-fashioned, low-tech brand of hard-hitting journalism that sets it apart.
“The op-ed piece, the column, book and music reviews — we’ve found that the traditional newspaper genres work really well online,” Talbot says. “But newspapers have forgotten how to do those things well. They’ve forgotten how to be stimulating, challenging, colorful and provocative. They’ve just become timid, dull, banal and inoffensive for economic and political reasons, and that’s why readers are flocking to the Internet.”
Key ingredients: Voice and speed
Salon serves up a daily stew that includes news and features about current events, politics, travel, the media, money, books, music, television, education, health, digital culture and motherhood. And while that may resemble the content found in the major dailies, the difference comes from Salon’s unblinking championing of combative, irreverent, in-your-face opinion and commentary.
“We believe that columnists were born to provoke, not stroke, readers,” Talbot says.
The columnists most favored by Salon’s readers? A firebrand and two taboo artists: Camille Paglia, the author, academic and bomb-thrower who has written for Salon since its first issue and whose unorthodox missives seem born for the Web; sex author Susie Bright; and relationships columnist Courtney Weaver.
A number of old-media stars have helped Salon gain a foothold in cyberspace: James Carville and Anne Lamott (now on leave to write a book) wrote well-received regular columns, John le Carre contributed some short pieces, and Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and Garrison Keillor have written essays and interacted with readers in Salon’s books forum. But it is Salon’s regular stable of columnists — which also includes conservative political author David Horowitz, family essayist Chitra Divakaruni, cultural observer Cintra Wilson, music critic Sarah Vowell and others — who do much of the heavy lifting day after day.
“In some ways a lot of Salon is very old-fashioned,” says managing editor Ross, 51, a hardbitten hard news type who served variously as foreign, national and metro editor of the San Francisco Examiner. “There used to be a lot more voice in newspapers: Herb Caen, Mike Royko, Ambrose Bierce. But newspapers today tend to limit the range of debate. So we’re trying to bring back that kind of strong voice. People enjoy frank expressions of opinion, which is why talk radio has become popular. But we can do it better, by not cutting off or subverting the dialogue with the public as some of the more demagogic radio hosts do.”
A voice that tells it the way it is — borrowed from an earlier generation of plain-speaking journalists — may account for a good deal of Salon’s success, but a second important factor is speed and timeliness. Here, again, a new medium borrows from the old.
Of the 26 editorial employees who staff Salon’s offices in downtown San Francisco, all but one cut their teeth in print (the 26th, a new-media writer, began in April). Part of the reason is that Talbot, a former arts and features editor at the Examiner, brought with him a small cadre of refugees from the paper — journalists well acquainted with daily publishing under tight deadlines.
By way of example, Ross points to Salon’s quick turnaround on the Clinton-Lewinsky story. “The speed of our response had a great deal to do with our coming from a daily newspaper background. This was what you did — jump all over a story, especially coming from an afternoon paper on the West Coast with three to four editions a day, where you remake the paper all throughout the day. To some extent, this is second nature.”
Scott Rosenberg, who covered movies, theater and new media for the Examiner, says his newspaper training helps him to knock out a polished technology column in an hour or two. “I wrote overnight theater reviews for six years,” he says.
Speed is critical because currency and topicality are the lifeblood of the Web. “A lot of the lessons we’ve learned online are the same lessons we all learned in the newspaper world,” Talbot says. “It’s good to be topical. It’s good to react quickly to major news on major events. The Web came of age with Princess Diana’s death and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sites that reacted quickly with interesting and intelligent reporting and commentary saw their page views grow enormously, as we have. And we have a built-in advantage over newspapers: We don’t have to wait for the printing presses to run.”
Breaking the rules of the Web
A solidly built man of 46, Talbot sits at his desk editing a story, fingers working the keyboard, his smooth, almost boyish face squinting at the screen, perplexed and engaged, as if he’s rapt in a game of Riven. Then he turns from the computer screen and begins to fire off thoughts on a range of subjects: politics (“I’m a liberal, but I abhor party-line journalism”), advertiser influence (“We believe strongly in the division between church and state”) and Salon’s competitors (“I don’t know why Slate felt compelled to start charging a subscription”). There’s no trace of the insider high-tech jargon that peppers the speech of many Web CEOs, and it’s clear he’d rather discuss ideas or books than engage in the latest techno-babble du jour. He wrote a book about the ’50s blacklist, “Creative Differences: Profiles of Hollywood Dissidents,” and co-authored “Burning Desires: Sex in America.”
With Salon, Talbot has become not only an evangelist for new media but one of the most celebrated luminaries on the Net. At the same time, he refuses to indulge some of the Internet’s quirkier rules of the road.
Multimedia? You won’t find it on Salon, other than the occasional sound clip on a music review. At the outset, Talbot’s one directive to design director Mignon Khargie was: Keep it simple. And, indeed, Salon’s design is revolutionary in its simplicity — stylish and understated, with sleek, modern typefaces, legible body text, fast-loading graphics and none of the multimedia bells and whistles that play havoc with slower modems.
Story length? Stories and columns on the site generally run shorter than in print, true. But Salon occasionally runs author interviews, as with P.D. James and Martin Amis, that run thousands of words. An in-depth article on the roots of the Whitewater investigation ran nearly 5,000 words. And a nonfiction piece by the novelist Denis Johnson about born- again bikers in Texas was actually rejected by the New Yorker because it was too long.
Technology coverage? Yes, but not technology worship. Unlike the crop of Web zines that declare Internet users to be “netizens” and breathlessly declaim that the Net represents a utopian leap for humanity, Salon believes the medium is not the message.
Occasionally, that philosophy has prompted some younger turks among the Net’s digerati to slam Salon for its old-media ties and for refusing to genuflect at the altar of Nicholas Negroponte and other gurus of the digital age. Responds Talbot: “We think of digital technology as an exciting means to an end, but not the end itself.”
That’s evident throughout the site, for Salon’s writers are too busy covering real people to be overly preoccupied with whether it’s adhering to some abstract notion of Way New Journalism.
Kamiya, the 44-year-old former book editor and senior editor at the Examiner’s Sunday magazine, says: “Good journalism is good journalism, and good writing is good writing, no matter what medium you’re in.”
Talbot agrees. “The kind of writing we want on our site works well in print, too: incisive, emphatic, colorful, clear. The only kind of story that really doesn’t work well is the long, leisurely feature story that takes a long time to build, the old-style New Yorker writing. We’ll still run long pieces, but we’ve moving away from a New Yorker mold and toward a newspaper model of shorter, more topical material.”
“Our goal,” Kamiya adds, “is to stir people up, jog them out of their ordinary way of looking of things. We’re not doing anything extraordinarily different from what is done in the best print publications.”
Birth of an idea
How did this peculiar electronic creature come about in the first place?
Salon’s genesis could be traced to the Guild strike at the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner in November 1994. Guild members hit on the idea of using the Web to publish a strike paper. Scott Rosenberg learned the basics of HTML virtually overnight and, with the help of three union colleagues, launched into cyberspace the San Francisco Free Press, a joint effort by reporters and editors for the two competing papers. The 12- day strike was short-lived, but staff members had seen something in their lively grassroots cyber-effort that was missing from their dreary daily routine in the newsroom.
For Talbot, who had clashed with upper management about the direction of the paper’s arts coverage, the strike came as a turning point — and an epiphany. “I came to realize that the newspaper business was no longer the fun, creative, growing industry I had entered.” He gathered some of his co-workers at his house for clandestine meetings to discuss the idea of creating a Web-based arts and literature magazine. They settled on the word salon, with its allusions to both a gathering of informed guests and its linguistic kinship with saloon.
“The name Salon was chosen,” Talbot says, “to emphasize that this would be a lively dinner party where not only writers and editors and cultural figures would be guests, but readers from all walks of life and all nationalities. And they would be able to participate in a way that no print publication had permitted them.”
With $60,000 in seed money from Apple, Talbot, Ross, Khargie and Salon’s first publisher, David Zwieg, promptly resigned from the Examiner. A few weeks later, Kamiya and Rosenberg joined them. And after Salon’s first issue, the San Jose software firm Adobe System and venture capitalists Hambrecht & Quist put in the first of three rounds of funding, giving the electronic zine a firmer financial footing.
Right out of the gate, Salon did many things right. Khargie, an award-winning designer at the Examiner, settled on a clean, elegant look. The editors embraced the Web’s credo of interactivity by conversing with readers in the discussion forums of Table Talk. But it was the high quality of the writing and originality of the articles that captured people’s attention — and kindled hope that cyberspace was not destined to be a digital wasteland after all.
“I heard people saying the Internet would be the death of good writing,” Talbot says, “and I thought that was just absurd because, after all, here’s a medium where you are reading words on a computer screen. So I felt that columnists who would succeed would be those with the liveliest voice — colorful, opinionated writers who aren’t afraid to offend readers.”
In the beginning, Salon’s small staff operated out of a modest building in San Francisco’s marginal China Basin area. Kamiya recalls the staff groaning at the “killer pace” of publishing an issue every two weeks. The plan had always called for weekly publication, and Salon went weekly in early 1996. In February 1997 it ramped up to daily publication on weekdays. Immediately, traffic shot up 30 percent.
“We really saw that there was a daily appetite out there,” Talbot says. “People wanted to use us as a place where they could check in every day.”
Kamiya calls it the water-cooler factor. “To some degree, we serve the function of being an office water cooler for our readers. If something has broken in the Clinton investigation or if there’s some hot new book or movie or New Yorker article that everybody at the dinner party you went to on Saturday night is talking about, these are the kind of things you can and should respond to very quickly online.
“Instant response has its drawbacks — it can lack depth and thoughtfulness — but it has real virtues online, because people want to immediately engage in this stuff.”
The fact that most of Salon’s staff were general-interest people who came from a newspaper background meant that they could pursue a broad range of topics rather than one narrow magazine niche. Thus came about the natural, almost inevitable evolution from a literary magazine to what Talbot calls a daily Web newspaper.
A mix of media traditions
Today, Salon’s offices take up the second floor of a handsome brick office building built in 1905 — it survived the 1906 earthquake — on the fringe of Multimedia Gulch, ground zero of the digital publishing revolution. The space, occupied only since last September, still has the feel of a work in progress, with bare walls and wide, empty expanses of carpeting.
The newsroom resembles a magazine office, with staffers busy in their beige cubicles or darting from one department to another. The large number of twentysomething workers ratchets up the energy level a notch. At the same time, the staff has a fair amount of seasoned talent — an advantage missing in the workplaces of dozens of nearby e-zines and other high-tech startups, where many offices don’t have a single employee over age 35.
It helps that Talbot has created a newsroom culture where the copy desk and junior editors feel free to pitch story ideas at the weekly staff meeting, unlike the hierarchical setup at most large papers. On many days, the operation takes on the feel of an agile, nimble Web operation as Talbot changes the next day’s cover story on the fly in reaction to breaking news.
The Salon culture draws from several mediums. “It’s a very interesting hybrid of daily newspaper experience, magazine thinking, distinct columnist voices like those found in alternative weeklies, a strong dose of Web community and interactivity, and even elements of radio,” says Rosenberg, who compares Salon’s Newsreal reports to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Often, Newsreal goes behind the day’s headlines to explore the larger social consequences of an issue, as when Ross interviewed Dr. Ian Wilmut, the embryologist in Scotland who cloned Dolly the sheep from the DNA of an adult sheep, on the same day that Wilmut made his startling announcement to the world.
If Salon is a media hybrid, it is also an unorthodox mix of journalistic traditions: political muckraking, enterprise and investigative reporting, hell-raising commentary — and tabloid journalism.
In the past several months, it has done original reporting on a number of hard-news fronts. One of its writers conducted a prison interview with the Pakistani terrorist who was sentenced to death for killing two CIA employees in a 1993 attack outside CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. The New York Times, CNN and Pathfinder reported Salon’s scoop. Salon has also strayed from the media pack in its coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation [see sidebar on investigative reporting on the Web].
While its enterprise and investigative stories would be right at home in a mainstream newspaper or magazine, Salon’s presentation sometimes pushes the envelope. Salon is decidedly a creature of the Web, where readers expect a less filtered, more provocative package and editors look for edgy material to hook their audience.
A piece by Ross titled, “Hillary was right: There is a right-wing conspiracy to bring down the president,” was accompanied by an illustration of Paula Jones, Ken Starr and Jerry Falwell in bed together, a cigarette dangling from Starr’s fingers.
Ross, a British expatriate who still speaks with a thick accent, says, “There’s a certain cheekiness in British media that I’ve absorbed in my pores, and some of that I’ve passed along here. Unfortunately, British papers are sometimes more concerned with their opinions than with the facts, and I have a problem with that. But the converse of that can be a problem as well. There’s a limited, safe range of opinion and expression that American newspapers will allow, and that makes for a sometimes barren product.”
A sampling of hyperlinked cover lines, or teasers, on Salon’s front page on a recent day give a taste of that cheeky, unmediated quality:
• Famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi on the stunning stupidity of the Supreme Court’s Paula Jones ruling
• Kathleen Willey interview: The bra-snapping hypocrisy of the old goats at “60 Minutes”
• The strange life and pathetic death of James McDougal.
Talbot says flatly, “Unless you get readers in the door — click your home page cover lines — you go out of business.”
A ‘smart tabloid’
Grabbing readers by the throat and getting them to click — this has become the Damocles sword that dangles precariously above every Web zine. In the past year, three quality, literate word zines have shuttered their doors: Urban Desires, Total New York and Word. Other content-rich sites have also headed to the digital graveyard: Knight-Ridder’s inkling, a compendium of the chain’s best columns and features; and the mismanaged New Century Network, whose rich repurposed newspaper content never managed to leach into the public’s consciousness. Salon’s chief competitor, Microsoft’s Slate, had been losing money with its advertising-only model; in March it went to a subscription model and signed up 20,000 members at a charter rate of $19.95 a year. More recent arrivals on the Web have shifted gears away from magazine-style content and toward practical, useful consumer information.
Salon’s achievement is all the more impressive, then, for showing that engaging, original journalism does have a chance to succeed online. In winning over readers, Salon’s editors make no bones about borrowing from the playbook of Hearst, Pultizer and the other old masters.
“The word tabloid doesn’t make me cringe,” Talbot says. “I’d describe Salon as a smart tabloid. Tabloid in the sense that we want a popular readership, we want to engage and entertain and provoke them. We’re not just an advertising vehicle. We’re something that is meant to be read and argued with. And so Salon often tries to use all those visceral kind of ways that tabloids connect with people. Our cover lines try to be sexy and we tend to run a lot of stories about sex and crime and scandal, all the things that are the meat and potatoes of the tabloid press. And I see nothing wrong with that. They’re subjects that people want to talk about to help them figure out their own lives. And those stories can be approached in an intelligent fashion, without pandering.”
The term tabloid carries so much baggage today, he says, that today’s journalists have forgotten its populist roots. “I was inspired working for a Hearst paper (the Examiner). There was a lot that was fun and invigorating about that kind of journalism before it became corporate and very professional, with people from journalism schools and law schools and business schools filling up newsrooms. It was more free-wheeling, more crusading, more populist and colorful. We knew how to grab readers in the opening paragraph and hold them, and knew how to cause scandals and controversies, and I think all of those things are coming back into fashion now in the Internet world. That kind of free-wheeling, independent spirit is the spirit that should be alive within the mainstream press — and isn’t. And that’s why they’re in trouble.”
Talbot, who can hurl brickbats and toss bouquets to old media in the same breath, quickly adds: “In turn, new media can learn a lot from the mainstream press: basic journalistic crafts and ethics and things that are too often ignored in the online journalism world.”
One traditional tabloid subject that informs the pages of Salon is sex. “Sex is a big part of most people’s lives,” Talbot says. “But it’s too often covered in this country in an adolescent way. The media’s obsessed with it, but they write about it in such a trivial, absurd, tittering and immature way. We decided early on to do a lot of honest journalism about sex.”
Talbot recruited sex author Susie Bright, whose liberal use of genitalia references would send some print editors into code-blue cardiac arrest, and Courtney Weaver, whose mating and dating column “Unzipped” chronicles the sexual and romantic escapades of the twentysomething generation. Their columns are unfailingly among the most widely read articles on the site.
The editors know this because of “click stats.” Like many Web sites, Salon compiles detailed overnight reports on the number of users who clicked on each story. Kamiya, who writes the front-page cover lines with Talbot, observes: “No print editor will ever really know whether that clever headline you’re so proud of actually attracted more readers to the story or whether only three people read it. Online, you have hard numbers, and you can see a direct correlation between readership and the more sexy, punchy and hard-hitting headlines. On the Web, readers’ eyes won’t fall upon the story by accident, like they do in a newspaper. You’ve got to lead them to it.”
Those hard numbers also spur Salon’s assigning editors to favor stories likely to generate wide reader interest. Because Salon’s mission is to provide unreported, original angles on a story or trend rather than try to be comprehensive in its news coverage, its editors have the luxury of cherry-picking the most alluring, provocative topics.
Ross, who assigns or approves the bulk of hard-news stories, freely acknowledges, “If it’s a choice between a story on Kosovo and a story on Clinton and Lewinsky, I know which story is going to sell better. It’s hard to get the public interested in foreign news. Without question, there’s an appetite for sex stories in all media, and that’s certainly true on the Web. Salon needs to survive by driving our circulation numbers upward, so I make no apologies for giving our readers what they respond to. We’re certainly not gratuitous in our coverage of sex.”
Yet the editors don’t shrink from pursuing solid, unsexy foreign news coverage despite knowing the subject is unlikely to “drive eyeballs,” i.e., attract many readers. Salon bought and ran a story by an Australian journalist about war criminals in Bosnia who were said to be untraceable, though the journalist tracked down one in a coffeeshop and another in a pub. “You know in your gut this was a good story,” Ross says, “but it was disappointing that it really didn’t sell.”
A tale of two sections
In its effort to increase readership and attain profitability, Salon has introduced content that, far from pandering to tabloid tastes, has elevated the level of writing and discourse on the Web. Two sections that debuted last year, Wanderlust and Mothers Who Think, have won large, devoted followings. Wanderlust, Salon’s travel section, strives for passionate prose that captures and celebrates a sense of place. Skilled writers such as Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, novelist Isabel Allende and Peter Mayle, author of “A Year in Provence,” have graced Wanderlust’s pages since its launch in April 1997.
That’s largely due to Wanderlust editor Don George, former Travel editor of the Examiner, who chafes at the formulaic articles that pervade most travel magazines and many newspaper travel sections. Says George: “To me, the best travel writing is about an experience of otherness where you meet somebody and you have this intense encounter, and that opens up a whole new way of looking at life or of understanding a culture that’s very different from your own. Our stories are really about the connections and adventures that happen to you when you make a left turn instead of a right turn and something really amazing happens to you.”
When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, Salon sent a journalist there who sent back daily dispatches that ran in Wanderlust. “That’s something a weekly travel section or magazine couldn’t do, and I thought that was very cool,” George says.
Salon’s Winter Olympics coverage also was centered in Wanderlust. IBM sponsored the coverage, the first such advertising arrangement Salon has made. In return for IBM’s ads on those pages, Salon received a fee that more than covered the expense of sending two writers to Nagano, Japan. The writers — Kamiya and columnist Cintra Wilson — filed articles not about the medal results, but first-person, idiosyncratic accounts of the pandemonium among fans, the global media event’s impact on Nagano, and the small moments where people from different cultures come together and interact in memorable ways.
The success of Wanderlust allowed Salon to set up a “virtual travel marketplace” that now lets readers buy airline tickets, reserve rental cars and hotel rooms, order travel merchandise and check weather conditions and currency exchange rates worldwide.
Another section that takes an untraditional approach is Mothers Who Think. Section editor Camille Peri, a former print editor and free-lance writer who is married to Talbot, says, “In the mainstream press, once you become a mother you’re not a woman anymore, you’re a potty-training vessel. Women are tired of being talked down to — they do still have a brain after they have kids.”
Mothers Who Think deals with everything from the big issues of parenting, families and education to the lighter side of motherhood. Some of the essays and articles are ripped from the headlines: Louise Woodward, Susan Smith, doctors prescribing Ritalin to children. Others are a bit more unusual: a former Boy Scout who warns of scouting’s dangerous influence on youths; a look at labiaplasty cosmetic surgery; an essay touching on the myth of loving all your children equally; and an article slamming the “notorious womanizers on the ’60 Minutes’ staff” after the news magazine aired an interview with Kathleen Willey, who accused President Clinton of sexually groping her in the White House.
“A lot of our topics would not make it into traditional parenting magazines or Web sites,” Peri says.
When the section debuted in May 1997, she says, “Almost overnight, about 20 discussions cropped up in Table Talk.” Today, Mothers Who Think is one of Salon’s most active reader forums. Among the topics:
• Is spanking child abuse? (214 new messages)
• Readin’, ritin’ and Ritalin (151 new messages)
• Considering tubal ligation (29 new messages)
A commitment to interactivity
While most Web publications treat their interactive component as an afterthought, Salon was committed to the notion of community dialogue right from the get-go.
“Our trump card is the interactivity,” Kamiya says. “We’ve had to painstakingly build this community of trust, and that’s not something you do in a day. Table Talk benefits by being attached to a site that has a lot of lively, controversial content on social, political and cultural issues. This is not the AOL chat room, where someone says, ‘Hey, baby, I bet you’d look great in a red bra.’ Those people will be tossed out. Truly, it’s astonishing how intelligent the level of discussion is. You go in there and you say, gosh, these people are smarter than our writers.”
Table Talk ranks as the second most active reader forum on the entire Web behind only the Utne Reader, according to Forum One Communications, a firm that measures Internet conversation areas. Table Talk participants have created a thriving, contentious community of 80,000-plus registered users who debate more than 2,500 discussion topics, each of which draws anywhere from a handful to hundreds of postings. Unlike the vast majority of Web sites, Salon allows readers to start their own topics. Table Talk now receives one-third of the traffic on Salon’s site.
“There are people in Table Talk who never read Salon and others who read it every day,” says Mary Elizabeth Williams, the 32-year-old host of Table Talk, who moderates the forum from her home in Boston by dipping into threads and occasionally deleting a posting that violates the site’s standards of decorum. “A lot of people come to Salon just for the conversation. Over time, they form friendships and relationships. It’s not like going into a Usenet newsgroup where people talk past each other and nobody is noticing what the other person said.”
Half of Table Talk’s members are women, a much higher percentage than in most online forums. “When I see other women hanging out in a forum,” Williams says, “I know I won’t be constantly hit on or talked down to.” Ultimately, the lack of a frat-house atmosphere seems to elevate the level of discussion.
Sometimes the most powerful threads arise from small, personal experiences. Williams recounts: “A father whose baby was stillborn created a topic to talk about grief and feeling cut off, and that created an enormous outpouring of support and sympathy. Someone else posted a message saying, ‘Today I quit my job,’ and people came in and offered advice about job counseling and how to find another job and somebody asked to see his resume.”
All of the key editors and writers occasionally dive into a thread to let readers know that Salon hears them. Says Talbot: “Table Talk is really a living, breathing letters to the editor section 24 hours a day that’s controlled not by the editor but by the readers themselves. Our book area is one of the most interesting ongoing book discussions in the world. That’s quite a tribute to our readers.”
Salon is by no means a perfect new-media vehicle. Its search tool is clunky, its navigation a bit unwieldy, and its rich archive remains largely hidden from view. It provides almost no e-mail links to columnists and writers who aren’t listed in the staff box. It contains negligible outside links that takes readers away from the site — a practice common in many commercial Web sites struggling to become profitable. One also might wish for a stronger sense of place on the site — a community grounded in the real world rather than only the virtual one.
In its haste to cover breaking news, Salon sometimes takes the predictable old media route of quoting the usual grab bag of pundits and think-tank specialists. The quality of editing on the site, while far above the norm in cyberspace, is still uneven. And, on occasion, “a few of the pieces are muddled or sophomoric,” in the words of Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post.
Too, the editors haven’t made use of the Web as an authentication tool. None of the investigative stories, for example, have included links to scanned-in documentation such as bank statements or other records.
Lewis Perdue, a new-media publisher, author of 17 books and veteran investigative journalist who worked for Jack Anderson and helped break the Koreagate case as a free-lance reporter for the Washington Post, suggests that Salon needs to rise to the next level if it’s to become a consistently reliable vehicle for investigative journalism. “The problem is they don’t dig far enough. If you’re afraid you’ll lose people with more than an 800-word article, then hyperlink to the details and archive all the background information.”
Perdue would like to see Salon tackle some unsexy topics like rent control increases, interest rate gouging by credit card companies, and levels of public funding on education. Still, he gives Salon high marks as “a refreshing site with a contrarian point of view. It reminds me of the Washington Monthly at its height, with its philosophy of screw the conventional wisdom, sacred cows make good hamburger.”
On the marketing side, some critics have berated Salon for supplying links to the Borders Books Web site from its book review pages, just as the New York Times on the Web has come under fire for its links to Barnes & Noble, which allow users to buy a book online. To these critics, such a quid pro quo — Salon and the Times receives a small fraction of the profits from every such transaction — smacks of potential conflict of interest. But Talbot waives off that concern, pointing out that most of its book reviews are critical or negative. “Contractually, and in every other way, Borders has no say in how we cover those books.”
In its march toward profitability — the elusive holy grail of the Web — Salon has resisted the lure of advertising masquerading as editorial content. “Sometimes advertisers will approach us with an idea and say, ‘Will you do this editorially?’ ” Talbot says. “And we’ve never taken a suggestion from them, even when there’s money involved, except for the Olympics, when we decided to accept IBM’s sponsorship because we felt our writers could add something to the coverage that no one else was doing.”
Today, Salon’s hybrid business model combines advertising, corporate sponsorships, electronic commerce transaction fees (largely through Borders Books and Wanderlust travel partners) and a syndication deal with United Features in which Salon editorial content is available to more than 50 newspapers. Other potential revenue streams include a print version of Salon that culls the best of the week’s online edition; the Salon Club, where members receive premium content, gift items, discounts at Borders Books and other benefits for about $29.95 a year; and a content licensing deal with a Japanese investor who wants to start a Salon Japan.
Talbot expects Salon to increase its readership and advertising income and begin turning a profit by early 1999. Toward that end, Salon plans to increase its staff from 42 to 56 people during the current fiscal year. It will soon open an office in New York to increase its visibility in Silicon Alley.
“We don’t plan to go out and compete head to head with the New York Times,” Kamiya says, “but it’s good to be doing more original reporting and substantive news gathering.”
Talbot goes a step further, suggesting that Salon competes with all the major news operations on the Web that vie for readers’ time and for advertising dollars. “It’s one big media world now,” he says. “This may sound arrogant, but I’d say we’re competing with Time Warner and the New York Times and the Washington Post, and lately we’ve been butting heads with the Post and the Times in particular in our coverage of the Clinton scandals.”
The Post’s Kurtz, for one, is impressed on the whole. “I’ve become a Salon addict,” he says by e-mail. “It seems to combine the immediacy and irreverence of the online world with some of the sharpest writing this side of glossy magazines. Salon deals frankly with one subject — sex — that makes the mainstream media jittery. And if you don’t like what Salon has today, you can always log on tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, Salon should figure more prominently in the media landscape. By cultivating strong, distinct voices and championing a style of aggressive, independent reporting, Salon has sculpted a brand of online journalism that could set the standard for other news sites on the Web.
“I look for the talents of tomorrow to emerge online,” Talbot says. “I think words will always matter in the brave new world.”