Why the Wired West still matters
Personal media, contrarian journalism provide counterweights to Eastern media’s groupthink
By J.D. Lasica
Online Journalism Review
Less than three years ago, a case could be made that the West — particularly the greater San Francisco Bay Area — had become ground zero of the new media revolution.
New York and its cadre of elite corporate media were latecomers to the Net party and, in the eyes of the digerati, worse than clueless. Irrelevant.
Meanwhile, way out West, Wired magazine and its dazzling digital sibling, HotWired, became the instant bible of the fevered plugged-in crowd — those who got it, who understood that the Internet would change everything. Salon magazine, and then Slate, fashioned ambitious sites that were vibrant, smart and required reading — everything the establishment media was not. The Industry Standard (and, at the end, its terrific Web site) came out of nowhere to become the best publication covering the new economy. Business 2.0 wasn’t far behind. Other Bay Area tech magazines — Upside, Red Herring, InfoWorld, PC World — invested in online staffs operating well-done Web sites.
CNET powered its way to become the premier tech news site. More people were reading Yahoo! News than the top 20 online newspapers combined. TechTV and its companion Web site hoped to bring computer news and how-to advice to the cable masses. eCompany Now scrambled onto the Bay Area scene in early 2000, paying its top writers six figures. Knight Ridder Digital moved its headquarters from Miami to San Jose to get closer to the heart of the action. Startups in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Redmond, Wash. — many of them content sites (MSNBC, Amazon, ThirdAge, BabyCenter, Women.com, Adam.com, LookSmart, ThemeStream) or service journalism sites (eHow, ExpertCity, Sidewalk, CitySearch) — had begun dotting the media landscape like buttercups.
Then, suddenly, the love drug potion ran out, the mass hallucination ended, and everybody staggered home from the party. As dot-coms began to litter the valley, ground zero suddenly took on a new meaning. Consider the carnage:
The Industry Standard shuttered its doors. Red Herring fired its entire online staff. Upside pulled the plug on its Web site. AOL Time Warner bought Business 2.0 and merged eCompany Now into it. The San Francisco Chronicle fired 220 employees in December, including 19 at SFGate.com. Salon, Slate, Wired News, CNET, TechTV, Knight Ridder Digital and the tech magazines and their online staffs were all slammed with layoffs or staff reductions. Microsoft all but bailed from the online media business. Women.com, ThirdAge and BabyCenter were sold for a song. ThemeStream, a site that aggregated free-lance writings, shut down. Other startups hang by a thread.
By comparison, Antietam was a tea party.
The tech implosion, online contraction and media recession weren’t confined to the West, of course. But the San Francisco Bay Area was its epicenter. How bad is it for online journalists here? A recent opening for a mid-level Web editor at the University of California, Berkeley, drew 500 applicants, a hefty chunk of them currently jobless.
So now, after the meltdown, what are we to make of the Wired West’s legacy? Was it all just a waste of electrons? Has the mantle of new media capital passed to New York by default?
Coming at the subject from three different perspectives are three of the keenest observers of the new media scene: John Battelle, David Talbot and Josh Quittner.
Battelle: ‘The center of Internet media still resides outside of New York’
Battelle, former publisher of The Industry Standard and now a teaching fellow at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, says, “There was a moment in the late ’90s when there was a real shot at the West Coast establishing a thriving media community of its own, with CNET, Yahoo!, the Standard, Salon, CBS MarketWatch, Business 2.0, the Red Herring and other homegrown media emerging, plus the strong West Coast presences of Forbes, Fortune and other Eastern media.
“The problem turned out to be the lack of diversification,” Battelle says. “We weren’t seeing magazines establish themselves in broad-based categories, just technology. And there’s a reason for that: It’s already been done and it’s based in New York. But in the late ’90s, you saw a shift in the power of media. New York realized there was an insurgent power base outside of its own realm, and it quickly corrected for that by starting its own divisions, like CBS MarketWatch, or swallowing other publications, as when Condé Nast bought Wired.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “it wasn’t going to happen that the West Coast would overtake the East Coast when it came to importance of the media industry. But I’ll say this: In terms of the new media universe, you could still claim that the center of Internet media still resides outside of New York, with CNET, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Ticketmaster/CitySearch on the West Coast and AOL TimeWarner headquartered in Virginia and all the startups that are still out here.
“It was evident early on that the Internet created this spectacular Precambrian explosion of life forms, and that not all of them would make it. But for every 1,000 startups, there are 100 that are still left and doing interesting things. The death of Internet companies has been greatly overstated, and most of them are still based here.”
“The death of Internet companies has been greatly overstated, and most of them are still based here.”
– John Battelle
I remind Battelle of his appearance on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” last year, when he suggested that the transformation to an Internet economy would take a decade or more rather than a few years.
“Everyone, myself included, got caught up in the idea that we may get there — to an economy that’s fundamentally wired — in a few years, when in fact it’s a lot more challenging and will take a lot longer to get there,” he says. “It’s very difficult to alter hundred-billion-dollar markets and systems and relationships that took decades to construct. But if you look at the washout that hit the beach and scattered bodies, five years ago almost no one was conducting business online and now almost everyone is. It’s a fundamental given now.
“True, you don’t have 10 online technology news sources anymore, but you do have two or three that are pretty good and stable, and a few years ago you didn’t have any. I’ll confess that I still get frustrated when I can’t find good stats and metrics that I know was on my site. But if you take the long view and look at all the online businesses that are succeeding and becoming profitable, it’s pretty cool what’s happened.”
Any other online media lessons from the Great Washout?
“What’s often overlooked are the micro-focused sites with a very strong niche in one area: FuckedCompany.com. High-end market analysis that lives online. Newsletter entrepreneurs. Weblogs. Slashdot. Jim Romenesko. Here is one guy supported by an institute who created his own brand and has become a huge success in pulling together a media community. That kind of service with a low cost base should exist in every industry.”
Or to put it another way, we’re becoming more and more surrounded by small, personal media — Weblogs, the Media Unspun newsletter, Romenesko’s Media News site (based in Florida, though Romenesko works out of his home in Evanston, Ill.) — in addition to the traditional Eastern media powers such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News.
Unlike their corporate kin, personal media are more widely dispersed, more diverse, more decentralized. Perhaps more Western, if one thinks of the West as a state of mind rather than a geographic location.
Battelle chuckles. He’ll say only this: “To me, it’s another proof point that the Web economy is becoming the economy.”
Talbot: West Coast media will be remembered for Wired, Salon, Suck
If you want to see David Talbot on a roll, ask him about the power of the East Coast media establishment centered in New York and Washington, DC.
Talbot, founder and editor of San Francisco-based Salon, puts the discussion into historical context: “That split between East Coast and West Coast media values has always been there. When the Internet came on the scene, it was the first time that the hegemony of the East Coast media establishment was faced with a serious challenge.
“The great dream of the Internet pioneers was that we didn’t believe we needed New York’s acceptance, that this was a democratic medium with global reach for the masses and a media form liberated from the East Coast elites. And it was that way for a time, led by CNET, Salon, Slate and a lot of other sites that have come and gone.
“In the end, we underestimated the ability of the mainstream media power centers to absorb whatever was challenging them. And the revolutionary stage rapidly ended and independent companies either disappeared or were absorbed by the media Borg. The situation has now reached the point where the only real innovative life forms out there are the blogs, which are living the early promise that anyone with a voice and modem can reach many, many people through the Net. The Eastern establishment media don’t look upon Weblogs as a fundamental challenge. What could have been a challenge is if there were a dozen Salons.”
Why not a dozen Salons?
“Partly it’s because professional journalists, like most people, don’t want to take risks and jump ship if they’ve got a good job. But you know, it’s still curious to me that there was nothing like Salon on the East Coast. There was Feed, but no one said, ‘Let’s set up a maverick newsroom in New York and cover events from a different perspective.’ And to me, that suggests New York is not the laboratory for new ideas anymore. It’s the mecca for financing. But editorially New York has been static or worse for years now. I can’t think of one publication that’s come out of New York and had a cultural impact in years, not since Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair in the ’80s.”
Talbot suggests — correctly, in my view — that it’s unhealthy for the public to get a strict diet of news from multinational media companies. “It’s an increasingly dire situation,” he says. “You potentially get to the point where three or four corporations dictate social policy and determine news coverage for the rest of us. Then you don’t have media pluralism.”
West Coast media — both print and online — serve as a countervailing force against the world view of Eastern media.
“I think Slate is a terrific publication in many ways, but I would ascribe their attitude as wry, bemused and detached, whereas Salon crusades and wears its passion on its sleeve.”
– David Talbot
“I think the West Coast realizes, ‘Hey, it’s not all just about Wall Street and Capitol Hill,’ ” Talbot says. “There are subjects of enormous interest that we should be having freewheeling discussions about. Cultural issues, subjects related to sexuality. When it comes to sex, East Coast media have a tittering, snickering attitude, while on the West Coast you see a more liberated, grownup, almost European sensibility.”
On issues of war, politics and social issues, West Coast media have for years played contrarian to the herd mentality of the Washington press corps and New York media.
“The strength of the West Coast is the media here doesn’t automatically go along with the East Coast media’s agenda and the way it covers major events,” Talbot says.
“I think that’s part of the West Coast journalism tradition, going back to the writing of Mark Twain in San Francisco during the gold rush, or the newspapering of William Randolph Hearst exemplified in ‘Citizen Kane,’ or the journalism in Ramparts under Warren Hinckle, or the investigative reporting and political journalism in Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, especially in the early days. They all had that West Coast sensibility of being risk-taking and crusading and passionate.”
Salon falls squarely into that tradition, Talbot says. “History will show that it was our reporting of the Clinton investigation that stands that test of time, not that of Michael Isikoff (of Newsweek), Jeff Gerth (of the New York Times) or Susan Schmidt (of the Washington Post). The Eastern media bought the smoke and sanctioned the bankrupt, politically motivated investigation of Clinton and gave it credence and respect.
“After Sept. 11, there was another rush to conformity, with Fox News slanting coverage to the right and pulling CNN with them. And now we have a situation where it’s not just bin Laden, it’s the Bush administration’s relationship to the rest of the world that has become part of the problem. But the New York media are too reluctant to be critical because they don’t want to be seen as being unpatriotic.”
Salon’s aggressive, hard-hitting approach is where it parts ways with the more aloof Slate. “I don’t see Slate as having a West Coast sensibility,” Talbot says. “I think Slate is a terrific publication in many ways, but I would ascribe their attitude as wry, bemused and detached, whereas Salon crusades and wears its passion on its sleeve. Slate is a weird outpost of the East because of Michael Kinsley. He brought with him the sensibility of the East Coast corridor and the Harvard set.”
Kinsley responds by e-mail this way: “Thanks for asking, but life is too short to answer every pissy remark from what’s-his-name. On the larger question, I doubt there is a ‘West Coast’ sensibility uniting Redmond, Berkeley, San Diego, Anchorage, etc.”
But perhaps more telling was Slate’s announcement Monday of a new editor, Jacob Weisberg, and his plans to move Slate’s headquarters from Redmond to New York. “I think it’s advantageous at this point for the editor of the magazine to be on the East Coast,” Weisberg told the Seattle Times. “I think it puts you in greater touch with the political, business and media capitals of the country.”
Talbot does see “a corporate fraternity” among a cluster of Western online media, bound together in the early days by the sense that they were making history, but says the editorial missions of sites like Yahoo, CNET, Wired News and Salon are too varied to comprise a true school of West Coast journalism.
“West Coast media in the Internet era will be remembered for three key creations: Wired, Salon and Suck. Not financially, necessarily, but for having a cultural impact and coming up with an original voice . Wired for Louis Rossetto’s joyous, insanely messianic view of the Internet revolution. Salon for its groundbreaking journalism. And Suck for its total fuck-you irreverence that was way outside the boundaries of acceptable media.”
Like Battelle, Talbot thinks the Net will lead to a more diverse media landscape.
“It still has a much lower bar of entry than any other form of media,” Talbot says. “After the recession ends and companies like Salon and iVillage start to become profitable, I think you’ll see more venture capital money for entrepreneurs on the Net. If you have a vision, then you’ll have a shot. Longer term you’ll see more new faces on the Internet block.”
As for Salon, despite years of predictions that the company would crash and burn, it’s still clipping along nicely, with 3.6 million monthly visitors and 36,000 paying subscribers to its premium service, which launched a year ago. It has reduced its operating budget from $35 million to under $8 million a year by trimming expenses and staff (it now has 27 editorial employees). And Talbot’s latest forecast is for profitability by the fall quarter this year.
Looking ahead, Talbot says, “My dream for Salon is to make it a bigger player. I would love Salon to be part of a media operation that rivals Fox News. I think there has to be a radio and cable operation that’s a smart, liberal alternative to Fox. It sounds insane to talk about, and we’re not going to pursue anything until we get Salon itself profitable, but by next year, there’ll be an opportunity again to grow.”
It’s fashionable to pile on Salon these days because of its flagging stock price (just 12 cents a share) and the new convention wisdom that (a) content sites can’t make it unless they’re attached to a giant corporate parent, or (b) Weblogs deliver just as much vital information and incisive journalism as a Salon or Slate.
Last August Ken Layne wrote a predictable hit piece on Salon in this publication. In December Dotcom Scoop ran a screed titled, Why Salon deserves to die, and why it will. Others, like business author Alexis Gutzman, argue that there’s no discernable difference between Salon and Slate.
Nonsense. Salon brings a distinctive West Coast approach to its coverage of politics, culture and social issues: critical, skeptical, unwilling to buy into the conventional story line set down by the Eastern media pack. The only disappointment is how few news publications do the same.
Quittner: The West looks to the future, New York reveres the past
Josh Quittner is in a position to know new and old media in both the East and West. Last week he left his job as managing editor of Time.com in New York to take the helm of Business 2.0 magazine in San Francisco.
Quittner doesn’t buy into the notion that the Wired West ever trumped the East. “The Bay Area had some interesting alternatives, but I think it would be preposterous to suggest that the Bay Area was the center of new media,” he says. “For a brief, shining moment, there were some new startups here, and Wired helped pioneer the way, but what you saw in New York and elsewhere was a huge amount of money spent by media companies to spawn their own successful online corollaries.”
Still, Quittner acknowledges, the two coasts have very different sensibilities. “What you have here in this area,” he says from his new digs in San Francisco, “is a critical mass of people who believe the future is much more interesting than the past. You don’t see that so much in New York, where there’s a great deal of reverence for the past.
“The reason Business 2.0 is based here is that there continues to be a West Coast perspective on technology and the future. Even after the meltdown, technology is the conversation here. It’s a wonderful, liberating perspective that you couldn’t get in New York. We don’t want to cover the business world through Wall Street, we want to cover it through a telescope based in Silicon Valley.”
Quittner, who was editor of Time Inc.’s late, hip Netly News and is the author of both nonfiction books and cyber-thrillers, suggests that to succeed in online media today, you have to be very big or very small.
“Clearly, the going enterprises in the online journalism world right now are affiliated with big old media,” he says. “At the grassroots level, we’re starting to see some tantalizing examples of blogs where people can voluntarily pay to help support the site.
“The holdup so far has been the lack of a good micropayment scheme. Right now, there’s no way for you to pay me a nickel for my thoughts online. But the day will arrive when I can support myself by persuading thousands or millions of people to pony up a few pennies. Once that happens, we’re off to the races. Luckily, a lot of people will continue to publish whether they’re remunerated or not.”
As for content sites not affiliated with a media giant, “that’s a much tougher animal,” he says. “I have not given up on the Salons and Slates of the world. They still publish stories that are critical to read on a daily basis. And they’re able to reach far more people at far less expense than a print publication launched along the same lines.”
Quittner thinks the idea of an Eastern media establishment is overstated. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, because so many more journalists are centered in D.C. and New York.
“The trap you fall into in New York is writing for your friends, editors or peers rather than your readers,” he says. “The other trap is buying into the conventional wisdom. As soon as they decided the Internet was the wave of the future, newspapers and magazines started to thrust every startup into the limelight and overreport and exaggerate, without a hint of skepticism. And now we’re racing in the other direction, where new media is doomed.
“Here’s what we’ve learned: Don’t ever believe the hype. It was never going to explode as fast and seismically as the media would have you believe. And now things are not as hopeless, dire and frivolous as the pundits say.
“A lot of exciting things are on the horizon: micropayments, and high-resolution reading tablets, and mobile networking to keep you always connected,” Quittner says. “Media habits will absolutely change. It just won’t happen overnight.”