The New York Times wrote the swan song when Salon co-founder David Talbot stepped down last week as editor-in-chief of the fabled Net mag. “Salon lived up to some of the journalistic hype, but it has had a tortured business history,” according to the article, which I retrieved via CNet. I should reveal my bias. I worked with Salon’s founding crew at the San Francisco Examiner in the 1990s, and have long admired their accomplishments and awards. I was closest to another Salon co-founder, Scott Rosenberg, who has taken a leave to write a book on software development but posts a blog on the Salon website. While I am predisposed toward admiration for Salon’s journalistic achievements, its business model has been shaky at best. Therein lies the lesson for all old media dogs trying to learn new tricks. The new media are relentlessly Darwinian compared to the environment in which paid writers now exist. (See Clay Shirky’s Fame vs. Fortun e essay which posits that creative people will write for free). On the web, as in print, the critical skills of advertising sales and cost controls trump editorial flair, which Salon certainly had. Lone wolf operations may thrive (more on those later). But Salon’s experience (and the fate of Slate) suggest it will be tough to create web media enterprises of any size.
Along these lines I recently showed a friend with an advertising and finance background a new media business plan that I’ve been developing. He poked it full of holes (which, is, I suppose what friends are for), then said even if the plan were successful, the person who sold the ads would end up holding the keys. Deflating, perhaps, but all the more so because it may be true.
“Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, your’re Mini Media.”