Ten years is a long time in the history of any publication, and when you’ve been watching the cord that holds the Sword of Damocles unravel over your head for nine-plus of those years, it feels positively eternal. Salon came into existence at the beginning of the Internet Age, a Jurassic swamp swarming with strange and frightening creatures — “B to B” business models, “stickiness,” original art on every 600-word story, a biweekly publishing schedule, $25 million IPOs and other long-vanished pterodactyls. How long ago was it? Two words: O.J. Our first issue featured a round-table on race relations tied to the O.J. Simpson verdict, and if that event doesn’t carry your memory back to Old Kentucky, there is no madeleine in existence that will work on you. When Salon started, George W. Bush and Karl Rove were still safely confined in vials in a biochem storage facility in Texas. No one had heard of Osama bin Laden. Bob Dole was running against Bill Clinton. And Petfood.com was about to spring its first, decisive move upon a breathless world.
Salon has surfed — and sometimes gotten wiped out by — some pretty big waves in those 10 years. We have gone from a staff of eight to a staff of 148, and back to somewhere in between. We have been showered in massive tulipmania loot, seen our stock go from $15.13 to one cent, and cheated the Grim Reaper who comes to whack failing little rags so many times he finally picked up his scythe in disgust and went home. We have gone from being a little literary-leaning magazine staffed mostly by critics to a robust news organization with a team of full-time reporters. We have grown from two tables in an architect’s office in San Francisco to a national publication with offices in San Francisco, New York and Washington (and King Kaufman’s Sports Bureau, broadcasting from a secret offshore transmitter somewhere in St. Louis). We have gone from publishing every two weeks to sometimes publishing every two minutes. When we started, the idea of charging people money for anything on the Web except sex was unthinkable; a big part of our income now comes from subscriptions. We’ve been through layoffs and hiring orgies, we’ve won awards and been slapped with subpoenas. We have been denounced on the floor of Congress and praised by the president of the United States.
Yet through it all, in some ways we have changed very little. Salon was started by writers and journalists, and our mission was simply to put the best stories we could out there, while having fun and (hopefully) making money along the way. That hasn’t changed. The dot-com madness has come and gone, the Clinton bedroom farce has been replaced by the Bush revenge tragedy, but we’re still doing the same thing. Seen in that light, the big events, the folly and the glory, the hype and the heartbreak of the last decade, fade away, and the history of Salon shrinks down to the same scene, playing out tens of thousands of times: a writer trying to capture in words what he or she thought, or felt, or witnessed. An editor helping shape those words into a finer form. An artist making it beautiful. And a publication, kept alive by businesspeople and kept running by tech people, that makes the final story available instantly all over the world. Salon is many things, has been many things, and will become many unknown things in the future, but like all publications this is its real history, one that can only be measured in cups of coffee and bleary eyes and whatever molecular or metaphysical traces are left by untold vanished deadlines. There is only one true record of Salon: our archives.
I make no claim to offer anything even remotely resembling a real history of Salon. That is a far larger task than I have time — or frankly, inclination — for. Moreover, I am grossly unqualified to write it, for the simple reason that I suffer from Lewis Libby syndrome: I remember nothing. This debilitating condition has worsened as the years have flown past like those torn-off calendar leaves in that old-movie time-is-passing convention: The blizzard of torn-off pages is now so vast and white that it has covered up every landmark.
It is, I suppose, a great honor to be chosen to write this little memoir, when the other founders who are still connected to Salon, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Laura Miller and Mignon Khargie, are equally or more qualified to do so. The warm glow I should feel at being singled out, however, is somewhat diminished by the suspicion that my colleagues do not in fact regard me as a heroic, battle-scarred veteran, but rather as the journalistic equivalent of one of those demented Japanese soldiers who is still hiding in a rat-infested cave on Tarawa 50 years after the end of WWII. Indeed, it seems all too likely that this “great honor” is in fact a desperate attempt to placate me so that I do not suddenly rampage through the office, impaling people on a bayonet. Despite these suspicions, I will do my best.
A caveat in advance. There will be many important staffers, writers, investors, friends and events in our history that I pass over here. This is not a comprehensive history. I scarcely even mention our sales or tech teams, for example, not because I don’t appreciate what they do but because I can’t cover everything. If you worked here, or wrote a column for us, or you are that guy who drove us all insane playing his electric violin on the corner of 4th and Mission for a year, please don’t be hurt if you’re not mentioned here. It isn’t a dis. I would like nothing better than to write a grand Homeric list of everyone who has ever worked at Salon or written for us, but 1) I ain’t no Homer, and 2) even when Homer did it, it could be a little sleep-inducing.
Salon is the creation, in every conceivable way, of David Talbot, my colleague and close friend for 20 years. In 1994 David was Arts and Ideas editor at the San Francisco Examiner, the flagship Hearst newspaper. (It is pleasant, especially for those of us in San Francisco, to think that the rogue journalistic DNA that ran in the veins of maverick Ex writers like Mark Twain, Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce, Jack London and Hunter S. Thompson popped up again in Salon.) For two years we had worked together on the paper’s Sunday magazine, Image. David was restless and ambitious and wanted to start his own publication. He nosed around about the possibility of starting a print mag, but the start-up costs were too high and he couldn’t find anyone willing to write him a $5 million check. I remember David telling me back in the waning Ex days about a meeting he had with a potential investor. The investor listened to his impassioned spiel about the need for dynamic new journalism to cut through the vacuity of niche publications, the critical importance of a revolution that would sweep across the formulaic media landscape. Then he agreed that, yes, a travel magazine would be a great idea.
About this time, probably late 1994, I remember David mentioning something called the Internet. I don’t think he really knew what it was (“Luddite” is an ugly word, but the great and powerful guru of electronic media still moves blocks of text by dragging his exhausted mouse up to the cut and paste functions), but he knew enough to understand that it would cost a lot less to start an Internet magazine than a print magazine. Along with Andrew Ross, the Examiner’s veteran foreign-national editor, he started scheming in earnest.
David began talking to Apple, which had plans to launch a Web network called eWorld. He convinced Richard Gingras, an Apple executive, to invest $60,000 in seed money in the as-yet-unnamed Salon, which would be part of eWorld. With that sum in hand, in August 1995 David lured Andrew Ross and the extravagantly talented Mignon Khargie, who designed and illustrated features at the Ex, to quit their jobs to work on the prototype for what would become Salon. “When Richard Gingras heard that not only had I left my job at the Examiner, on the basis of that modest investment, but lured two others with me, he was horrified,” David said. “As more people left their jobs to join our fledgling enterprise, Apple — which was in the throes of its own corporate dramas before Steve Jobs rejoined the company and turned it around — suddenly pulled the plug on its support for Salon. Adobe Ventures, whom I had sent our business proposal to out of the blue weeks earlier, suddenly came to the rescue, dropping by to see our prototype and stepping in with a $2 million investment, which got Salon launched.”
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It was probably just as well that none of the people who left their union jobs were aware of this meticulously planned investment scheme, which appears to have been modeled on a failed lottery in American Samoa. The brave and clueless stalwarts whom David lured away from the Ex in the fall of 1995 were Scott Rosenberg, a first-rate film and theater critic who also knew more about the Web and technology than anybody who knew from Samuel Beckett had a right to; Joyce Millman, the Ex’s top-drawer TV critic; and me. Rounding out the list was a razor-sharp freelancer named Laura Miller, whom David and I had worked with at Image. With the exception of Laura, we all had years of daily experience, and we all had one ability that proved indispensable: We could write and edit reallyfast.
This group, along with Salon’s first publisher, David Zweig, first met at Talbot’s house in Bernal Heights sometime that fall. One of the things we did, besides gawk in confusion at sites like Feed (at least I was confused, since I had never been online before), was kick around various names for the new magazine. I cannot remember any of them except “Limelight,” which mercifully ended up in the ashcan of history. David’s wife, Camille Peri — who with my wife, Kate Moses, later launched Salon’s groundbreaking Mothers Who Think department — came up with the name Salon. Vaguely aware that the Internet would allow some kind of communication with our readers, and filled with grandiose dreams of becoming the Madame de Staëls and Dorothy Parkers of the Internet, we settled on Salon.
Salon’s first office was a humble affair. We rented out a small portion of an open-floor-design architects’ office on Main Street in downtown San Francisco. We sat at two long tables, our 28-baud modems beeping and clicking. It was a homey and intimate atmosphere — at times a bit too intimate. Occupying the large area closest to us was a middle-aged architect of choleric mien who was manifestly not pleased at the sudden appearance of a bunch of journalists who spent their time talking loudly on the phone and crawling under their tables trying to hook up their computers. One day, this architect, whose name was Art, suddenly yelled in a piercing voice that echoed across the office, “YOU HO! GET OVER HERE!”
We were somewhat taken aback by this. None of us were familiar with what sort of behavior is customary in architects’ offices, but it seemed a bit beyond the pale to summon a colleague by screaming “You ho!” We soon realized that Yuho was actually the name of Art’s unfortunate subordinate. Thereafter, whenever Art screamed out, “YUHO, GET OVER HERE!” as he seemed to do at least three times a day, it was only with great effort that we were able to suppress unseemly outbursts of hysterical laughter. I believe Art observed this, and it did not contribute to the bonhomie of the office. Neither did his habit of loudly farting as he moved about in his domain.
Soon after we arrived at Main Street several other people came onboard, including artist and designer Elizabeth Kairys, Cynthia Joyce, who was our first Arts & Entertainment editor, Table Talk host Mary Elizabeth Williams, and consultant David Weir, a longtime fixture on the Bay Area journalism scene. Lori Leibovich, now our Life editor, was our first intern. We also briefly employed a young tech consultant named Paul Vachier. Vachier just had a cup of coffee with us, as the baseball saying goes for a player who passes through so quickly he never even moves out of his hotel, but David nonetheless insisted on putting him in our first staff photo because he was young, handsome and looked cool. He made up for the rest of us who, although much younger than we are now, utterly failed to conform to even the most generous interpretation of what Hip Web Pioneers should look like. This was an early indication of Talbot’s cheesy cunning — a quality that more than any other probably ensured our existence. We also hired our first books editor, the estimable Dwight Garner, who left a few years later to go to the New York Times Book Review.
We started as a biweekly, and we thought we were cranking it out. I remember looking at the stats for the first issue. It was thrilling, coming from print where the only measure of readership was letters to the editor, to be able to know exactly how many people had read your story. It was fascinating to see what subjects drew the most eyeballs. And it was deeply depressing to realize that no matter what you wrote, half of your readers would bail after the first page. Stats are the great dirty-little-secret revealers, not just for what they tell writers and editors but for what they reveal about readers. To this day, whenever we run some lower-chakras, sexy, gossip-ridden story, one of those penis-enlargement, lifelike doll, Brazilian-bikini-wax, are-big-breasts-making-a-comeback kinda things, readers send in angry letters denouncing our lowbrow, vulgar sensibility and threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Meanwhile, our servers melt under the demand and the page views soar into the stratosphere. Strangely, no one ever writes in to say how much they liked that big-breasts-are-making-a-comeback story. In fact, not a single one of the 50,000 people who eagerly read every page of that story, as compared to the 1,000 people who read the big essay about Iraq, has ever admitted having read it. But the server, like a gentleman’s valet, knows all. When Leonard Cohen wrote, “There’s a meter on your bed that will disclose/ What everybody knows,” he was talking about page views.
We paid an inordinate amount of attention to page views not just because of the novelty but because we believed our financial future depended on them. We dimly believed that if we reached some magic but unknown number, gold coins would cascade down from the great slot machine of the Internet. In those antediluvian days, getting more than 500 page views was grounds for vaunting pride. For good reason: I have no idea how anyone even found our site, with its meaningless salon1999 address. But we had enough investment to keep going for a while, and like cartoon characters happily walking above a void, none of us looked down. Well, the people on the business side probably did, which might explain the gaunt, Edvard Munch-like expressions I would sometimes see flitting across their faces. Mercifully, I had nothing to do with that side of Salon.
We had very few ads. The biggest, which Zweig brought in, was a sponsorship by Border’s Books. We published a mix of book and movie reviews, short news items in a section called “Newsreel,” interviews and features, mostly on cultural subjects.
Our statement of purpose in Issue No. 1 is an interesting archaeological artifact. In it, Talbot proclaims that Salon stands for a “militant centrism” — the term borrowed from an expression the writer Jim Sleeper used in our roundtable about race relations. That positioning made sense in an era when black-white acrimony seemed like the biggest issue facing the country, but it hasn’t aged well. Today, the idea that Salon would describe itself as “militantly centrist” is laughable — when you think of Salon, you don’t think of a fired-up Joe Lieberman. And our utopian rhetoric about Salon becoming an interactive, Whitmanesque choir of varied American voices was about to have a rude encounter with reality. The Whitmanesque choir sometimes sang in harmony with us, but really it wanted to warble its own tunes — some good, some bad, some inspired by Yoko Ono’s Janovian Screaming period. We quickly discovered that trying to bring Table Talk readers into Salon in any kind of organized fashion was like trying to herd cats.
As we slogged along that first year, the media began to pay a little attention to the oddball little “e-zine” staffed by refugees from the newspaper world. There was a novelty factor at work that helped us. (Ultimately, it saved us. If we were a print magazine of the same quality, we would have been dead, buried and forgotten long ago.) I seem to recall being probed by an inordinate number of European reporters, most of whom were obviously working some kind of “electronic media revolutionaries” angle.
We were frequently asked if there were any inherent differences between online and print journalism. We didn’t, and still don’t, all give the same answer to that question. Talbot thought that online journalism was a different breed: faster, more irreverent, less controlled by the increasingly zombified gatekeepers of traditional media. He was also always pushing for our stories to be punchier and shorter, arguing that people didn’t want to read New Yorker-length stories on their computer. I agreed with him that we were doing something different than most print news media, but I wasn’t convinced that was because of anything unique about online journalism. Editing and writing is pretty much the same whether you’re working with cuneiform tablets or a DSL line. As for length, I wasn’t convinced readers couldn’t be trained to read long stories online. (There was some self-interest involved here; I realized that if we stopped running long pieces, I’d be out of a job.)
The reviews began to come in. Some were decent, some were mixed. One memorable piece chided our lumbering, print-journalism ways by comparing us to a “stately flying boat.”
Stung by this weird metaphor, after five months, in April 1996, we decided to trade in the mahogany-appointed Pan Am Clipper for a slightly zippier model. We went weekly. I confess I can no longer remember what that change felt like: We’ve all been boiled in the daily pot for so long that any slower pace is simply inconceivable. Toward the end of 1996 we parted ways with David Zweig and hired a new publisher, a big, amiable former University of California at Berkeley quarterback named Michael O’Donnell. Michael stayed with Salon for seven years, through the mad euphoria of the dot-com bubble, the great bust of 2001, the layoffs, the jolly Christmas party when we had just announced to the staff that we might be closed down in two months, and eventually into somewhat less shark-infested waters. Salon would not have survived without Mike. Like most natural salesmen, he was an eternal optimist — and during the post-crash years he needed that optimism.
We quickly realized that weekly wasn’t good enough in this finger-in-the-socket medium. So in 1997 we took the next step and went daily. King Kaufman had joined the week before as our copy chief, his terse call-out “You’ve got Blue Glow” to the art department adding a professional tone to the proceedings.
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In September of 1997 an unlikely event changed the way we thought about our editorial direction. Racing drunkenly through a Paris tunnel, a chauffeur lost control of his car, and Princess Diana died. It was one of those events that hit people hard in funny ways they couldn’t explain. The mainstream media was not satisfying readers’ desires for a more intimate response. We were all over the story, running everything from news pieces to criticism to personal essays in the new Mothers Who Think section. We got unprecedented reader response. For the first time, we understood that Salon could play an important role in the media world as a kind of news vulture, not so much reporting on the big events as feasting on their remains. Fast, smart, opinionated stories making sense of events, or simply offering cathartic responses, were in demand, and we discovered we were good at them.
Over the next year, this second-day-story approach increasingly led us to do more actual reporting. With hard news playing an increasingly larger role, the final piece of Salon’s editorial puzzle fell into place. Our formula was an eclectic mixture of intellectual essays, opinionated news analysis, reviews, media criticism (I was the first editor of our daily Media Circus column; the second was an unknown young writer named Dave Eggers), reporting, personal pieces, idiosyncratic columnists (Camille Paglia, Cintra Wilson and Anne Lamott, those sibyls staring down from opposite corners of Salon’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, helped gain us early followers and attention), occasional humor and, of course, a greater than usual infusion of bawdiness. Early readers of Salon may recall a sex column called “Unzipped,” which led our traffic most of the time.
Talbot called us a “smart tabloid.” Others called it intellectual talk radio. The key was to mix it up, to keep our readers and ourselves off balance, to stick and move like Muhammad Ali. To be Beltway insiders and merry left-coast pranksters, eggheads and sex fiends. And to somehow do it all while preserving an editorial voice that sounded like Salon.
Of course, it’s possible to be so eclectic, so unpredictable that you never establish an identity, or a core readership. The tension between the desire to provoke and the need to have a recognizable editorial stance can never really be resolved. In our case, it played itself out most strikingly over politics, and our political columnists. It’s no secret that Salon is a left-leaning publication. But Talbot in particular, and the rest of the top editors, had a horror of churning out predictable lefty screeds. In our earlier years, he favored a big-tent Salon, running conservative columnists like Andrew Sullivan and David Horowitz. But for the last few years, we haven’t run many conservative writers. In part this is because we couldn’t find conservative writers we liked. But it’s also because of our own internal uncertainty about the big-tent philosophy. It’s understandable why the New York Times runs David Brooks and John Tierney, but we’re not the newspaper of record — we don’t have to be “balanced,” just fair. And while it may be an editor’s responsibility to challenge his readers — and himself — is it also his responsibility to run pieces he doesn’t agree with and thinks are poorly argued, simply to “shake things up”? There have definitely been times when we’ve run a weird and dubious piece and justified it by saying, “It’ll be a talker.” But that credo comes uncomfortably close to making us freak-show barkers.
In any case, the formula was set and it has never substantially changed, although we have had to adjust it from time to time, sometimes regretfully. Our Wanderlust travel section, edited by Don George, was one of the most unusual and compelling travel departments anywhere — you don’t find articles titled “Machete-wielding cannibals mar my Congo vacation” in Condé Nast — but it could never develop a big enough readership to sustain it, so we had to let it go. Other departments that have died unfortunate and undeserved deaths were our illustrated noir comics series, the Dark Hotel; People, an unclassifiable grab bag of features edited by Doug Cruickshank; and Ivory Tower, an occasional department about the academic world edited by Carol Lloyd.
In 1998 we ramped up our editorial staff, adding a whole slew of key people: associate managing editor Ruth Henrich, technology writer Andrew Leonard and then-news editor Joan Walsh, now Salon’s editor. Critic Andrew O’Hehir’s first cover feature for us ran in 1998. Stephanie Zacharek, who had been writing reviews for us since 1996, came on as a staffer in 1999; we put Charles Taylor on contract that same year. Deputy A&E editor and longtime “Fix” writer Amy Reiter joined us, along with copy editor Cary Tennis, who was later to bust out as a unique advice columnist. For the first time, Salon felt positively robust: There was more going on in the circus than you could see at a glance.
Probably the most significant, certainly the most lurid, event in Salon’s editorial history was the Henry Hyde story, in which we revealed that the esteemed and respected head of the House Judiciary Committee, who was standing in judgment on Bill Clinton, had had a longtime affair with a married woman. We thought long and hard about whether to run the story, but decided in the end that it was completely legitimate: We decided we had to reveal that the Clinton persecution was a hypocritical farce, driven by right-wing zealots and unopposed by a slack-jawed media. We knew we were going out on a limb — 57 other news organizations had passed on the story, and we thought we were ready for the ensuing firestorm. But we weren’t. Our servers couldn’t handle the requests. David went on TV and was ambushed by George Stephanopoulos, who waited until Talbot was off the air to insult him. Somebody called a bomb threat in to our office. There were organized electronic sabotage campaigns against us. And Tom DeLay denounced us on the floor of the U.S. Congress and demanded an investigation into whether Democrats leaked it to us. (For the record, once again: They didn’t. It came from the aggrieved husband’s friend.)
The Hyde story thrust us into the national limelight, with sometimes dubious consequences. For a time, we got a lot of tips about the sex lives of Republicans. But crawling around in right-wing bedrooms like hacks from some electronic version of Confidential magazine wasn’t really what we had in mind when we issued our lofty statement of purpose. (Issuing statements of purpose is always risky: They invite inevitable comparisons to the “statement of principles” issued by Charles Foster “Citizen” Kane, before he began firing his old friends and finishing their columns for them.)
As the Hyde saga was unfolding, we were headliners in an even weirder drama: the dot-com madness. It was a careening Mr. Toad’s wild ride like few journalists have ever seen, let alone taken part in. As a San Francisco dot-com during the gold rush, we had a front-row seat at one of the craziest eras in the history of American business. The years 1999 and 2000 were particularly egregious. (Go back and read Ruth Shalit, who did some of the best writing about advertising and branding anywhere for us. Her dissections of the manic, hyped-up corporate stupidity of those years take you straight into a different and a dreadful world.)
During those gloriously dumb years, something strange happened: We had ceased to be a publication. Now we were a DOT-COM. Dot-com! One had only to utter those words and strong-jawed, cologne-doused investment bankers in $3,000 suits would fall on their knees and grovel like Turkish courtiers before the Sublime Porte. (The other great buzzword of those days was “content,” as in the expression “content provider,” a truly scary phrase right out of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.”) We kept on putting out the magazine, kept on assigning and editing and writing, kept on pouring “content” into all those empty vessels out there, but we couldn’t ignore the prevailing vibe of fast, irrational wealth any more than Mark Twain could ignore gold fever when he was living on Jackass Hill. Sure, some of us had vague premonitions that something was fatally wrong with the whole deal, that if you never made any money it didn’t make sense that your company would be worth tens of millions of dollars, that what we really were was a magazine that happened to be online, that publishers never make much money. But as we planned for our IPO it was impossible not to fantasize about Fort Knox-like vaults of money, parking lots full of Jaguars, second homes on every continent. It was too hard to resist the dream that through some lucky roll of the dice, some deeply stoned cunning of Hegelian history, we were going to be the first ordinary, working journalists in history to get filthy rich just for doing our jobs.
It sounds stupid — and as events were to show, and my tax accountant can attest, it wasstupid — but it wasn’t like people weren’t getting rich for absurd reasons back then. San Francisco was filled with 25-year-old know-nothings with Auschwitz haircuts who parked their BMWs on the sidewalk at night in my Nob Hill neighborhood, simply factoring in the $100 tickets. I met a number of regular people, both back in the heyday and afterward, who hit the jackpot for the most ridiculous reasons. One staffer’s boyfriend, a musician and IT guy, cashed in bigtime — if memory serves, he bought a house with the swag — simply because he had had the foresight to acquire and maintain the Web address “big.com,” which some corporation bought from him. Another nice 30-ish couple I met had retired because the husband had created some silly Web site — I think it offered online calendars or something — that was bought by some monster corporation for gazillions of dollars. He was suitably humble, appreciative, laughed at the craziness of it all — and no longer worked. Meanwhile, Salon kept losing money.
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But in 1999, money was not something that you “lost.” It was a mystical entity, self-generating, not part of the reality-based community — like love, hope or intelligent design. The money was out there, everywhere, like oil, and you never knew from under which rock it was going to gush out next. We certainly looked for it. Mike O’Donnell made a valiant bid to buy a search engine called Google when it was just two Stanford boys working out of some low-rent motel in Palo Alto, Calif. (If he had succeeded…) He and Talbot were working every angle they could think of. They met with an Internet mogul to propose a traffic-swapping deal to him. The mogul apparently did not like the offer, because he suddenly shouted, “I might as well put a gun in my fucking mouth!” Later in the same meeting, he offered to buy Salon.
Yes, business dealings could be a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty back then, in those glorious days when AOL could merge with mighty Time-Warner on equal terms, like a flea in a miniskirt humping a half-conscious blue whale. The truly weird year was 1999, before and after our IPO. We raised $25 million and immediately set about justifying the public’s faith in us by doing what every good dot-com did in those days: spending vast sums of money to “heighten brand visibility” or “increase market share” or “solidify our strategic position” or “acquire key assets” or whatever they called flapping your arms and calling it flying back then. Actually, we exercised great financial prudence compared to most of our dot-com peers, many of whom were doing things like spending a large chunk of their available assets on a single Super Bowl ad. (In 2000 eCompany Now, needing a really large venue to celebrate one of the worst names in the history of American business, held its launch party at San Francisco’s brand-new Pac Bell Park.) Still, two years later, when we were on life support, could barely meet payroll and would have sold our souls to the Satanic Shampoo Company for a lousy $250,000, that $25 mil looked different. Like everything in life, it got a lot more real when it was gone.
Our staff suddenly ballooned to an obscene size. All at once we were surrounded by marketing and biz-dev types, as well as so many new staffers in every department that it was impossible to keep up with them. All those high-powered rainmakers set to work drumming up money. And some of those jungle drums played a pretty weird tune.
As mentioned earlier, I was strictly forbidden for obvious reasons from having anything to do with the business end of Salon. However, I do remember one business meeting that I was inexplicably asked to attend, and which for me will always sum up the weird illusions and emperor’s-new-clothes desperation of those years. Present were several of the hotshot biz-dev and sales and strategic-planning types who had been recently hired. The agenda was to plan a major new campaign to sell products on our site. On the face of it, this was a ridiculous idea: We had insignificant traffic, an audience that only wanted to read our articles, weak technical infrastructure, no fulfillment capabilities, and we were planning to jump into a saturated market filled with cutthroat competitors whose entire business was to sell goods. Other than that, though, it was a brilliant idea. The truth is we were pushed to it by an inexorable logic: We couldn’t think of any other way to make money. The Web audience, as Slate discovered after its brave but premature attempt to charge, was not ready to pay for content, and advertising revenue wasn’t enough. So I sat there for two hours as a roomful of sharp Harvard MBA types discussed whether it would be better for us to sell knives or wine. It was like being a member of MoveOn.org sitting in a prewar meeting in Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans. Never has so much IQ and business acumen been expended on a total will-o’-the-wisp. It was like watching a bunch of medieval scholastics trying to prove that a circle was actually a square.
Another demented memory from the Gilded Age: After one of the super-glitzy Webby Awards one year, I was wandering drunkenly through City Hall holding the trophy we had won for being best “print/zine” (whatever that means) when I was suddenly set upon by two voracious-looking babes in low-cut dresses. Batting their eyes, they lasciviously asked — or as lasciviously as it possible to ask a question containing the words “pre-IPO” — what site I represented and if we were planning to go public. Then, pressing up against me, they exposed their firm young business cards, which revealed to my glazed eyes that they worked for a venture capital firm. These cruel harpies were trolling the Webbies for winners, wielding their coldblooded cleavage on hapless techie geeks who would be so dazzled that they would immediately sign over their billion-dollar algorithms for peanuts. Telling myself, “Yuho, get out of here!” I fled.
Then one morning it all came to an end. The NASDAQ crashed. The end of a Ponzi scheme is never pretty to behold. There was a mass slaughter of diseased dot-coms, whose remains were bulldozed into a mass grave. We hid beneath some corpses and slipped away when darkness fell. But the mad delirium was over. It wasn’t about getting rich anymore — it was about keeping away from that bulldozer. Our stock fell and fell and fell. One half-witted Salon staffer, who shall go unnamed except that his initials are G.K., had exercised a large number of now-worthless stock options, which he suddenly had to pay alternative minimum tax on — to the tune of $110,000. The Hegelian cunning of history turned out to be a hell of a lot more cunning than some of us had thought.
After the collapse, Salon began digging itself out. This was a long, painful process. Around about the seventh year, it became difficult to come up with anything whatsoever to say when friends, family and nosy strangers would ask, “So how’s Salon doing?” My mantra was, “We’re about to turn the corner.” This worked for five or six years, but then it began to exude a faint rotting smell, like a once-cheery Halloween pumpkin that has collapsed into a hideous blob, or a Scott McClellan press briefing. Toward the end when asked that question I simply smiled inanely, like Harpo Marx.
Over the next few years, digging out from the hole, we added key people who are still with us, notably A&E (originally news) editor Kerry Lauerman and sales V.P. Melissa Barron. We also acquired the pioneering online community the WELL. And we realized that our business model wasn’t working, that we had to take the plunge or die. So in April 2001 we launched Salon Premium, gambling that our readers would pay money to read Salon. There were several more near-death experiences, but the gamble paid off. Our subscriber base slowly rose; advertising began to come back. And our investors, principally our two largest, oldest and most loyal ones, John Warnock and Bill Hambrecht, kept the faith. No account of Salon would be complete without an acknowledgment of these two men, who have hung in there through good times and bad — actually, it was more through bad times and worse times — and never once tried to interfere with our editorial vision. A lot of people owe their livelihoods to them.
The world turned. Bush was elected. The Florida recount debacle was another turning point for us: We threw more reporting resources into covering that bizarre saga than any previous story, sending our talented Washington reporter Jake Tapper, and correspondents Anthony York and Alicia Montgomery, to Florida, where they stayed for weeks. Our readership grew, and we came of age as a news organization.
Sept. 11, and Bush’s response to it, was another signal event. As it became clear what sort of presidency we were dealing with, Salon was fired by a new editorial mission, one as old as Voltaire: to expose the infamy. Meanwhile, the media world was changing. Bloggers appeared, circling the mainstream media like Indians firing from ambush at redcoats marching in formation. The change of uniforms we have carried with us from Day One came in handy: We’re still redcoats on Monday and guerrillas on Tuesday.
And our own wheel of fortune kept spinning. Staffers had children, got divorced, got cancer, got married. (Two staffers married each other.) Founders like Andrew Ross and Mignon Khargie moved on. (We were able to lure Mignon back, to join art stalwart Bob Watts, who began as an intern in 1998.) Some of our most talented writers ended up at prestigious print publications: Carina Chocano (who wrote better about reality TV than anyone) went to the Los Angeles Times, and our brilliant media critic, James Poniewozik, went to Time. But others stepped in. A publication is like a sports team: The players come and go; the team keeps going.
After battling side by side with Talbot to keep Salon alive for seven years, Michael O’Donnell passed the baton to a new publisher, Betsy Hambrecht. And late last year, David Talbot stepped down as editor to write a book.
There must be a god that looks after upstarts and dreamers, because Talbot, though at the end so exhausted he had to be lashed to the wheel to keep him upright, lasted at the helm of his listing, shell-riddled pirate ship long enough to see Salon sail into safe waters. Joan Walsh, our longtime news editor and managing editor, took over the top job. In Joan and Betsy’s hands, the future of Salon has never looked brighter.
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There remains only to say a word about our readers. Every editor, I suspect, has a mysterious and powerful relationship with his or her audience, one that’s impossible to articulate. This is truer online than in print, because we online editors get to talk to our readers more. It’s a little bit like a marriage, except that we’ve never met our mate. Sometimes there’s passion, sometimes there’s anger, sometimes there’s boredom. But most of all, there’s a kind of intuitive knowledge that is built up gradually over the years, a kind of shot-in-the-dark intimacy. At bottom, maybe it’s nothing more than the simplest of understandings, a kind of contract that is essential for any human communication. Our end of the bargain is to publish things we think you want to read; your end is to read them.
We hope we’ve lived up to our end of the bargain, at least most of the time. We know you have, because we wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t.
In the end, the greatest thanks are due to you, our readers, not just for making it all possible, but for being the reason we wanted to push this Sisyphean rock up the hill in the first place. We’ve made it this far together — a decade’s journey! Maybe it’s just altitude sickness, but this time I think we really may be about to turn the corner. Here’s to making it over the top, and to going on.