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November 27, 2002

De-subscribed by Salon and Living With It

Posted by Mike on November 27, 2002 2:00 AM

Late last week Salon more or less quietly dropped off the NASDAQ as the company faces massive losses. One of the analysts from the company I work for shoveled a spade of dirt on them:

"It's sort of disheartening, but it should come as no surprise that online publishing, regardless of size and scale, cannot survive on advertising," Patrick Keane, an Internet industry analyst for Jupiter Research, told the Chronicle.

"Obviously, investors don't have patience for unprofitable companies anymore," Keane said. "This isn't 1999. It's pretty laughable that a company like this could go public."

Laughable? Sometimes my coworkers can be cruel: it's really just sort of sad. $79 million in losses have disappeared from the world to pay for Herman Miller chairs for the executive team and exorbitant salaries to "prove" the proposition that you can read features on the Web.

My month-long trial subscription to Salon Premium just ended. Well... it ended a week ago, but they let me have another seven days before lowering the boom and taking away my access to their online porn collection, a few features, and Andrew Sullivan's blog (the Salon version... you can get his ranting for free on his site, where his opinionating is pitched as a loss-leader to get him through the door of publications where he's considered a novelty act).

For my month-long sample, I got two stories I felt like passing on to others, a few more that were interesting to the extent they involved sending a shockingly naive reporter to go kvetch about all the commies in the anti-war movement, more blogs, blog content that became free three days after I "paid" for it, plus all the stuff the site gives away anyhow. Plus the stuff I paid for that it'll give away if you sit through a giant ad. Oh... there was also some calf-like bawling in one article about how "the boom" will come back if the damn venture capitalists just loosen up a little.

The magazine is also trying straight news coverage by alternately wasting its reporters on items the wires have handled in as much detail hours earlier, or carrying straight wire copy.

Five years and $79 million in losses and in its twilight, Salon is hawking bloggers to people who solemnly hand over their credit cards for the privilege of reading the likes of Andrew Sullivan, who gives his stuff away for free elsewhere.

It's fashionable to talk about how Salon "raised the bar" on the quality of Web content, and how it's an unfair and brutal market that dashed the hopes of a scrappy little contender from San Francisco before it could topple the East Coast print establishment. I'm not very enthusiastic about the market Salon helped to create.

Yesterday I fielded a call from a writer who's on the verge of getting out of my particular area of the business because she isn't making the money she expects. An entire class of writers has circulated through online publishing over the past few years, developing an expectation that their words are worth $1.50 or $2.00 apiece. What can you say to that? How do you help people regain their senses after they've pulled down six figures as a junior editor who did a little side work with some venture-capital-glutted publication? I'm not sure you can. I know a few people who have regained their senses: they're hunkered down in editorial positions with decent pay well out of the insane ranges they might have made four years ago, but they saw the end in sight and knew to take a comparative lowball to get at the safe port.

But back to Salon, which was paying some of those six-figure salaries. While I don't want to talk down the general quality of the writing (even if I never cared for the snotty tone that pervaded a lot of it) we've all seen as good in independent weeklies scattered around college towns and metro areas. It's not $2-per-word writing, and the sort of dementia it would take to expect a publication could pay that out and find an offsetting market for its banner ads is almost angelic.

So I'm down $9 or whatever I paid for a month of the "newly wise" Salon that finally decided to start charging for its content. I went ahead and shelled it out because for every greedy CEO or callous moneyman at a publication, there are a few writers and artists who might have believed in what they were doing or, worse, believed their own press releases. If Salon was going to be saved by an outpouring of reader loyalty that would allow it to go on as some sort of experiment in extra-dimensional economic theory... well... I paid full price to get into Star Wars: Episode II, too.