Can Salon Make It?

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Author: Paul Farhi
Date: Mar. 2001
From: American Journalism Review(Vol. 23, Issue 2)
Publisher: University of Maryland
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,258 words

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With rapid-response news instincts, provocative (if predictably liberal) political commentary and lots of sex, Salon.com is the Web's preeminent independent venue for journalism. But is there a business model to keep it alive?

David Talbot, Salon.com's founding editor and chairman, turns to the computer in his San Francisco office to answer his own rhetorical questions. "Where are the independent news voices on the Internet?" he asks. "Where's the great, flourishing media democracy?" He clicks on his list of bookmarked sites, turning up, among others, CNN.com, Matt Drudge, Slate, NPR.org. "Most of these are extensions of bigger media organizations," he says somewhat dismissively, adding, "There's got to be room for a few independent voices."

Five years after he and a group of fellow refugees from the San Francisco Examiner started Salon.com, the colorful and, yes, independent online newsmagazine, Talbot knows he still needs to make the case for his brainchild's continued existence. Certainly, Salon has gotten the journalism part right, with its cheeky attitude and a clutch of buzz-generating stories. But what about becoming a viable business? That's less clear.

The week before Christmas, Salon dismissed 25 employees, or 20 percent of its workforce. While the news staff was largely spared in that cutback, the budget knife has been nicking Salon's editorial resources for months. The site's daily news budget has been pared from between 25 and 30 stories a day to about 20. An earlier round of layoffs forced Salon to shutter its health and travel sections. This year, the budget for freelance articles will be half of last year's. Sales offices in Seattle, Atlanta and Chicago have been closed. Plans for a European expansion have been put on indefinite hold.

Up in Salon's 16th-floor, view-of-the-waterfront offices, the belt-tightening has taken its toll. "We went right from doing all this great Florida election coverage," says Joan Walsh, Salon's news editor. "We were getting record traffic! And then we find out we need to trim our staff. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't briefly demoralizing." Virtually every senior editor offers some variation on Managing Editor Scott Rosenberg's sentiment: "There's never been a moment in the past five years when you could say, 'Gee, this is getting easy'"

Salon's odyssey--from struggling newborn to struggling 5-year-old--raises a fundamental question: Can the Internet support a purely journalistic enterprise? So far, the answer appears to be no, or at least, not yet. Like Salon, almost every news or "content" site remains in the red (Salon lost $8 million in the first half of its current fiscal year, on just under $4 million in revenue. For most, there's no urgency; big media companies seem unlikely to abandon their dotcom operations anytime soon. But as Talbot points out, Salon isn't CNN or even Slate, which can fall back on the vast resources of its parent, Microsoft. Salon is a small company owned by its employees and public shareholders--an independent. For Salon and a handful of other Web standalones, it's sink or swim now.

The bad...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A71962143