On July 10 I went to see Salon.com founder and editor David Talbot speak in Vancouver (about a hundred people made it down). His lecture was about the Art of Survival (although my pink ticket stub says the event was entitled Last of the Independents). The best part was the lengthy Q&A session. In fact, I was disappointed in Talbot’s public speaking abilities – he was stilted and choppy, letting more than a few moments of clarity and emotional resonance slither past him due to clumsy phrasing and verbal stumbles. He felt noticeably more comfortable answering questions, however, and I assume this is because of the hundreds of investors and other suchlike folk he has had to deal with over the years. He spoke with ease and intelligence about blogs and why advertisers fear unmoderated reader forums and provided much candor about finances and day-to-day details: $60 million spent since 1995; a current freelance budget of $600K per year; 75,000 current subscribers with 125,000 required to be profitable; a current marketing budget of zero; a 72% renewal rate amongst subscribers; a staff of 60, down from 150.
The best moment for me was when a fellow in the crowd asked Talbot about e-books and whether the purchase of MP3Lit was something he regretted or something Salon would revisit and better utilize in the future.
"We bought that?" asked Talbot, quite seriously.
It took 30 seconds or so of description from the guy who had asked the question before Talbot remembered the purchase. He admitted to overseeing a blur of co-deals and synergies -- "we tried it all" -- during the heady days of the dot-com crush (their IPO raised $25 million). He wasn’t sure about the future of MP3Lit, but did go on to proudly note that Salon did manage to avoid at least one stupid .com idea: digital smell.
Things might sound bad at Salon – Talbot certainly didn’t try to dissuade us of his dire financial situation – but as it was pointed out, Slate.com gave up the subscriber model at the 12,000-14,000 mark. The passion, the pleading, the urgency and the lack of money all reminded me of my Adbusters days, and the same question always frustrates: How to battle the right when they have bundles more cash than the left? Our cause is just and necessary, but the means and the method (begging for money) seem so primitive, even for a website.
The main idea of the Talbot talk (the bad part of the evening, the non-Q&A part, the part not worth $10) was that Bush is Bad, and only Salon.com is brave enough to say so. Perhaps being Canadian gives us enough critical and geographical distance to make us say Duh, but I suppose such political sentiments are considered far more radical in the United States.
For all his many examples of attacking the Bush regime with constancy and vigour, I still really think of Salon.com (especially in its heyday) as a smart analyzer of tech trends and pop culture. As I said, for me the Bush is Bad analysis is so obvious as to be redundant. Or perhaps I’ve become shallow and lame and only care about the fluff coverage, and thus overlook their investigative efforts. Although, as Talbot pointed out, one of their biggest and most consistent targets has been our nauseating fascination with celebrity culture, a hungry ghost that eats up more and more of the media spectrum and bandwidth with each passing year.
Back in 1995, when Salon.com was launched, Talbot believed that "intelligence was the next growth market" in the magazine world.
"We’re still waiting," he said, with a rueful laugh and smile.