Salon.com was a pioneering website launched in 1995 by former editors of the San Francisco Examiner, mixing opinion and investigative reporting with a sharply progressive slant. Although the company went public at the height of the dot-com boom in 1999, it had lost more than $80 million by 2003, and lost $4.6 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2009. Its stock trades at just 12 cents a share on the over-the-counter stock market.
(Note: Some commenters point out below that Salon started with a more centrist take on news, but has moved toward a left/progressive slant more recently.)
This year, Salon hired a new CEO, Richard Gingras, who previously worked as a media advisor to Google and at startups such as @Home. Gingras had his work cut out for him. The recession hit the site’s bread-and-butter ad revenues hard, it cut staff by 20 percent, and paid memberships have declined.
Salon recently unveiled a redesign to provide more context to stories, include related material from around the web, and give advertisers a more creative platform. It’s also planning a new store that will sell third-party products (and provide Salon with a cut of e-commerce sales), as well as a new food section.
I visited the Salon headquarters in Rincon Center in downtown San Francisco, and spoke to Gingras about the redesign, the future of investigative journalism, and his thoughts on competing with Huffington Post. He greeted me by saying “welcome to the oldest new media company.” The following is an edited transcript, along with video clips of our discussion.
What is Salon’s greatest asset?
Richard Gingras: Salon has been around now 15 years and I think its greatest asset is the quality of its writing. I think it’s particularly true today, when there’s more information than ever, but there’s also more bad information than ever. We have these ongoing arguments about where Obama was born, so I think separating the wheat from the chaff is more important than ever; figuring out what really matters is more important than ever. And that’s what Salon is about, so that’s its key asset. And it’s doing it with a friendly, witty personality that a lot of folks find appealing.
Gingras explains what Salon will be offering advertisers with the redesign.
On a lot of publishers’ sites, there’s a balance between short and long content. To me, Salon is known for giving more depth. But online you’re almost punished for doing longer stories versus lots of shorter ones. How do you balance those?
Gingras: It’s an interesting point. I don’t think the web punishes you for depth. I think it suggests there might be new ways of going deep that doesn’t necessarily mean a 3,000 word article. Salon does both. We do long pieces and short pieces, and the short ones might end up having depth, they’re just done with a different periodicity. I’m reminded about something [Marshall] McLuhan said about “every new medium starts as a container for the old.”
That’s as true for the web as any medium. Radio started out with people reading the newspaper, and they figured out that didn’t work. So the narrative form will evolve on the web. It’s true that short stuff works really well, blogging works really well. It doesn’t mean it’s any less thoughtful. It doesn’t mean it’s any less comprehensive.
Gingras talks about how he sees Huffington Post differing from Salon by succeeding with SEO and traffic, but not with original in-depth reporting.
With all the talk around Web 2.0, people think of Salon as being part of the first wave. Do you feel like Salon needs to be reinvented for Web 2.0?
Gingras: Interestingly, Salon was named for the notion of engaging in discussion. Salon has always been very much about engaging in discussions with its audience. Our comments and letters sections are both extremely prolific and interesting. The WELL, the pioneering discussion site, is part of Salon Media. In one dimension, it’s in our bones; in another, technology is changing. We didn’t talk about social media three years ago because Twitter and Facebook were barely there. Now it’s a key part of the landscape.
Part of our redesigning and re-architecting of Salon was to put us in a better position to use those technological enhancements as they’re rolling out. But the theme is the same. Let’s pursue interesting subjects. Let’s try to approach it from angles that mainstream media does not, and let’s engage our audience and let them engage us as much as we possibly can.
I ask Gingras why Salon has lost so much money, and he says he is confident that will change.
Tell me more about your take on paid content. Salon tried out subscriptions early on, but those have faded somewhat. Now many mainstream media outlets are considering paid content. What do you think about that?
Gingras: I refer to business models not model because online you have to be open to different approaches. We do have a premium subscription for $45 a year that people pay to access Salon without advertising. Others subscribe for $35 a year because they want to support what we do. That’s one component of it. But advertising is a very big component of it, and I expect it to be that way as we go forward.
But we’re also looking at other possibilities. Around Thanksgiving we’re going to launch a Salon Store, we’re going to go into e-commerce. Salon as an independent voice represents a set of values, a way of looking at the world. In business-speak, it’s not just a content brand, it’s a lifestyle brand. Just as we carefully select what to write about and discuss in the content space, [we are examining] what we can do in the product space. The web has allowed so many artisans and merchants to mount businesses virtually on the web. It’s an opportunity for us to select products and share in that transaction with the merchants.
And we’ll be extending Salon’s content into new vertical areas. We’ll be launching a food section as well in the next month or so.
I’ve noticed that your paid subscription numbers have gone down. Is that something you’re not going to be emphasizing as much moving forward?
Gingras: I’d like to see the premium subscriptions increase. But keep in mind the way we approach it. We’re not gating content, we’re not saying you have to pay us to see the content of Salon. I don’t think that really can work for us or most mainstream publications. It can work for the Wall Street Journal because that’s perceived to be high-value business content that people can subscribe to and write off the expense. We don’t play in that world.
Gingras walked me through the redesign of Salon and how stories now live within topic pages.
How has your community blogging area Open Salon gone, and what’s the business model for that?
Gingras: Open Salon has been a great success for us, and it’s something we’re very pleased with. And it’s an important component of how we’re going to have a successful strategy moving forward. It launched a year ago, and has 35,000 bloggers, an audience of about 1 million unique visitors per month, several million page views. But to me the most interesting thing is, given the nature of the Salon audience, which is probably the most intelligent audience on the web, with many writers among that audience, the participation in Open Salon is of very high quality.
We have novelists, former journalists, New Yorker cartoonists who put up cartoons the New Yorker hasn’t used. So there’s a lot of very high quality content there, and it’s a vibrant community. It’s a way for Salon to expand its content depth and range with those that love Salon. We target ads into those pages, and the bloggers can also get some money from Google Ads that run on those pages. Open Salon to us is less about getting more revenues, and more about expanding our philosophical view that the web isn’t just about speaking at people — it’s about speaking with people.
Have you considered crowdsourcing, because you have this big community at Open Salon, and you have reporters doing work over here. There’s been a lot of talk about combining the two, and using the power of the audience.
Gingras: Absolutely. I don’t quite use the term crowdsourcing. I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few years trying to figure out how journalism will evolve. I think journalism of the future will be great, and frankly better than the journalism of the past, because so many people can participate. I spent a lot of time working at Google and studying how the web works, and how that might impact journalism moving forward. One conclusion I had was that future successful news organizations, part of their success will be based on their ability to effectively and qualitatively leverage what I call ‘the trusted crowd.’
This goes beyond citizen journalists submitting cell phone photos of a tractor-trailer crash. That’s fine, I’m not saying that shouldn’t be done. But we want to go beyond that. So when we look out at Open Salon and others out there, we do think about how to leverage the efforts of those that want to participate with us [with] their writing, research or their assistance curating what we do. Wikipedia has shown the high quality of what you can get by leveraging the help of folks, done carefully. We don’t need 1 million contributors, but can we bring in a couple hundred folks into the editorial process of Salon? Absolutely.
Gingras explains how Salon will fund investigative reporting by increasing soft features including a new Food section.
What do you think about Salon’s revamp and its prospects for becoming a profitable online media publisher? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Videography and photo by Charlotte Buchen.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.