From AJR, June 1998 issue
Breakthrough On The Web
Salon's savvy blend of old and new media strengths has made it an online journalism pacesetter.
By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.
What accounts for such success? A savvy blend of the best of old and new media. On the new media side, Salon offers immediacy in covering topical events, and it delivers on interactivity through its popular talk 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."
S ALON (www.salonmagazine. com) serves up a daily stew of news and features about current events, politics, travel, the media, technology, money, books, music, television, health, education, digital culture and motherhood. And while that may resemble the content found in the major dailies, the difference is in Salon's unblinking embrace of irreverent, in-your-face commentary.
The columnists most favored by Salon's readers? A firebrand and two taboo artists: Camille Paglia, the author, academic and bomb-thrower whose unorthodox missives seem born for the Web; sex author Susie Bright; and relationships columnist Courtney Weaver.
A number of well-known writers have helped Salon gain a foothold in cyberspace: James Carville and Anne Lamott (now on leave to write a book) wrote well-received columns, John le Carr* 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 includes conservative political author David Horowitz, liberal writers Sallie Tisdale and Christopher Hitchens, 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, 52, a hard news type who served as foreign/national editor and assistant metro editor of the San Francisco Examiner. ``There used to be a lot more voices 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."
Of the 27 editorial employees who staff Salon's offices in downtown San Francisco, all but one have a background in print. 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.
For 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 throughout the day."
If the online world seems biased in favor of speed, it's because immediacy is 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."
A solidly built man of 46, Talbot finishes editing a story at his desk, his smooth, almost boyish face locked on the screen. Then he turns from the computer 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 for 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 techno-babble.
Talbot has become not only an evangelist for new media but one of the most celebrated luminaries on the Net. Yet he refuses to indulge some of the Internet's quirkier rules of the road.
Multimedia? You won't find it on Salon, except an occasional sound clip on a music review. At the outset, Talbot's one directive to his design director was: Keep it simple. 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? Articles and columns generally run shorter than in print. But Salon occasionally runs interviews, as with authors P.D. James and Martin Amis, that run thousands of words. An in-depth article on the roots of the Whitewater investigation stretched to nearly 5,000 words. Salon also snapped up a 6,000-word nonfiction piece by novelist Denis Johnson about born-again bikers in Texas that was rejected by The New Yorker because it was too long. Technology coverage? Yes, but not cheerleading. Unlike the crop of Web zines that claim that the Net represents a utopian leap for humanity, Salon believes the medium is not the message. Says Talbot: ``We think of digital technology as an exciting means to an end, but not the end itself."
Adds Kamiya, the former book editor at the Examiner and senior editor at the paper's Sunday magazine: ``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."
S ALON'S GENESIS CAN BE TRACED to the Newspaper Guild strike in November 1994 at the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. Guild members hit on the idea of using the Web to publish a strike paper. Scott Rosenberg, the Examiner's new-media writer, learned the basics of HTML virtually overnight and, with the help of three union colleagues, launched the San Francisco Free Press, a joint effort by reporters and editors for the two competing papers. The strike lasted just 14 days, but some staff members saw something in their grassroots cyber-effort that was missing from their demoralizing routine in the newsroom.
For Talbot, who had clashed with upper management about the direction of the paper's arts and features coverage, the strike prompted 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 coworkers 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 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."
With $60,000 in seed money from Apple, Talbot, Ross and award-winning art director Mignon Khargie resigned from the Examiner. A few weeks later, Kamiya, Rosenberg, TV critic Joyce Millman and contributor Laura Miller (now Salon's book editor) quit the Examiner and joined them. After Salon's first issue, the software firm Adobe Systems and venture capitalists Hambrecht & Quist put in the first of three rounds of funding, giving the electronic zine firmer financial footing.
From the start, Salon did many things right. Khargie settled on a clean, elegant design. 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 writing and fresh takes on issues that captured people's attention.
``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 dingy, cramped space in San Francisco's marginal China Basin area. Kamiya recalls the staff groaning at the ``killer pace" of publishing an issue every two weeks. Within five months, Salon went weekly, and in February 1997 it began publishing every weekday. Immediately, traffic shot up 40 percent.
Kamiya, 44, says Salon tapped into the public's appetite for daily news and current events. ``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."
GO TO PART TWO
Salon, which has relied on three rounds of private funding since its debut, forecasts a profit by early next year.