The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Sunday, February 23, 2003  

At This Point, Who Cares?

I have to hand it to Salon. Even as critics write epitaphs for this once-promising venture, the online "magazine" continues to drift haplessly, trying one ill-considered maneuver after another. Still searching for its voice, Salon lately appears to be grasping at each and every half-baked idea thrown up by even the most junior members of its editorial staff during what were no doubt countless "brainstorming" sessions during the past seven or eight years.

It's almost painful to watch. Just when you think Salon can't become any less relevant, any more ridiculous, any less coherent, or any more laughable, the editors throw still more jetsam and flotsam over the side. To wit:

An interview with Chris Matthews, the hardest blowing of Washington's blowhards: "Must-viewing," Salon's Joan Walsh writes of Matthews's show, "Hardball."

An interview with -- or extended soliloquy by -- Camille Paglia, "It Girl" circa 1990.

"Idiocy of the Week," contributed by Andrew Sullivan, a regular column culled from the depths of his weblog that, believe it or not, is not autobiographical. (Here's a tip, Mr. Talbot: Don't hire writers who have gleefully and gratuitously trashed you in the past. They're unlikely to deliver you their best work.)

Amy Reiter's bizarre fixation upon one Rebecca Romijn-Stamos: 30 cites!

I could go on. And on. And on.

I can't for the life of me imagine how Salon can call itself a "magazine." This is a site that never found its voice, its niche, its purpose, nor even its reason for being. "Let's be everything to everyone," seemed to be the closest thing to a mission statement these people ever came up with. "It's the web! The world is our audience. If you post it, they will come!"

You know, people believed that tripe back in 1998 and 1999, possibly even into the early months of 2000, but they don't any longer. And they are all the wiser for it.

The writing has been on the wall for months, years even. These prescient words about Salon were written last June by Neil Morton in Shift:

It [Salon] was once one of the more relevant and influential sites on the web. It was once the place to go to find the most intelligent, original, lively stories. It was once, as they say on their site, a "unique and irreverent voice." It was once a must-read.

But even though Salon is still read by millions -- tens of thousands have signed up for its premium service -- and even though it's still getting awards, if you talk to people who've read it over the years, not too many will disagree with the fact that the site has lost its way of late. No longer do you arrive in the office and hear a colleague say, "Hey, did you see that piece that ran on Salon today?" No longer do you find daily links to Salon's articles on your favourite [sic] weblog or portal.

Morton's was a harsh, but fair, assessment, though one that was a bit too generous, including, as it did, this regrettably eager notice of an upcoming Salon "publishing event," one that turned out to be, well, little more than desperate hype:

[E]very once in a while, Salon does still come through with a zinger -- like the long-planned electronic book by John Dean that will supposedly unmask the real Deep Throat on the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. But now it's the exception, not the rule.

Supposedly being the key word here.

What's most interesting about Morton's June 2002 critique is how clearly he saw the future and the forces that foretold Salon's now-imminent demise:

[I]t comes down to is this: Salon can either continue to move in the direction they're moving -- which is nowhere -- or they can return to their roots. It's not a question of having to re-invent themselves, it's a question of getting back the zest for journalism they had only a couple years ago. . . .

As things stand now, there's a pile of weblogs -- yes, weblogs -- that are doing a lot more relevant, thought-provoking stuff than the stale Salon. And they're doing so with zero staff, zero resources, zero dollars. Salon should be doing far more with what they have.

The web needs Salon, but not in its current state, which, contrary to what Talbot et al. might think, isn't hip and isn't much fun. The site can make a difference again -- there are plenty of compelling untold stories to be told in this day and age -- but something has to give.

Or maybe the powers-that-be are happy to carry on the site in its current state. If that's the case, some of us would just as soon see Salon fold up the tent and call it a day. So what's it going to be, Mr. Talbot?

Morton was right about the blogs then, and his observations are even more to the point today, even if he didn't follow them to their logical conclusion. Off the top of my head I can count a dozen bloggers whose work I prefer over the "pundits" published -- or, in some cases, more accurately, republished -- by Salon, and even over the highest-paid pundits peddled by some of the nation's leading newspapers and syndicates.

It's a shame, really, perhaps even an embarrassing disgrace, that Salon, which tried to latch on to the blogging phenomenon by setting up a "pay to" site for those who caught the bug, failed to search that same blogosphere for the fresh, creative, and original voices that could have generated, well, fresh, creative, and original content -- that is, content not of the rehashed variety -- for its own pages.

In the event the enterprise known as Salon does come to an end, I'd like to say on its behalf that it will be remembered fondly. But I can't. Salon will be so remembered by precious few and by even fewer who never collected a check from its indiscriminate coffers. In fact, I suspect several years from now the only people who will remember Salon at all are the company's unfortunate shareholders and the lesser writers who milked the site for everything they could.

These are the ways of the publishing business, as I know from firsthand experience: I worked for a magazine that went under some 18 months ago. It's not pleasant, even when, as in the case of Salon, the demise is so richly deserved. We'll all carry on just fine, I think, but let's not rush to rank Salon with the great and glorious, but now no longer, magazines of yesteryear. It hasn't earned that lofty status.

[Note: See also, Atrios, at Eschaton: "An Open Letter to Salon."]

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