SALON'S FUTURE: IFFY, YET PROMISING
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Salon.com is simultaneously a remarkable invention, an intellectual achievement and, more recently, something of a disappointment. As a harbinger of our political and social future it is an imperfect model, but a model to be studied nevertheless.
For those who don't know it, Salon is a Web site which has become something of an oasis for us rational centrists who enjoy intellectual combat but distain the paranoid fantasies of either the far left or the far right. I don't remember when I first chanced upon Salon but it was well before the dot com collapse. At the time, Andrew Leonard was writing fascinating articles about Internet culture and business, Camille Paglia was writing diatribes on the vapidity of postmodernist theory, and Bill Clinton was in the Whitehouse.
Salon was founded in late 1995 (www.salon.com/press/fact/index.html) and has earned the Website of the Year award from Time magazine. It has received the Webby award as Best Online Magazine several times.
This level of acclaim is in sharp contrast to its dire financial situation; details can be found at the Salon site (www.salon.com/press/releases/2002/11/20/otc/index.html). Salon continues to lose money, although in fairness it should be pointed out that it lost 30 percent less in 2003 than it did in 2002.
Clearly, the ability to survive financially and keep one's doors open is the first priority for a cultural and political business, just as it is for any other kind of business. Prior to the dot-com collapse, Salon was apparently counting on building its advertising revenues in order to become profitable. When this was not successful (particularly since 2001), Salon opted to raise money by making itself into what is largely a subscription service. Subscribers (of which I am one) can view Salon for as little as $35 per year and can view that content advertisement-free.
Some of Salon remains open to the Internet public, but a large proportion is available only to subscribers.
Salon established itself in Nov., 1995, just seven months after The American Reporter inaugurated original online daily journalism, as an Internet magazine devoted to culture, including the arts and literature, as well as the affairs of the day - politics, society, scandal and more.
From the beginning, Salon was fun to read. Try this little excerpt from a Camille Paglia essay: "The 13 volumes of classicist Sir James George Frazer's "The Golden Bough" (published over two decades beginning in 1890) hit me like a thunderbolt. (The bland, widely available, one-volume condensation should be avoided like the plague.) Frazer's vision is nearly psychedelic; the whole history of humanity is dreamily woven into his sober prose. In his startling juxtapositions, we pass in the blink of an eye from primitive tribal rites to Egyptian cult to Greek myth to rural British folklore. The familiar becomes strange, and the grotesque becomes normal."
Or consider this more recent excerpt from an article about economics by Andrew Leonard: "Joe Stiglitz is the economist I want guarding my back if a bloody firefight is about to break out with free-market fundamentalists. When the Grover Norquists and Milton Friedmans and Dick Cheneys come charging over the hill, threatening to smart-bomb on sight anyone who even mentions the words "social justice" or "government regulation," I can count on Stiglitz to lay down a withering blast of covering rhetorical fire that Adam Smith himself would be hard put to counter."
Salon's original intent seems to have been to reproduce something of the ambiance and intellectual pleasure that one might have experienced in conversation with a collection of witty authors, just as one might have found at the Algonquin group in 1920s New York City. Salon was broad and eclectic, running columnists ranging from the right (David Horowitz) to the fairly far left (Christopher Hitchens) and covering the in-between with its own staff and with guest authors.
Founder and editor David Talbot explained why a liberal Internet magazine was willing to offer such a wide range of comment: "A note on Salon's columnists: These sharp-witted advocates have attracted many Premium subscribers. But we have also heard from readers who insist that the only thing preventing them from signing up is the presence of conservative pundits like David Horowitz (or Vincent) in our editorial mix. How can we showcase a writer with such ardent conservative ideas in what is, in most respects, an equally ardent liberal publication?
"Our answer is that Salon publishes a range of voices precisely because we are liberal. Liberalism is a social philosophy, not a theology, and at its heart is a tolerance and respect for dissenting opinions. Only the divine are infallible in their judgment. For the rest of us, it's healthy to be exposed to a range of views before coming to our own," Talbot wrote.
As the mid-1990s passed into the late 1990s, Salon began to evolve more rapidly towards the political animal it has become. Perhaps it was the realization that the right-wing media machine was daily growing stronger and bolder, or the incessant attacks on President Bill Clinton that culminated in his impeachment and acquittal; maybe it was all these things and more, but by the time the 2000 election was approaching, Salon grew staunchly partisan and increasingly outspoken in opposition to most things Republican. It has continued to represent the liberal viewpoint and to oppose most of what modern conservatism stands for.
In doing so, it has not simply adopted leftist positions of the past. One might say that it has begun the attempt to reshape and reform what passes for liberalism in America. It has done so by defiantly opposing what it sees as the crimes and errors of the Old Left.
Founder and editor David Talbot, writing on Jan. 3, 2002, declared, "From the Gulf War on, the hawks have been on the right side in all the major debates about U.S. intervention in the world's troubles." In this essay titled The Making of a Hawk, Talbot rejected the pacifism that still is held sacred by much of the Old Left. In other columns and interviews, one-time Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens repudiated the blame-America attitude of the Nation's readership and supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
In arriving at this post-Sept. 11 realism on foreign dangers, Salon has not simultaneously abandoned its social liberalism. The rights to gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, affordable health care, and so on are discussed and defended, even as the social and economic effects of the Bush tax cuts are decried.
There are two problems in all this, the first relatively minor, the second of utmost importance.
The minor issue is the danger of becoming overly predictable. Reading the party line rehashed becomes tedious. Reading the ongoing infighting among the Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination is becoming tedious because it has become predictable. I know that Kerry finds fault with Dean and that Dean doesn't like Bush. Tell me something I don't know.
The more serious issue is that Salon is no longer available to the casual Internet visitor. Sure, fifty thousand subscribers can get their daily fix, but the idea is to get the message out to as many voters as possible.
Some of Salon is available to the Internet public, but the most juicy political material will cost you. Salon has tried some gimmicks such as offering one day's access free (tied in with a corporate sponsorship) or reduced rates if you accept advertising, but either of the above requires a certain amount of jumping through hoops.
In this sense, Salon is suffering from the same problem that so many other dot coms (most of them long defunct) experience: Why should Internet users pay for information and opinion when it is so readily available for free? In a medium where almost any conceivable subject can be explored via Google and information can be retrieved from sources whose content is free, why pay?
There is no easy answer to this question. I suspect that most Salon subscribers are long time Salon readers who started in the free days and have decided that we wish to continue reading our favorite columns. My current favorite, by the way, happens to be Joe Conason's Journal.
Salon was founded in late 1995, a long time ago by Internet standards but only eight years in the real world. Whether or not Salon provides a model for what we will experience in the way of political and intellectual discourse even eight years in the future will remain to be seen, but I strongly suspect that Salon has provided the foundation for much of what we will be seeing in coming years.