David Talbot drops serious clangers in his appeal for the resurrection of Salon.com, an e-publishing pioneer

'The Great Grievance', an etching associated with the French Revolution, by an unknown artist

Salon.com is not actually extinct. It is just that its readership has declined precipitously, and no one talks about it any more – even though it is still capable of running first-rate pieces, like a report on Sunday about the indispensable Google Translate’s implications for multilingualism.

David Talbot is clever, likeable and tremendously enterprising. He deserved the towering pile of laurels that all but suffocated him and his fellow-Salonniers when they co-pioneered online journalism in the mid-1990s. I myself wrote a piece or two for him, at his invitation, in those early years. I enjoyed the typhoons they whipped up in reader reactions enough to sign on as a subscriber when the magazine slipped behind a pay wall a few years ago. It virtually disappeared behind it.

Not long after that, the e-zine lost David and its groove.  I let my subscription lapse and forgot all about it. But into my email box, a few days ago, dropped a surprise announcement – at least, for me – that he was trying to revive the magazine. The message said that he was back as its über-manager, after stepping down as editor-in-chief around 2005.

Unfortunately, what I could glean of his strategy ignores – or gives only the faintest nod to — the rise of the 5th Estate, the new media voices on the verge of eclipsing the once supremely authoritative 4th Estate with which Salon.com evidently still identifies. A more realistic plan would at least experiment with giving readers a chance to share ownership of the publishing sites that they sustain with their eyeballs and clicks – as in, for instance, this proposal recognising that the philosophical DNA encoded in the term ‘4th Estate’ belongs to the run-up to the French Revolution.

Instead, here is the gist of David’s email circular:

Dear Salon reader and Premium supporter:

I founded Salon 16 years ago […] For the first time in my life as a journalist, we — editors, reporters and critics — were in sole control of our work, not managers and corporate sponsors. […]

Now, six years after leaving Salon, I’ve decided to return as CEO, because I think the country needs a fighting, independent media more than ever. […]

I wanted you to know first because your previous support for Salon has meant a great deal to us — not just the money, but the sense of solidarity from your choice to become a Salon Premium member. […W]e are revamping and renaming Salon Premium. [ …]

We are adding many new benefits, amongst which are: opportunities to engage with writers and editors, magazine subscriptions, and if you choose, benefits from select marketers. […]

With the American people struggling to stay afloat in the Great Recession, and their hopes and well-being largely ignored by our political system, a free press is more vital than ever. We need an independent media to […] fight for the people. […]

I could be mistaken, but honestly do not see that getting many takers. What’s wrong with his appeal?

  • It’s the same old model. Reporters and editors perform on a stage. Readers pay to watch and listen. It ignores the new reality, which is that readers expect to have a chance to do star turns themselves. When I first visited the site a day or so ago, I found that a section of it, Open Salon, has since 2008 been dedicated to featuring readers’ blogs. I have been back twice. That might not be enough, but I have so far found no arresting or startlingly good – or simply startling – contribution, even though I remember that there were hundreds of readers with the requisite talent among the 100,000 paid subscribers the magazine once had.
  • Without a serious financial incentive – or at least, stake – in Salon’s revival and, ideally, voting rights in at least part of its running, why should anyone outside David’s small circle bother to post their best efforts on Open Salon? Its part of the site looks so strictly functional and dull that it could almost have a sign saying, ‘Makeshift Kiddie Corner’. Joan Walsh, the last editor-in-chief, said that OS would make the magazine’s ‘smart, creative audience full partners in Salon’s publishing future’. Her replacement, Kerry Lauerman, has promised, ‘We’ll also be unveiling ways for you to earn money for your great work on Open.I hope to find my pessimism unjustified, when that veil drops, but from his tone, it does not sound as if the Salonniers plan anything more enticing than some equivalent of the old 4th Estate offers of small cash prizes for ‘tastiest reader recipe’ or ‘best holiday snapshot’.
  • David’s appeal is addressed to ‘the American people’. Big mistake. Online readers are best addressed, for the most part, as citizens of the world. This part of his pitch sounds like the blinkered parochialism of George W. Bush. What do we expect now? The phrase ‘accelerated global conversation’ says it all. I found it here, in a piece reporting that,

    […[Pete] Cashmore, the soft-spoken chief executive of Mashable, the one-man blog he turned into a popular news site … appeared totally at ease [in his video interview.] … [W]ithin half an hour, an important measure of success was achieved. [Elie] Wiesel, who wondered aloud during the talk what might have happened if Moses — and also Hitler — had used social media tools to get their messages across, was trending worldwide on Twitter.
    “It just shows the acceleration of the global conversation and that Mashable is a force online,” said Mr. Cashmore, whose company worked with the United Nations Foundation ….”

Worldwide. Global. United. Online. Surely those are the essential thoughts, not just for me but all of us – and the hour.

Why, I wonder, is David ignoring them?

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