USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Salon to Leave Bloated Carcass?; Niche Sites to Charge for War Intelligence

Faux fight for indie journalism

I want to cry for Salon.com, but somehow the tears won't flow. Someone should be crying, because the independent Web pioneer has warned, quarter after quarter, that it's running out of cash, in dire straits, must charge for content, must make you watch ads -- and now says it even owes the landlord money. The latest flurry has brought the usual deathwatch in the media: "Is the End Near for Salon.com?" asks InternetNews.com; "Salon May Not Survive Beyond February," warns the AP; and "Salon Warns Time is Running Out," says the BBC gravely.

Just as predictably, a Salon exec says that the company has a long history of raising money to survive, and is working on just that. CBS MarketWatch goes against the grain and lets Salon defend itself. And finally, the Toronto Star's media reporter Antonia Zerbisias goes whole hog and says the Internet is not the last great bastion of independent, original journalism after all, naming Salon's woes (with an unbylined quote from me) along with those of MediaChannel.org and LegitGov.org.

On some level, I would be upset to lose Salon and some of these independent voices online, but no more sad than when I lost the services of dot-bombs Kozmo and Webvan. Zebisias admits that Salon burned through mucho dinero -- a cool $81 million -- but she doesn't mention the particulars, and they are important. The company is locked into a pricey office space lease in downtown San Francisco, and has pushed into hosting weblogs, running The Well community and various side projects. It even had a dot-com IPO, for gosh sakes (though a weak one).

While Salon Managing Editor/Senior Vice President Scott Rosenberg wrote a spirited defense of the site's financial prospects in his Links & Comment blog, one anonymous poster had a more believable counter. "Salon lacks fiscal responsibility," wrote Bay Aryan. "When the dot-com wave hit, who could blame Salon for riding it? And like many dot-coms, Salon screwed up. Rather than use their existing funds for operating costs, they decide to branch out in every which way and offer more services than they can handle ... And through all of this, Salon's journalism quality has suffered."

And Salon's justification of a bad advertising market rings hollow when so many big media sites are starting to see financial upswings. Heck, even Germany reported growth in online ad sales. The hard reality now is that any type of online journalism needs the same thing that offline journalism needs to survive: profits, a non-profit grant, or volunteers. Salon has already cut costs to the bone, reportedly, so that leaves only a few options: get bought out, get sugar daddies to ante up, or find a way to make money. I would be sad to see Salon go, but I can't cry when I understand why it would happen.

 

Get your war on

One thing that Salon surely is not is a niche site, and that's where the money has been, especially covering global security and war. Proof of that comes with twin announcements for subscription sites that promise insight into this area. One is from WorldNetDaily.com co-founder Joseph Farah, who will offer stories that are "not necessarily double-sourced" from spooks in the CIA and abroad (for $199). The other is from global intelligence outfit Stratfor, and will focus on the Iraq conflict with US-IraqWar.com (preview here; $49.95 for a six-month subscription).

It's difficult to say what the WND offering will be, though the site currently has a story titled "Americans 'flipping off' French over Iraq stance." Stratfor has offered pretty solid analysis in the past, with a well connected gallery of insiders around the world (likely decommissioned Cold War spies). This exploitation of the not-started war is everything that's bad and good about online journalism. The sample page already has links to "Combat Reports" along with a "War Diary," which is both jumping the gun and beating the competition online.

You could easily say that Stratfor is war mongering, just as much as you could say they've got a great niche, they're exploiting it, and they will very likely succeed. Forget about crying, I'm ready to vomit.


Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for TechWeb, occasional features for The New York Times' Circuits section, marketing material for Comcast Online, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at glaze@sprintmail.com.

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