Salon’s Mission: Speaking Up for the “Little Guy”  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2011

Salon’s Mission: Speaking Up for the “Little Guy”   

The pioneering Web site revives its Washington presence with an emphasis on covering “the great recession.” Wed., October 5, 2011

By Stephanie Weaver
Stephanie Weaver (sweaver@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


There's hardly a shortage of news organizations covering Washington, D.C., particularly the latest ups and downs on the political scene. Is Rick Perry tanking? Can Barack Obama relocate his mojo? What's up with the Herman Cain surge? And whatever happened to Michele Bachmann?

Returning to this crowded arena is the pioneering Web magazine Salon, which last had a D.C. presence during the George W. Bush years, with a new Washington editor and a populist emphasis that it hopes will enable it to stand out from the pack.

Aspiring to appeal to the average American struggling to survive in a brutal economy, Salon is launching "American Spring," coverage focused not on inside baseball but on important issues that, in Salon's opinion, other media outlets ignore.

"We are determined to cover the real America, not the America other media cover," says Salon founder David Talbot, who returned as its CEO in July after a six-year absence. "We aren't only covering Washington, but also the grassroots level of the country. Salon is going deeper into the issues."

Salon has had its ups and downs since its 1995 launch, surviving a number of near-death experiences. Dogged by financial challenges, it was on the market as recently as earlier this year. But now Talbot seems determined to have Salon play an enhanced and distinctive role in the nation's political coverage.

And going against the grain is nothing new for the liberal-tilting Salon, which took a decidedly skeptical approach to the prevailing narrative about the Clinton-era scandals and "scandals."

Salon's new man in Washington is Jefferson Morley, a Washington Post veteran, who started as Washington editor in late August. Morley says that Talbot "wants more of a presence in the capital" and more ambitious coverage, adding that it was the founder's idea to launch "American Spring."

The campaign, which launches later this fall, "is Salon's effort to start a national conversation about the future of the country, which we feel the presidential race is not adequately addressing," Talbot says.

In a follow-up e-mail interview, he wrote: "We want to focus on the major issues--the lack of jobs and rising feelings of hopelessness, particularly among young people trying to enter the job market; the increasingly dire climate change crisis; the widening gap between the super rich and the rest of us; the domination of our democratic system by powerful elites; America's endless cycle of wars and the militarization of our economy; the failed drug war and the lost generation of underclass minority youth who are swelling our prison population, etc. Instead, we have irrelevant presidential debates about the HPV vaccine and gay marriage."

Talbot and Morley collaborated on shaping the new focus. The longtime friends agreed to emphasize the economy, unemployment and present-day American life, all of which they believe get too little attention elsewhere in the media.

"American Spring will kick off with a series of public events--featuring Salon editors and writers, political speakers, and entertainers--in various cities around the country. Some of these events will be held in large halls--others in barbershops, hair salons and other everyday places where Americans gather," Talbot wrote in the e-mail. "These American Spring conversations will be streamed live for Salon viewers. The end goal will be to nominate 'favorite sons and daughters' at a virtual convention next summer--the future leaders of America whom we believe can truly lead us forward."

For now, Morley is Salon's only D.C. staffer. He says he hopes to hire another reporter, but this will depend on the site's finances. In the meantime, Salon is relying on freelancers and other outside writers for Washington material.

Morley says Salon is determined to "speak up for the little guy" during a time of "political confusion." He says he wants to show readers the "bigger picture, with passion and perspective. The challenge for us is we have that value-added perspective on news that others don't have."

But will that be enough to enable Salon to stand out among its competitors? Talbot says Salon's sense of community will draw readers to the site. With a redesign to be completed in December, Salon will "look and feel different," according to Talbot. "I think it's going to be great."

Morley is just as dedicated to the campaign, returning to journalism with a mission in mind. "We must recommit ourselves to aggressive journalism that defends people," he says.

Morley is a veteran of the Washington journalism scene. The 53-year-old has been in D.C. since the 1980s, spending 15 years at the Washington Post as an editor of its Sunday Outlook section, a writer for its Sunday magazine and a writer and editor at washingtonpost.com.

After his Post days, he served as the editorial director of the nonprofit Center for Independent Media before leaving journalism to write books in 2009. His most recent book, "Snow-Storm in August: Race and Unrest in Washington City: 1835," will be published in July 2012.

Now he has returned to the daily news grind. "The news cycle is even faster than when I left," he says.

Morley's ultimate goal is to have Salon be the place to go for news about "the great recession." "There's a lot of good Web sites out there. I'm very aware of competition," he says, adding, "We can't compete with bigger news organizations."

As Morley sees it, many online outlets publications publish commentary on articles that appear elsewhere, but he is insistent on having original content with a historical perspective, something he feels is too often overlooked in the fast-paced digital era.

Reporting in Washington runs in Morley's blood. His grandfather, Felix Morley, was editor of the Washington Post in the 1930s, leading the paper to its first Pulitzer Prize. In the spirit of his grandfather's legacy, Morley wants to "reemphasize accountability in journalism."

"This opportunity with Salon is interesting to me," he says. "I'm looking forward to it."

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