By Timothy J. Mullaney
Even in the lusty -- you could say lustful -- initial public offering market of 1999, the launch of Salon.com Inc. as a public company fizzled. And with shares of the buzzed-about-but-rarely-bought company now hovering around 55 cents apiece, almost no Web-content-related company could use a new business model more. So it's no real surprise that Salon, the San Francisco-based online magazine of letters, sex, and politics, is taking a crack at trying to convince people to pay for online content.
On Apr. 26, the site debuted Salon Premium, a $30-a-year set of enhancements that, so far, does not seem to be premium enough to make much difference. By spending the extra money -- no more, after all, than the cost of a year's subscription to any of the print magazines that Salon resembles to one degree or another -- you get a series of small benefits.
The site has already rolled out a handful of new features available only to people who subscribe. Notable among them is a daily White House column called Bushed!, devoted to the foibles of the Commander-in-Chief. This is not a particularly newsy column but is instead devoted largely to mocking Bush's malaprops and detailing the social habits of his kids, including an amusing bit on how someone posted pictures of the First Daughters on the Web site HotorNot.com, where users rank the looks of randomly rotated photos of both men and women. (The HotorNot audience liked them.)
FREE OR NOT?
There's also an expanded version of Amy Reiter's "Nothing Personal" column, which is nothing regular readers of the New York Post's Page Six wouldn't recognize as a pale imitation. Its debut includes reprinted National Enquirer nuggets about Arnold Schwarzenegger, quotes from the producer of Survivor, and recaps of British newspaper interviews with musical group Destiny's Child. Yawn.
The problem with Salon Premium is that it's not very different than regular Salon -- which reamains free. In fact, since Premium stories and content from the regular site appear on the same front page, it can be hard to tell which is which. In my first-day tests, some pages that loaded onto my computer bearing the Salon Premium logo I was also able to get from the PC of a colleague who hadn't paid (other stories, including the Bushed! column, were only teased on the main site).
The basic attitude brought to work at both parts of the site is identical. Both are obsessed with the notion that politics and entertainment are somehow different aspects of the same enterprise, a notion that gained currency especially during the Clinton years.
NOTHING IN COMMON.
Of course, seems to me that this part of Salon's reigning ideology is also bunk. It's a symptom of the same sophomoric reasoning that can lead Barbra Streisand to believe that she's a political strategist and never did completely convince either readers or advertisers to cozy up to George, the now-defunct John F. Kennedy Jr.-founded magazine based on the same calculation. Politics and show business are both played out in public, and both require that ideas be sold to the masses. But the ideas themselves, and the skills needed to understand, conceive, and execute them, have nothing at all in common. Unless, of course, you think Hollywood studio accountants would do fine chairing the Federal Reserve Board.
The bigger problem with Salon Premium so far is that it's not different enough from a lot of other magazines to make it stand out. Center-left opinion-oriented magazines abound in print. Salon editor David Talbot prefers to think of his creation as an online newspaper, but aside from daily wire headlines, it's really somewhere between George and The New Republic. Unless one thinks there's something exceptional about getting this kind of content on the Web, Salon is just another national journal of politics, celebrity, and show business.
Now plenty of these are successful: People comes to mind, a parallel that will almost certainly set Talbot's teeth to grinding, given that Salon is, to be fair, much quirkier and more interesting in its approach to the celebrity-politics-entertainment matrix than People ever has been. But most of these successes took years to nurture -- and to find a voice that's distinct enough to carve out a niche. Salon isn't completely there yet, and it may even have lost ground in the last year, as it has dropped writers to cut costs.
FOR PITY SAKE.
Salon hopes Premium is the first shot in a business model less dependant on advertising dollars. But to get people to buy Premium, the company has to better differentiate Salon Premium from Salon. The site itself indicates the editors know they're not there yet. When you register, one question asked is why you signed up, and one of the options is "I wanted to support Salon." The only way I could interpret that was to assume Salon's managers thought part of its audience was taking pity on the company, enough at least to shell out some dough to buy them some time.
They have my $30. I wish them the best. Salon is fun, and so is Salon Premium in its own way. But pity doesn't make a great business model.
Mullaney writes the Clicks & Misses column for BusinessWeek e.biz