A Republican campaign manager said one of its stories was "irresponsible, reprehensible and simply cannot be tolerated by a civilized society." That was not long after former president George Bush had called one of its columns a "nasty, groundless attack." Time Magazine called one of its writers "a real, live bigot." And in stolid journalistic circles, words like "unethical," "sensationalistic" and "irresponsible" are frequently applied to its journalistic methods.
On Tuesday morning, the people behind all this opprobrium strolled into a newly furnished room on the top floor of a downtown San Francisco office tower and took their places around a bleached-maple conference table. The editors of Salon magazine, a dozen men and women mostly in their 30s and 40s, clad in jeans and sweaters and gripping coffees and laptops, had the cheery look of Internet employees, their modest salaries supplemented with generous stock packages (though Salon shares have fallen since its IPO last year). But theirs was still the lot of editors everywhere: To examine the unsightly mess of the day's events, and try to slice that murky dish into pleasantly edible pieces.
Over five years, their distinctive mess-slicing style has turned Salon into the first really novel journalistic form of the on-line age, a daily Web magazine whose chatty, winking style has had an enormous effect on newspaper and magazine journalism everywhere. More conventional publications have rushed to reprint or emulate Salon's material, whether the serious (a recent series on the marketing industry's incursions into the world of parenting, titled Family for Sale) or the frivolous (Salon's discovery of a thong-wearing Turkish stud on the Net, later turned into a running gag on David Letterman).
On this particular morning, for the first 20 minutes at least, those editors demonstrated Salon's more respectable face: The thoughtful, literate prose that led it to be called "The New Yorker of the Internet" in its early years and that attracts tens of thousands of bookish folk to gaze at a computer screen each morning.
David Talbot, Salon's editor and corporate founder, got things started. In his black suit and silvering hair, he had the sort of easy confidence and good looks that you usually see in the advertising industry these days. He polled opinions over the new business section's name ("biz," everyone agreed), and announced, to groans of disappointment, that Canada's Daniel Richler would not be able to produce the Salon TV series (they had loved his Newsworld series Big Life and wanted him to create a U.S. equivalent, but immigration officials had stalled, and now they were forced to find a new producer). Talbot then turned to the meat and potatoes. "So what do we have this week, slim pickings all around?"
Actually, no. Editors spoke up with strong stuff: A two-part series on the overmedication of children, written by a doubt-plagued pediatrician; an article by a black journalist asking why minority leaders don't speak up against the surprising number of hate crimes committed by blacks. Good foreign reporting from Belarus and Israel. And lots of material about Messrs. Bush and Gore by the likes of Anthony York and Fran Lebowitz.
And then the other side of Salon exposed itself.
Bill Wyman, the mop-haired entertainment editor, jumped into the conversation with a giddy enthusiasm. "I've got this guy who was a gay porn star, who was in the military and was in management, but never told his family that he'd been a prostitute and a porn actor -- they had no idea his résumé included things like Up the Deep End and Rear Admiral." And now this multitalented man has applied to appear on the CBS TV series Survivor, in which a group of "ordinary" people will be dropped on a desert island festooned with TV cameras and will try to live together for six weeks. How will he tell his family he's about to become famous as a former porn actor? The guy tells all, in gripping prose.
"He's the original whore with a heart of gold," deadpanned executive editor Gary Kamiya.
On the far side of the table, Jennifer Foote Sweeney was smiling and shaking her head. She runs the Mothers Who Think section, one of Salon's most successful inventions, devoted to counterintuitive essays on family, gender and social mores (it published the series on marketing.) "You know," she said, "It's going to be another doorknob piece."
Everyone laughed, but you could see Talbot and some of the higher-minded editors wince. In recent months, trying to build a bigger audience, Salon's editors have walked a thin tightrope between journalistic credibility and audience-grabbing sensation. They've ended up tumbling onto the net several times.
"The doorknob piece" was the most recent, and the timing couldn't have been worse. Salon, in an effort to become a primary source of breaking-news reporting, has devoted extensive resources to covering the U.S. presidential campaigns and by February, it had become an oft-cited source. And then the California editors decided to send a reporter to hang out at the campaign offices of Gary Bauer, the most right-wing of Republicans. In a typically unorthodox move, they decided to send Dan Savage, a flamboyant sex columnist, potty-mouth and gay activist.
The result, titled Stalking Gary Bauer, caused Salon to be condemned vocally by politicians, competitors and much of the mainstream media. It was a gonzo escapade in the satirical tradition of Hunter S. Thompson and Abby Hoffman: Savage, who had the flu when he visited the offices, wrote that in an effort to infect the candidate, he had run around the office licking keyboards, pens and, notably, doorknobs. And he said he had falsely registered as an Iowa Republican in order to vote against Bauer in that state's caucus.
"America has become really humourless about these things," Talbot said after the meeting. He quit his editorial job at the San Francisco Examiner five years ago after editing a strike paper that he enjoyed more than the daily itself. He felt that American newspaper-writing had become mired in a world of politically correct blandness.
The vital old mix of gravity and gossip, he felt, could be regained on the Web. Five years later, the move has given him a staff of 60, more than $50-million in market capitalization on a corporation that lost about $5.6-million on revenues of $30-million in its last quarter (which is considered passably promising in the dotcom world), shares that bat wildly about the Nasdaq exchange, a set of acquisitions that includes venerable on-line communities such as The Well and a reputation that is either one of the best or one of the worst in the media, depending who you ask.
"What we're trying to do is to steer a course here, and it's not too easy. Sometimes we go off the charts on one side or another. The course we're trying to steer is to be more lively, colourful, crusading, enterprising, provocative -- all those things that American journalism has long ceased to be, I think, in the age of media monopolies. We've tried to burst through those dull journalistic formulas, and take more risks. But the risk is that you'll sometimes do something that's embarrassing."
The doorknob scandal broke just as Salon was assembling one of the biggest investigative stories of the year. In an article titled Prime-Time Propaganda, the magazine revealed most of the major TV networks had allowed the White House to insert antidrug messages into series in exchange for payments. That story, which turned into a front-page scandal that lasted for weeks, should have been Salon's break into credibility. Instead, the magazine's soiled reputation actually kept the story from being taken seriously by some major newspapers for several days.
It didn't help that a few months earlier Salon had been stung on an ill-conceived biography of George W. Bush, which said he had been charged with cocaine dealing in the early 1970s and had used family connections to get off lightly. The author turned out to be a former felon, his "sources" fictitious, and the story had been drawn directly from a splashy gossip column that Salon had run in September, repeating this longstanding but utterly unsubstantiated story.
"We pulled back on that one really quickly," Talbot says, and it is true that Salon did a good job of helping expose the book's fraudulent design. Still, they ended up with egg on their faces. In Republican circles, the magazine has a reputation as a Clinton-administration house organ, and not without reason. Even though Salon tries to run a conservative article each day, it is still remembered as the first publication to have revealed, in 1998, that Republican House Leader Henry Hyde's marriage had not been without its infidelities, just as Hyde was about to prosecute Bill Clinton for the same. Hyde stepped down, Salon became a household name, and the fight hasn't ended.
"We all have debates about how much good it did us," says Joan Walsh, the news editor, who joined Salon from Newsweek shortly after the Hyde affair. "It put us on the map, but it also marked us as Clinton apologists and as yet another Web scandal sheet."
There is a delicious paradox in all of this: Every time a major politician or journalist condemns Salon for its latest outrage, its readership increases measurably, to the point that as many as 3.4 million people a month visit the site (in practice, this means that a popular article will be seen by 150,000 to 200,000 people -- modestly strong figures for a national magazine). This is what Talbot means by "balance:" Each day's issue contains some serious reporting, often by top writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Garrison Keillor, but the staff knows that it is the silly, sexy pieces that gather millions of "hits" (and in Internet publishing, advertisers pay a fraction of a cent for each hit). So, like an upstart paper on a crowded newsstand, Salon offers a sex-related story every day, as a matter of policy. There is an editor responsible for the sex story -- her section is called Urge -- though lots of other sections chip in.
Among dozens of publications on the Web, Salon is the only one to have emerged from the insular on-line community and become an influential force in journalism. This has driven other on-line journalists crazy, and none more than Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate magazine, which was supposed to be the Internet's respectable journalistic voice. Owned by Microsoft and modelled after Kinsley's previous publication, The New Republic, Slate offers intelligent and respectable commentary on the day's events, especially in U.S. politics ("I don't think the world needs more scoops," Kinsley said last year). It is well produced and admired by journalists -- and virtually unread outside of narrow Washington and newsroom circles.
"They're primarily concerned with stirring up a fuss and less concerned with what the fuss is," Kinsley said of Salon in a newspaper interview last month, after defending himself a tad desperately in The New York Post: "We have buzz, too -- we're not all that straightlaced. But we don't have to go around licking doorknobs. . . . We get plenty of buzz without whoring after it."
Talbot responded by upping the ante, in typical Salon fashion: "Mike Kinsley wishes it were otherwise, but we've left them in the dust. . . . We're sexier, we're more fun. Mike Kinsley, if you've ever seen him, is not the sexiest guy in the world, and that's reflected in his product."
And so the fight has continued. It is really one of the oldest battles in journalism, between editors who aim for the mind and those who also aim for other, more responsive organs. It is the latter group -- from Addison and Steele on down to Tina Brown -- who tend to endure.
Talbot's philosophy, that easy commingling of the grave and the profane, the prurient and the purposeful, brings to mind the question posed by the poet in George Bernard Shaw's Candida: "Do you think that the things people make fools of themselves about are any less real and true than the things they behave sensibly about?" It was meant to be a rhetorical question. Here at Salon, it is a little more urgent, and editors seem to ask it, under their breath, pretty much every morning. Salon can be read at: http://www.salon.com