Salon’s New Deal; Editing

After a trial period earlier last year, Salon has decided to go ahead with a new way to stay alive, which is to allow non-subscribers to view its content — if they agree to view an ad first. Essentially, Salon is doing this because its subscription model is a big fat failure.

David Talbot, Salon’s amusingly dissembling editor, spins the rationale for this switch in a really interesting way, first by declaring the subscription fiasco as a moral victory (“Nearly 60,000 of you have signed up to become Salon Premium subscribers — far more than the doomsayers predicted would ever pay for our editorial services”) and then noting in the very next sentence that it’s also a business failure (“But to break even, Salon needs to sign up more of you”). It’s the one article on Salon today that you don’t need to sit through an ad to read, incidentally.

Talbot then rather incompletely lays Salon’s fiscal misfortunes at the door of the collapsing Internet ad market. “Even in the glory days of online publishing,” he intones, “advertising alone couldn’t pay the rent.” Maybe, but Salon also didn’t exactly look for rent in a cheap part of town, if you get my drift. There’s no point in discounting the online ad market collapse, but Talbot also conveniently ignores his own company’s famously prodigious burn rate and propensity for finding really interesting and creative ways to throw money out of high windows, such as spending $5 million to buy MP3Lit.com, a Web site offering spoken word recordings, in May of 2000 (really, how much does it cost to record an author reading?).

If Talbot and his pals had not spent the “glory days of online publishing” lighting piles of Benjamins in bonfire-like stacks to keep warm in those chilly San Francisco summers, it’s possible they’d have more fiscal maneuvering room today. So, yes, the online ad market sucks. But, that’s not the only reason Salon’s in financial trouble. The ad market is a downward slope, but Salon spent millions on a shiny greased toboggan to get down that slope as quickly as possible.

Talbot also paints the picture of a World Wide Web bereft of reading material: “In the past couple of years, the Web has become a graveyard for dozens of creative, independent sites,” he declares. On the other hand, in the past couple of years, it’s also seen a massive explosion in creative, independent Web sites in the form of blogs, some of which provide as good or better reading than the sites that have vaporized, and some of which are arguably now as influential as Salon itself when it comes to certain issues.

Talbot credits Salon for beating the drum on the recent Trent Lott controversy, but most of the early heavy lifting on that came from Josh Marshall and his TalkingPointsMemo.com site, with an assist from Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan, who linked to Josh from their own sites and added their own pungent commentary to make the point that disgust with Trent Lott’s comments weren’t only a lefty thing.

Salon does do good work and has good writers — even at its most smugly annoying, the site usually manages at least one good story a day. And it pays writers, a little fact which should never be overlooked. Nor are most blogs prime reading material — just enough of them are to make the daily trip around the Internet roughly the same timesuck it’s been since the 20th Century. But the point is, Salon’s not a lone voice crying out in the online wilderness. It’s merely the one in the most financial trouble.

(The irony here is of course that Salon has tried to capitalize on the blog revolution, literally, by offering up space for blogs on its servers for $40 a year. In Internet cultural terms, this is somewhat akin to one’s mom coming to pick you up from school wearing hip huggers and a midriff-baring cutoff that shows off her belly button tattoo. I don’t think this revenue scheme has been successful, either in attracting bloggers — who can get their own vanity domain and blogging software for the same price or less — or in marketing the bloggers that are there. The most successful blogger on Salon Blogs is Salon’s own Scott Rosenberg, who since 7/11/2002 has registered 337,505 hits (as of this writing), which averages out roughly 1,875 hits a day (“hits” being a meaningless stat, incidentally, since it could refer to page views or unique visits or discrete requests for files, of which several can be used to make up a single page). I get roughly the same sort of traffic — in unique visitors — on a daily basis, and I don’t update every day or have the advantage of one of the leading online magazines flogging my site. Glenn Reynold’s Instapundit, as a comparison, is averaging about 60,000 unique visits a day. It’s like every single Salon subscriber visiting Instapundit on a daily basis.)

All of this may lead you to think that I think the “view an ad, get content” content scheme is a bad one. Actually, I don’t — if Salon can make it work, more power to ‘em. As a working freelance writer, I’m in no rush to see a paying market (even one I’ve never been in) vaporize. And while I think a significant portion of people won’t click through an ad every single day (not because they’re anti-advertising — the whole “information wants to be free” mantra is so 1999 — but because they don’t want to waste mouse clicks), I think significantly more will put up with an ad than will shell out $30 for a Salon subscription. Which is the whole point.

I do suspect that Talbot, et al hopes that getting people to view the premium content this way will help convert some of those non-subscribers to subscribers, either because they find they like the premium stuff, or because they get tired of wading through the ads. I’ll be interested to see if this happens. My gut says it won’t — it’s not as if Salon hasn’t been around for a while, and those readers who wanted to avoid advertising have already been signed up (this is why I’ll still pay the subscription fee once mine runs out later this year).

Interestingly, Salon is also offering an intermediate, $18.95 level of access, which allows access to all its content without forcing you to sit through an ad, but still has advertising on the text pages — basically, Salon as it was circa the turn of the millennium. That’s a fascinating idea. I don’t know how successful it will be, since someone who’s willing to pay $20 a year for Salon would probably be willing to pay $30. But it has almost a nostalgic tinge to it, a return to a more innocent time when when online magazines thought they would take over the world, and spent millions on companies whose product could have been easily replicated just about for free. Ah, to be young again.

***

Time is getting close for The Rough Guide to the Universe – final edits are due next Monday, so I’m poring through galleys looking for grammar and formatting errors, of which (of course) there are plenty, primary among them omissions of metric system measurements for temperatures, distances, weights and so forth. The book is to be published more or less simultaneously in North America and the UK, and rather than publish two separate versions, one with metric and one with imperial measurements, we’re putting them both in. So for example, I’d say the Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of 93 million miles/150 million km. Unfortunately, we arrived at this decision halfway through writing the book, so many of the early chapters are missing metric, which I’m now rather laboriously putting back in.

This is, incidentally, yet another reason why it rocks to live in the Internet era, since instead of having to calculate the values with a calculator or in my own head, either of which would be monstrously error-prone, and would drive me to ram a rusty spike through my temple to stop the pain of math, I merely go to OnlineConversion.com and let it handle all the heavy lifting for me. I don’t know why Robert Fogt, the guy who put OnlineConversion.com up, thought it would be a grand idea to do so, but man, I’m glad he did. Bob, if you’re reading this, you get a free copy of the book because you saved my brain from spasming uncontrollably. I thank you. My brain thanks you.

While I’m editing, I’m also getting a kick out of how I’ve been edited in the book by my Rough Guide editor. As some of you may know, Rough Guides is a publisher based out of London, so its editors also (and understandably) tend to be Britishers of some description or another. This means that they tend to “Britishize” the material I send them (or “Britisise,” as they might spell it). The most obvious example of this is the extra “u” in words like “color,” but there are are also distinct British colloquialisms that were inserted to replace distinctly American ones, and incidental comments have suddenly become Anglocentric — a reference to the Boston Marathon is now a reference to the London Marathon.

The end result is a book voice that sounds like me, had I been born and raised roughly 6,000 miles north east of where I actually was. The same thing happened with Money Online, the first book that I did for Rough Guides, so now I wonder if the people who I meet who have read the books first ever find it odd that I don’t have an English accent. I suppose I could fake one. It would never fly in the UK, where apparently accents change depending what side of a street you were raised on, but here in the US if you vaguely imitate Hugh Grant, you’re fine. I already find it easier to sing on-key when I fake an accent (this from spending a significant portion of my teenage years singing along to Depeche Mode and other euro-dork bands), so going wholesale over to the speaking voice would just be a final evolution. And Americans automatically seem to assume that people with English accents are smarter anyway. That would be a real advantage on any publicity tour, because I am trying to sell an astronomy book, after all. It’s something to think about.

On the other hand, the smartest Englishman I know about doesn’t sound British, he sounds like a Speak and Spell. I don’t think I’ll be imitating his voice. Then everyone would know I’m faking it.

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