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THE CUTTING EDGE

Web Page Turner

Critics say online magazines won't fly, but award-winning Salon is betting that smart writing, new advertisers and a premium service will help it become profitable.

June 29, 1998|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — When Salon magazine debuted on the Internet in 1995, it took advantage of the new medium by inviting readers to discuss--electronically, of course--whether magazines on the Web are a good idea.

"Not this one," came the flaming first reply. "The subject range is too broad, the depth of all of the pieces is far too shallow, and this will only get worse as readers chime in from all directions."

Since then, Salon has done a lot to quiet those early critics. But in many ways, the pioneering, San Francisco-based "Webzine" is still trying to answer that fundamental question it posed.

Journalistically, Salon has been a hit, earning plaudits for its engaging columns and investigative reporting. Commercially, however, the jury is still out as the magazine continues to lose money, and its audience, while growing, remains little more than a speck in the online universe.

Salon hopes that a stable of new advertisers and a premium service due in the fall will help it become profitable by this time next year. The site, at http://www.salonmagazine.com, also hopes to reel in readers turned away by archrival Slate's recent decision to charge subscription fees.

Salon's founders realize they may never see the kind of riches reaped by other Internet businesses. But at the tender age of 2 1/2, Salon has already surpassed the average life span of new print magazines, and that is an achievement in itself.

"Maybe I'm too much a '60s person," said founder David Talbot, 46, who made at least three Beatles references during a half-hour interview. "But I don't dream of IPO day. Money is not my measure of success. I want my epitaph to read: 'He made a cultural impact.' "

In that regard, Salon is well on its way. It may not have been the first Webzine (New York-based http://www.feedmag.com arrived six months earlier). And Slate, because of its Microsoft backing, has gotten more attention. But by many measures, Salon has emerged as the leader.

Salon was Time magazine's "best Web site of 1996" and has won Webbies--the cyberspace equivalent of the Oscars--for two years running. It is read by more people and is closer to turning a profit than its rivals, analysts say.

"I don't see online magazines ever truly thriving compared to search engines and other things on the Web today," said Patrick Keane of Jupiter Communications in New York. "But Salon has shown they can be successful in terms of building a magazine and doing good work."

And that, Salon's founders say, is all they ever wanted.

Salon's office is surprisingly subdued compared with the eye-popping decor common among its digital brethren in the city. At Wired magazine, for instance, the fluorescent walls are more colorful than the parrot that serves as the office mascot.

But then Salon never set out to be a new-media firebrand like Wired. Its space--clean and cubicle, with a few framed Internet awards hanging in the lobby--reflects its origin as an online oasis for old-media refugees.

Many of its staffers, including Talbot, came from the San Francisco Examiner, an underdog afternoon paper that was beset by a newsroom strike in late 1994.

During the strike, Examiner staffers took to putting stories on the fledgling Web to keep readers informed. Afterward, many saw the Web as a new career possibility. Talbot, who didn't even have a modem at the time of the strike, left several months later to launch Salon with a $50,000 investment from Apple Computer Inc.

"I just wanted to do something that was fun and got me out of the Examiner," he said.

Aiming to be both "pop" and smart, Salon prides itself on provocative commentary on the media and entertainment industries, as well as politics and Internet culture. Other Salon departments include "Mothers Who Think," conceived as an antidote to dull parenting magazines, and "Table Talk," a reader forum with chat rooms on dozens of topics.

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In a medium known for the post-first-ask-questions-later policy of cybergossip Matt Drudge, Salon has worked hard to establish serious journalistic credentials. In recent months, critics began to take notice as Salon scooped the mainstream press with investigative pieces about Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

"A lot of these Webzines seem to be all punditry and no reporting," said James Wolcott, a media critic for Vanity Fair magazine. "Salon seems to have transcended that. They pounce on things very fast, and they haven't let the audience dictate their coverage. I think they've proven a Webzine can work."

But in trying to be both pop and smart, Salon can sometimes seem schizophrenic, caught between the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly. It has been criticized for being too fluffy and a little too shameless in the pursuit of Web traffic.

While Slate has an advice column called "Dear Prudence," for example, Salon unabashedly offers "Sexpert Opinion." A recent edition of the column celebrated anal sex, the "fastest growing sex act in America today."

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