Can Salon make it?
April 8, 2001 8:23 PM   Subscribe

Can Salon make it? A great article, if you're interested in Salon, content on the web, and/or online journalism in general. A few things I learned: Salon's peak readership is 3 million unique visitors a month; Salon's office got bomb threats after they broke the Hyde affair story; and Salon's founding editor made $175,000 last year, plus a $50,000 bonus.
posted by acridrabbit (22 comments total)
The article quotes Talbot as saying, there is no partly line at Salon. Which of course must account for this line from Talbot's sales letter to readers re the Salon Premium service: "We would like to think that Salon has also become an essential daily destination . . . Over the past several years we have brought readers unique coverage of the country's most urgent political dramas, from the Clinton impeachment to the drug war to the deeply disturbing coda of the 2000 presidential race. While the national press corps has been happily collecting nicknames from President Bush . . . "

But Salon tries when not asking for funds to act impartial, perhaps too hard. Salon wrote some of the nastiest articles re Gore that I saw last year, also some of the most depressingly cynical coverage of the campaign. Salon's Jake Tapper spends much of his time in his recent 2000 recount coverage telling Gore voters that they can't complain about the results of the election, because Gore didn't really want all the votes counted either. As if Gore's statements were all that mattered and not something larger like, say, the meaning of American democracy.

Look, the Nation and the National Review aren't all party line all the time either, but why does Salon try so hard to act like it's not partisan? It's such a charade. What's wrong with partisanship? It is wrong to never hear the other side, but one can easily find second or third opinion elsewhere.

Also, sex articles may get lots of hits, but that doesn't mean the people who read them respect you in the morning.
posted by raysmj at 9:00 PM on April 8, 2001

More to the point: Would any of you here subscribe? Is $50 a year too much? If so, then what would you be willing to pay for access to Salon? I work for an online only journalism site called who is also pondering the advantages of the subscription model.

When it comes to numbers, we just don't know what people will do. Aside from the Wall Street Journal are there any really successful models that you've seen or show promise?
posted by stevis at 9:19 PM on April 8, 2001

I really doubt it's the coverage or anything else, it, like a lot of the other online companies have the essential problem of people not wanting to pay for anything. I don't know how it should be solved, but I really can't imagine adding more political coverage or sex articles will get them where they want to be financially.

The only option I see is sell out, to someone bigger and go to print as well?
posted by tiaka at 9:43 PM on April 8, 2001

More to the point of what I was trying to say earlier, and which fits in with tiaka's point too, or so I think: When you buy a magazine, you're buying not into just "great journalism," but a whole concept, a certain way of looking at the world maybe, something akin to a club you never meet with but hear reports from all the same. And I wouldn't buy membership in a club that continually slapped me around for believing what I thought they believed in too -- leaving me feeling betrayed and ripped off.

But of course part of the subscription-as-membership deal might just be that you can show your friends that you're a part of said club, by putting the product of this club on your coffee table.
posted by raysmj at 9:55 PM on April 8, 2001

Would any of you here subscribe?

No. I think that Salon's problem is that it's disposible journalism: how many people return to the majority of Salon articles a week or two after they appear?

Being web-only means that you have to chase the issues, and try to keep content flowing: trouble is, that usually means you don't get the "chewiness": the research and the effort that you'll see in many print publications. (The Hyde story, so often cited, now stands out as one of the few exceptions to this rule.)

So Salon isn't going to compete with, say, The Atlantic or Harper's, to which I do subscribe, and which I'm happy to store away in boxes, knowing that I'll dig them out and re-read the bits that didn't immediately catch my attention.

In short, it's the (or, if you like, the Metafilter) which pays its contributors. And if there's no business model to sustain the community-led sites, I'm bloody sure there isn't one for a site that pays its writers.
posted by holgate at 10:10 PM on April 8, 2001

A case in point.
posted by holgate at 10:29 PM on April 8, 2001

Harper's has a very defined identity, its chewiness aside. It appeals to certain types of people, those who probably define themselves as a bit out of the mainstream but not out of the loop, a bit left leaning in most cases, but open-minded in all. The Atlantic is what is is, it's been around for eons, it's ideologically middle-of-the-road, slightly upmarket, public intellectualism. You know what you're getting, what the club's about.

Harper's, which is doing fine these days, is nevertheless now owned by a foundation in order to maintain its independence. Its Web site is a dot-org. The Nation, the National Review and other purely partisan publications have only be intermittently profitable. The Weekly Standard (which puts almost no content online) may or may not be profitable, but it's supported by Murdoch. Consequently, the Standard refuses to criticize his son over his recent, gag-me China's-people-should-accept-autocratic-rule, etc. speech to the Milken Foundation, but that's another story.
posted by raysmj at 10:47 PM on April 8, 2001

How will Salon's future have an impact on the Well? Are there any members who are talking about it? I don't have access but I would like to think that members are making plans to keep their community. I have recently thought about signing up but I don't want to do so if it's going to disappear anytime soon.
posted by Brilliantcrank at 11:01 PM on April 8, 2001

To my mind, a service works and gains an audience based on a certain set of establishing criteria ((I will look at ads; I will succumb to stupid editor's footnotes; I will put up with dumb cartoons, I will pay [zero/1/2/4/5/10/15] bucks an issue; I will tolerate 10 subscription cards falling out; I will look at a stupid interstitial; I will put up with your popup ads; etc)), and anytime you futz with the criteria you take a risk. I would say moving from free, to pay, would be a magnitude of risk I would not want to take. Were I in a decision-making role, I'd be looking very carefully on costs, and more creative revenue streams.

In my experience *specifically on the web*, web services that go from free to pay with no choice inbeteen are doomed. The smart ones figure a way to have at least two levels of service, one free, but useful, but also slightly crippled, and one for pay with the super sexy and useful add ons.

If I knew what the answer would be for salon I'd get my butt up there and pitch it. They have what a programmer would call a nontrivial problem.
posted by artlung at 11:05 PM on April 8, 2001

stevis, you have to think through the purpose of the site, and specifically, what one tangible feature do you offer that others don't offer? What kind of a benefit does a subscriber get? If you can't get more spectific than "local news in one location," then you need to think about a better angle. Wall Street Journal gets the subscriptions because it't THE financial news source in the US (with Financial Times way behind). That is, all of Wall Street reads it and that's why people read it. The stories in that paper move stocks for godness sakes.

As for, in my opinion you would have better chances of selling subscriptions if you focused on one major city and offered very specific, independed, news breaking site--unless of course you have the resources to do this for all locations.
posted by Witold at 11:10 PM on April 8, 2001

The Wall Street Journal is more than just business -- in fact, it's front page will often be only maybe one-third business. No, subscribers won't mention those articles in saying why they do subscribe. But the Journal is what is is because it's respected and remarkably well-written, and the non-business-specific articles play a huge role here. It has a well-defined image that goes beyond being a good biz publication.
posted by raysmj at 11:24 PM on April 8, 2001

raysmj, I meant in no way to include all the virtues of WSJ. I just put down one that is probably the biggest. For one of my classes, I did some research on Dow Jones & Co with a focus on the WSJ, and business news was what topped the list of why people subscribe. In this area, WSJ has hardly any competion (though Financial Times is trying... without much success if you look at subscription numbers). So whereas individuals can always turn to NYT or somewhere else for quality general news, they can't really do that with business news.
posted by Witold at 12:15 AM on April 9, 2001

Aside from the Wall Street Journal are there any really successful models that you've seen or show promise?

Porn, porn and porn.

Look, the Nation and the National Review aren't all party line all the time either, but why does Salon try so hard to act like it's not partisan? It's such a charade. What's wrong with partisanship?

It doesn't sell, especially liberal partisanship. Which is not to say that conservative sites such as National Review are exactly rolling in dough; NR has even started begging for PayPal donations on its front page. But they're doing better than most liberal sites. Whether you agree or disagree that the media is liberal, most conservatives believe it is, and that's why they actively flock to conservative-oriented sites. Most center-left types are already relatively satisfied with the media in general, so they aren't as likely to seek out partisan liberal sites. And to truly left-wing hardcore liberals, sites like Salon are themselves too conservative. Add to that the fact that the majority of consumers hate politics altogether, it's tough for Salon to get readers.

I think the only thing this sudden new wave of attempts to charge for online content only shows how quickly people forget the lessons of the past. It was only a couple of years ago that it was quite strongly proven that the subscription model does not work. Every site that tried it ended up either abandoning it or going out of business altogether. And now sites are trying it again, sometimes even the same sites that were burned before (such as Salon itself). Why would it suddenly work now?

As to why it doesn't work, two reasons IMHO. First, it's because consumers find web content to be ephemeral. When you subscribe to a magazine, you get physical copies, which are yours to keep for as long as you wish. When you subscribe online, you only get to access the material for as long as your subscription remains current. After that, it may as well have never even existed. And even while you do have the subscription, you can only read it in one place, on your monitor. (Sure, you could print out what you want, but that's your ink, your paper, your dime.) You can take your magazine anywhere. It just doesn't seem like you're getting as much for your money. Second: Every web site is essentially competing with every other web site for your time and attention. When you buy a magazine, or watch TV, you have limited options, maybe a few dozen magzines on the rack to choose from or a few dozen TV channels. Either way, there's enough audience to go around. But there are millions of web sites out there, and a given user is only going to spend so much time online before logging off. That makes it extremely tough to get enough eyeballs to be profitable.

As for the WSJ, it contains not just interesting material, but rather necessary material for many. And it's usually paid for by a person's employer.
posted by aaron at 12:28 AM on April 9, 2001

Witold: This is my beef (not with you) with surveys in general. Surveys, no matter how "scientific" can't measure things like the effect general reputation on readers, which I think the non-business stories and features of the WSJ - for which they've won more than a couple of Pulitzers, after all -- play a role. Otherwise, there is quite a bit of competition on the Web. I hate It's a one-note thing, all biz all the time, like so many other financial sites. The writing was far too often bad too, and I hated those third-grade-level cut-out heads they had for so long.

So many say porn and financial info are the only profitable web things. So, compare the two. You can imagine Playboy without the articles at about 40,000,000 web sites. And the image is pretty bad. Or maybe that's not the best comparison, but you get the general idea. You have that one cash cow, but the cow on its own is -- oh, nevermind.
posted by raysmj at 12:32 AM on April 9, 2001

Aaron: I'd found myself coming back to the same opinion re partisanship and profitability as you. But the National Review site has what Salon, apparently seen by the NR as its mirror image or main ideological competition, does not: an image or reputation it constantly upholds. Salon works to undermine it, constantly. It's not that it's too conservative or whatnot. It's that it comes on as super-partisan in general, then runs these contrarian articles in a way that scream, "We're trying to show that we're independent and objective" here. Which only comes off to me as schizo, and insulting.
posted by raysmj at 12:44 AM on April 9, 2001

I find it bizarre that people are lasering in on salon's political coverage. I like the culture stuff, and I suspect many other people read it with general interest. It's also where I get my dose of Tom Tomorrow and Camille Paglia. I don't see salon as idealogically based in the same way National Review and The Nation are. I find the claims about its base of readers based on that premise to be flawed. I'd say Salon is skewing toward a new kind of Time or Newsweek. They cover a little bit of everything.

Inflammatory aside: Someone please retire "IMHO" as a net acronym. Those who use it never have a humble opinion to share. I include myself -- when the complete dejanews archive is available my own IMHO's will be there for all to see.
posted by artlung at 1:32 AM on April 9, 2001

Which only comes off to me as schizo, and insulting.

And yet predictable. I could probably ghost-write the next year's columns from Horowitz, Paglia and Garrison fucking Keiller with "insert topical theme / inflammatory argument / pathetic middle-aged relationship here". But it's not so much an agenda as being Nearly Bankrupt.

Oh, that reminds me: the Economist works on a subscription model, and has done so for... oh, perhaps four years now? Print subscribers also get access to the archives, and the longer articles are "premium content". You also get the Intelligence Unit's reports. Again, undoubtedly a job-based thing, and tax-deductible. But a success.
posted by holgate at 4:04 AM on April 9, 2001

dude from Salon asks:

> "Where's the great, flourishing media democracy?" He
> clicks on his list of bookmarked sites, turning up, among
> others,, Matt Drudge, Slate, "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."

Has he looked at Usenet? Has he checked out any of a trillion or so blogs? All the sites he mentions are predigested sites. That's not what I come to the net for. If I want edited material I prefer print-on-paper that I can save as a permanent archive: Science, Nature, Uncle Scrooge, stuff like that. Online, I want non-predigested material from honest-to-Ghod individuals like you (and you, and you, and /usr/bin/girl.) Certainly I pay for this but not in money. I give what you all want, namely attention and response.

I'll pay for access to the whole show, namely a monthly ISP fee. But once I'm on I expect everything else to be free. It's exactly like going to Six Flags - after I've paid the entry fee I won't pay any further fees for individual rides. If I do encounter a ride with a sign saying "This ride requires an additional ticket, five bucks please," I would treat it exactly as if the sign said "sorry, this ride is broken."
posted by jfuller at 6:55 AM on April 9, 2001

From SALN's most recent 8-K: Salon Media Group, expects revenues to grow from an estimated $7.5 million in FY 2001 (April '00 - March `01) to $26.4 million in FY 2003 and $99.7 million in FY 2005... can anyone read those projected numbers with a straight face? Salon will seek to convert 1% to 2% of its estimated 2.7 million monthly readers to a premium subscription program, charging $30 per year and generating an estimated $800,000 to $1.6 million in new revenues. 50,000 subscribers to start and then having to grow significantly from that already enormous number to reach breakeven? Absurd! In the mood for some great comic reading? Don't read Salon, read their SEC filings.
posted by Chairman_MaoXian at 6:59 AM on April 9, 2001

The smart ones figure a way to have at least two levels of service, one free, but useful, but also slightly crippled, and one for pay with the super sexy and useful add ons.

Which is actually what Salon is doing - they're not going to be subscription-only, they're adding "Salon Premium" which, for $30 a year, will let you view Salon without all the ever-more obnoxious adverts. It also seems possible that the popular Table Talk discussion forums may become part of the Premium service.
posted by dnash at 7:29 AM on April 9, 2001

Everyone seems to be accepting as gospel that the WSJ has succeeded were others have failed. Not so. Their web arm doesn't turn a profit, either. In fact, they just axed a bunch of their web people.
posted by NortonDC at 10:39 AM on April 9, 2001

it, like a lot of the other online companies have the essential problem of people not wanting to pay for anything. I don't know how it should be solved, but I really can't imagine adding more political coverage or sex articles will get them where they want to be financially.

In fact, probably the opposite. My economics professors told me that as the supply of a particular product goes up, the price consumers are willing to pay for the product goes down and as the price consumers are willing to pay goes down, the amount of product sellers will produce goes down. The problem isn't necessarily that people don't want to pay for anything, but there is such a glut of free content on the web, why would you pay for anything? Either the supply of content has to drop off considerably or Salon is going to have to offer something that consumers find spectacularly valuable. As has been mentioned, with print magazines, you get a paper copy that's portable, permanent, and easy-to-read. That's paper mags' value. What has Salon got?
posted by daveadams at 11:37 AM on April 9, 2001

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