At one time, Web magazines such as Slate and Salon were
hailed as harbingers of a new media order. Today they're pulling in readers but
hemorrhaging money -- and no one is following in their footsteps. What's going
by Dan Kennedy
Three years ago this month,
debuted amid extraordinary hype
and fanfare. Bankrolled by Microsoft and edited by celebrity policy wonk
Michael Kinsley, Slate was billed as a breakthrough in the evolution of
the Web as a serious journalistic medium. Ken Auletta weighed in with a buttery
put Kinsley, who had moved from
Washington, DC, to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, on its cover,
clad in raingear and face to face with a big old Pacific Northwest salmon.
It was a heady time for online journalism. Slate was the third
high-profile general-interest Web magazine. The previous fall, a band of
exiles from the San Francisco Examiner, armed with $100,000 in seed
money from Apple Computer, had started
Salon. A year before that,
magazine had launched HotWired,
a Web offspring that was,
in some ways, better than its paper-and-ink parent. Slate, Salon,
and HotWired all offered energetic takes on politics, culture, media,
and technology. Surely, with Web usage growing at an exponential rate, the Big
Three webzines would soon grow into 50. Or 5000, for that matter.
Today, against all expectations, there are not 5000 but, rather, a measly two.
The Web has indeed become the communications phenomenon of our time. The number
of Americans 16 and older who use it grew from 66 million to
83 million, or 40 percent of the adult population, between 1997 and
1998, according to a survey by
Thanks to fevered speculation,
companies such as Amazon.com,
which has lost millions of dollars, have
a higher stock-market valuation than real-world mega-retailers such as
Barnes & Noble and
No doubt even your grandmother (or a grandmother near
you) has purchased something online. But the Internet frenzy has not extended
HotWired was downsized last year into a solid but unsexy
technology-only site. Salon and Slate are still going strong,
with vibrant content that rivals national magazines such as the
and the New Republic
in seriousness, but with shorter pieces
and more bite. Each, though, has lost what has been estimated at millions of
dollars. Salon, which now bills itself as Salon.com, is preparing to
sell stock at an initial public offering (IPO) later this year in an attempt to
raise more cash, as well as to enrich founder/editor-in-chief/chairman David
Talbot and other top editors. Slate is scrambling to catch up after
abandoning an unsuccessful year-long experiment in which it charged a $19.95
subscription fee -- thus reinforcing a truism that the only Web content people
will pay for is financial advice and pornography.
All of which raises a question: what happened?
The simplest answer is that nothing's happened -- that it's still early, and
financial viability will arrive at some unspecified moment in the future. "I
still believe very definitely what I believed when I came out here, which is
that the economics of the Internet will make this kind of thing profitable,
because of the money you save on paper, printing, and postage," says Kinsley
(see "The Kinsley Report," below right). Adds Salon executive editor Gary
Kamiya: "I do think that we will see other attempts made. It's hard to know
what the timetable of that will be." (Kamiya could not speak specifically about
Salon's profitability or lack thereof because of a mandated "quiet
period" leading up to the company's forthcoming IPO. Talbot, who was traveling
last week, did not respond to an e-mail
seeking comment -- and, of course, he is bound by the same rules.)
According to a study by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers and the
Internet Advertising Bureau,
the value of Net ads nearly doubled from 1997 to 1998, from
$900 million to $1.9 billion. Similar increases are projected for
coming years. But given that the big news in 1998 was that the value of
Internet advertising had finally surpassed that of outdoor billboards (nearly
$1.6 billion), it's obvious that the Internet advertising market still has
a lot of growing to do. Besides, even print magazines can take five, six, or
more years to become profitable.
Sports Illustrated, to name a
well-known example, took more than a decade. The publishers of webzines, then,
have a doubly difficult task: growing their products and growing their medium
"While people talk a lot about the low barriers to entry, to create a viable
publication actually takes a fair amount of capital," says Stefanie Syman,
executive editor and co-publisher of
Feed, a four-year-old
media-and-culture webzine with a considerably more modest budget than those of
the Big Two. "We'd like to be breaking even soon. But I think it's unreasonable
to expect that sites will be breaking even in a market that's far from
Those who look to the Web as a revolutionary environment for a new wave of
independent journalism shouldn't be too sanguine, since they may be waiting for
a future that will never arrive. Though there are literally thousands of modest
webzines, ranging from one-person rantfests to the thoughtful essays and
commentary offered by the likes of Feed,
(a purveyor of "literate smut"), real reporting costs money. Ultimately, it's
important that Slate, Salon, and other Web publications become
profitable, not because every 28-year-old content editor has a God-given right
to become an IPO millionaire, but because journalism is expensive.
Besides, Salon and Slate are both so good that it would be a
damn shame if the paradigm they've established can't grow and prosper.
Each has taken a decidedly different route to get where it is. Salon,
by far the more wide-ranging, even "alternative," of the two, is also loopily
uneven. The diversity of opinion is a strength; what might be euphemistically
described as the diversity of quality is not. (Disclosure: I wrote regular
media commentary for Salon for much of 1997.) Salon burst into
the mainstream last year with portentous but impenetrable coverage of an
alleged conspiracy involving independent counsel Ken Starr, right-wing
financier Richard Mellon Scaife, and Whitewater figure David Hale. Salon
also, to its credit, broke one of the year's most important stories: the
home-wrecking past of unctuous impeachment hypocrite Henry Hyde. Unfortunately,
David Talbot undermined that scoop by writing a smug, self-righteous editorial
in which he asserted that "ugly times call for ugly tactics," thus cementing
Salon's reputation as Bill Clinton's best friend. Never mind that other
Salon columnists, most notably Camille Paglia and David Horowitz,
regularly lambaste Clinton.
Salon has expanded enormously in recent months, and intends to expand
even more in the future. Indeed, senior editor Scott Rosenberg says the
magazine metaphor doesn't even fit anymore (hence the "Salon.com"); he
calls it instead "a network of Web sites." These sites are devoted to topics
such as books, media, politics, technology, parenting ("Mothers Who Think"),
and lots and lots of sex, mainly in the form of overly intellectualized dirty
talk for self-absorbed twentysomethings. Though much of the writing sparkles in
Salon, there's a sense that adult supervision is almost nonexistent; too
often, pieces appear to get in merely for their sheer outrageousness.
The Kinsley report
It's not quite accurate to say that the pre-Slate Michael Kinsley was a
creature of Old Media. Following stints editing the New Republic and
Harper's, he spent nearly seven years co-hosting CNN's Crossfire
-- as new a medium as there was before the rise of the Internet.
Still, as a familiar inside-the-Beltway figure, Kinsley inspired considerable
skepticism among some of the Net's early pioneers. Many New Media pundits
gleefully predicted he would be back in Washington (DC, that is) within
Instead, Kinsley's still in Washington State and still running Slate,
despite a highly public dalliance with the New Yorker last summer. And,
backed by Bill Gates's Godzilla-size checkbook, Kinsley has created something
unique -- a cross between a newsmagazine and a journal of opinion, with updates
throughout the day.
Kinsley talked about what he's learned, and what's next, in a conversation
last week with the Phoenix.
Q: Why has no one followed Slate and Salon in
attempting to launch a well-funded, general-interest Web magazine?
A: It turns out to be harder than people thought -- not necessarily
harder than I thought -- to make this kind of thing work. It takes a
print magazine typically seven or eight years to become profitable. And we're
building a market.
The Web is a place that is torn by fashion, as you know. Three years ago, the
fashion was content -- "content is king," that was the big cliché. Then
the fashion became transactions, commerce. Now the fashion is portals. So I
would say the main reason there aren't webzines starting hither and thither is
not anything in particular that has happened in real life, but, rather, the
tides of fashion have shifted.
Q: You once said it was important for readers to pay at least
something for content, because a publication that was entirely dependent on
advertising could have problems with its editorial independence. Yet you
recently abandoned your strategy of charging a subscription fee for
Slate. What's your current thinking?
A: If you had your choice of being subscriber-supported or
advertiser-supported, you would probably choose to be reader-supported. That
was my basic point.
Although I've been thinking about that lately, because my friend Meg
Greenfield just died. All the obituaries discussed the fact that she came to
the Washington Post when the Reporter went out of business. And
the reason the Reporter went out of business was because the readers
deserted them in droves when they supported the war in Vietnam. And so that
sort of made the point that readers can be persnickety and aren't necessarily
reliable supporters of your independence either.
The best thing's a mix. But the Web wasn't ready for it.
Q: Last year, you told the New York Times, "It's important to
us to break even and to be a business, not someone's charity case." Yet even
many high-quality print magazines lose money. How does Slate make it to
A: I still believe very definitely what I believed when I came
out here, which is that the economics of the Internet will make this kind of
thing profitable, because of the money you save on paper, printing, and
Our models include the Economist, Time, Newsweek, and
also the New Yorker and the New Republic. Many of these magazines
are in fact profitable, even though they have to pay for paper, printing, and
postage. So I don't think it's hopeless -- I think it's definitely doable, and
it remains my main goal.
Q: What's the most surprising thing you've learned doing this?
A: I guess I'm going to look like a fool for being surprised, but the
enormous demands for speed and immediacy. I started out thinking we would
literally be a weekly magazine published on the Web. Yet we were updating every
day, from day one. Now we're updating constantly. We hear from readers who say,
"It's been 45 minutes since the school shooting, and you have nothing on it."
Q: You must feel like you're expected to be more of a TV station
than a magazine.
A: That's one of the things we're definitely trying to resist. And it's
not only the timeliness aspect, but the multimedia. With the coming of greater
bandwidth, it's going to get easier and easier, and therefore more and more
expected of you, to have video and to have audio. One of the things I'm
determined to resist is turning Slate into TV by other means. We are
going to cling to the print metaphor. Although we hope to use video and other
big-bandwidth things in useful and creative ways, we don't want to become a TV
You know, people are constantly suggesting, "Why don't you take your e-mail
dialogues, put two people in a chair, and have them do it on video?" My answer
is, we think e-mail
is a medium that is better at communicating serious ideas in a lively way than
Q: Last summer, after you almost became editor of the New
Yorker, you said that was the only job for which you would have left
Slate. Do you see yourself at Slate long-term, or after three
years are you looking to do something else?
A: I'm not going to be here for the rest of my life, but I'm going to
be here for several more years at the very least. I'm still having a blast. And
maybe I will be here for the rest of my life. I did Crossfire for six
and a half years, and I'm enjoying this at least as much as I enjoyed that.
Salon's Kosovo material has been remarkably insightful, one of the few
indispensable supplements to the
New York Times.
Media critic James Poniewozik, who's leaving for
is sharp and smart. On the other
hand, "Alt," a new weekly column by Jenn Shreve on the alternative press, is
the very definition of vapid: once-over-lightlies of pieces she barely seems to
have read. She's had both good and bad things to say about the Phoenix,
so let's take an outside example:
a recent piece
in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
on the environmental devastation in Latin America being caused by
industrialized coffee-growing. The Bay Guardian recommended that people
instead buy more-expensive shade-grown coffee, and published information on
where to get it. Feel-good political correctness? Well, sure. But it was a
solid story about an important topic. Shreve, though, dismissed it as
"bad alternative journalism 101,"
and included a sophomoric six-point checklist with
such gems as "Make sure your liberal guilt-trip has a capitalist destination by
providing contact info for a list of companies happy to overcharge you for the
easing of your overburdened conscience." Blech.
By contrast, Slate has made a virtue of consistency. Kinsley, a former
editor of the New Republic and of
Harper's, has suffused
Slate with his way-inside-the-Beltway sensibility. The result is an
intelligent, idiosyncratic take on the news of the day that actually
saves you time: Slate's breakthrough innovation is a series of
regular features summarizing domestic and international newspapers, magazines,
reviews of hot movies and books ("Summary Judgment"), even the Sunday-morning
talk shows -- a godsend for those of us who need to know who said what, but who
regard actually sitting down and watching these things as akin to
unanesthetized root-canal surgery. Also unlike Salon, Slate
remains a magazine, more or less: though it's grown, it hasn't metastasized
into a "network," and it's fairly simple to get a handle on all of its content.
Slate offers erudite, humor-tinged gossip on politics, culture, and
exchanges on books and news; and occasional longer (but not long) features. A
recent example was Mickey Kaus's
of Ken Starr's
much-criticized prosecution of Julie Hiatt Steele, the ex-friend of alleged
presidential groping victim Kathleen Willey. Kaus concluded that Starr may be
crazy, but he's not stupid: if Steele had been convicted of lying about
Willey's story, Starr hoped to flip her and trace her lies to the White House.
In other words, rather than trying unfairly to punish a minor player, as the
conventional media spin had it, Starr was really looking to build another
obstruction-of-justice case against Bill Clinton.
Slate's hardly perfect. For one thing, Kinsley's guiding hand is so
firm that none of his writers has really emerged as a star even though they
include excellent contributors such as Timothy Noah, David Plotz, William
Saleton, and Jodie Allen. (The exceptions are Scott Shuger, who serves up
"Today's Papers" with too much spin and attitude for my tastes, but who has
become something of a minor celebrity, and
New York magazine financial
guru James Surowiecki, who's a big deal in his own right.) Salon, by
contrast, promotes many of its writers with flattering caricatures and
personality-oriented hypes. For another, Slate's DC-centricity gives it
focus but limits its appeal. But Slate's biggest problem by far is its
reliance on Microsoft's brain-dead Web technology. Without question,
Slate is one of the slowest-loading, buggiest sites I use regularly,
with mangled graphics and weird "broken pipe" messages cropping up every time I
log on. Then again, I use a Macintosh, running Netscape; no doubt Bill Gates's
minions have optimized Slate for Internet Explorer and Windows 98.
Sounds like something for Salon -- and maybe the Justice Department --
To be sure, the economics of offering original journalism on the Web à
la Salon and Slate are daunting. In a recent analysis of
Salon's IPO, Slate reported that Salon spent
$6.4 million during the last nine months of 1998, while taking in just
$2.1 million. Financial journalist Christopher Byron, writing for
(a finance-and-investing webzine that is to the
Wall Street Journal
what Slate and Salon are to the New York
Times), wrote recently that investing in Salon "amounts to little
more than a new way to lose money." (Cheeky, given that TheStreet.com, which
recently made multimillionaires of its founders, hedge-fund manager James
Cramer and New Republic owner Martin Peretz, is itself considered by
many financial analysts to be grossly overvalued.) Slate's numbers,
buried deep within Microsoft's ledgers, are not so readily available, but are
generally presumed to be as depressing as Salon's.
Even so, it's rather amazing that Slate and Salon continue to be
out there alone. Dwight Garner, who was book editor at Salon before
becoming a top editor at the
New York Times Book Review
last December, recalls numerous panicky e-mails
circulated among Salon staffers about rumors of competition -- rumors
that invariably turned out to be unfounded or overblown. "I've been surprised
all along that more people didn't try and jump in -- enterprising young people,
the sort who in an earlier era might have started an alternative weekly," says
Garner. "It seems like the most obvious thing in the world. It kind of
depresses you about the state of American journalism."
Internet pioneer Howard Rheingold,
a writer/speaker/consultant and the author
of The Virtual Community (1993), thinks the lack of general-interest
webzines may have something to do with "the hypersegmentation of the market."
Just as cable TV fragmented the mass reach of network TV, the Web, with
thousands of sites catering to narrow interests, is slicing the media audience
still further. "It's very difficult to make large amounts of money that way,"
Rheingold notes. "It challenges the business model on which mass media are
Indeed, there is already evidence that online journalism works best when money
is removed from the equation. Take Matt Drudge, the Internet's first
journalistic superstar. He was just scraping along when his
Drudge Report was his sole
source of income; but he was able to parlay that into a high-paying gig on the
Fox News Channel.
Or consider the case of a real journalist, Brock Meeks, whose
during its heyday in the mid '90s, reported with
scatological fervor on regulatory outrages and Internet censorship. Meeks, now
chief Washington correspondent for
always had a day job. Thus, he
saw the Internet as a way to get out information he would otherwise have to
keep to himself, not as a way to get rich.
"Can we make money from that? I seriously doubt it. Because
is an equal-opportunity offender," says Meeks, who's looking at
ways of reviving his pioneering newsletter.
"Bell South and
AOL aren't going to
sign up as sponsors, because CyberWire Dispatch would relish biting the
hand that feeds it. Fortunately, I've always had a straight job that could
support my outlaw journalistic activities."
One of the most important outlets for reporting on the Web is the
a project started in November 1995 -- the same month as
Salon -- by former
and Newsweek investigative
reporter Robert Parry. Featuring detail-oriented digging with a leftist
slant, the Consortium reports on topics such as US involvement in
Guatemala's human-rights disaster, the Pinochet case, and the right-wing forces
behind the Clinton impeachment effort. Recently, Parry scored a coup
when Newsweek picked up on a Consortium report that intelligence
forces were preparing to jam up Slobodan Milosevic's overseas bank accounts.
But Parry, without marketing money or fancy graphics, gets just 500 to 1000
hits per day, far below the 1.2 million "unique users" Salon claims
it attracts on a monthly basis. Mostly he gets along on foundation money,
contributions, and the occasional resale of an article to progressive
publications such as
In These Times.
He also publishes a print magazine,
IF, that's a tribute both to I.F. Stone and to George Seldes's In
"One of the ideas of the Internet was that you would have an explosion of
original material," Parry says. "But it is very difficult to sustain this kind
of work financially. That's the area where I think the Internet has really not
met its promise."
As Parry's experience suggests, one of the problems with serious online
journalism is that it can be difficult or impossible to track down. Veteran
progressive journalist Danny Schechter, the executive producer and co-founder
of the television-production company
is working with
a British operation, to bring alternative, independent foreign
news to the Web. The idea, says Schechter, is to take good work that's already
being done by journalists and activists and bring it all to one recognizable
place so that people can find it. Globalvision and Oneworld.net are also
working on a Web project called the Media Channel that will aggregate media
criticism from a wide variety of sources.
"The cost of production has come way down relative to what it once was,"
Schechter says. "Now we're concerned about the means of distribution in a
monopolized marketplace. Anything that breaks through that distribution
bottleneck is positive and good."
In a media universe overwhelmed by bland, look-alike news outlets espousing the
same corporate-friendly, centrist points of view, it's vital that independent
voices be heard. It's inconceivable to think that the Web can't play a role in
The Net should be an ideal medium in which to incubate all kinds of new
journalistic projects. Unfortunately, even as it gives Brock Meeks and Robert
Parry and Danny Schechter a theoretical chance to be heard, it also promotes
the safe and the familiar. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen
points out how much easier the Web has made it for him to keep up with the
the Boston Globe, and the
Los Angeles Times -- and
notes that the time he spends with those papers is time he
doesn't have to spend with new media ventures.
Rosen has a suggestion for would-be Internet journalists: real interactivity
-- not just occasionally responding on a webzine's reader forum, such as
Salon's "Table Talk"
arguing, encouraging true give-and-take. In essence, it would be an electronic
form of civic journalism, the reader-involvement model of newspapering that
Rosen has espoused for years.
"The sovereignty of text, to put it in academics' terms, is shifting rapidly.
It's a power shift, and it's moving toward the audience," says Rosen. "You are
going to need journalists, but journalists are going to need to be interactive
in some way that they haven't been traditionally. There are publics online,
already formed around issues and concerns. It would be interesting to take a
group -- say, `Human Rights Worldwide' -- and try to create an interactive
publication for those people. I'm kind of hoping there will be a generation of
journalists raised on the Web who see interactivity as an opportunity create a
new genre of journalism." In a culture that's crying out for genuine human
connection, that suggestion might be the most truly revolutionary of all.
Regardless of whether Slate and Salon ever become solidly
profitable, or whether others follow in their footsteps, it's clear that
Internet journalism will not evolve in simple, predictable ways. But it may be
no exaggeration to suggest -- as many have -- that the Web is the most
important advance in publishing since
the Gutenberg press. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we'll begin to see
more journalism that's worthy of such a momentous development.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.