Credit the damp, dark, interminable Northeastern winters for sending many a creative soul inside to ruminate on entire worlds of imagination. Back in 1974, it was the role-playing games Diplomacy and Dungeons & Dragons that filled those chilly days. The players exchanged turns through the mail, and many, like Rosenberg, published newsletters for their fellow gamers. It was "a community of people who were simultaneously readers and publishers," said Rosenberg, "who believed that something could be significant on a small scale, that there could be fun and value in producing a publication without being beholden to a boss or uber-editor." These gaming communities were harbingers of the on line communities to come - bloggers in bell-bottoms.
In the space of a few short years Rosenberg went from tinkering in his basement to producing a daily newspaper. At New York's tony Horace Mann private school he learned to write like a journalist under the tutelage of senior classmate Charlie Varon, now a noted San Francisco playwright. At Harvard, on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, he helped produce a daily paper with a rich radical tradition. The paper had been instrumental during the high-protest years of the late 60's and early 70's and there remained "a romantic aura around that - a sense that great battles had been fought," said Rosenberg. Forget the secret societies of Harvard, "we did our misbehaving on the page."
The call to adventure came in the form of an invitation to journey west where Will Hearst, grandson of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, was infusing alternative press mojo into the staid San Francisco Examiner. Rosenberg had established himself as a theater, film and book critic in the pages of the Village Voice, American Lawyer and the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix. Criticism provided a way for him to continue to express his opinions, something that he had been doing since those first furtive taps on the Olivetti when he was 12 - something he was not about to give up.
The prosperous 80's slowed the decay of the crumbling Hearst empire, but only temporarily. Rosenberg and his fellow writers built a widely-acclaimed arts section for the Examiner. He received the George Jean Nathan Award in 1989 for his work, noting his "clear, witty, elegant style." The beginning of the end of his days at the Examiner came when San Francisco's newspaper workers went on strike in November of 1994.
The two week strike slammed one door closed and opened another. After the strike management of the Examiner remained bitter toward the workers. During the strike the guild members did something extraordinary. They published a strike paper, the San Francisco Free Press, on a new medium: the world wide web. Rosenberg taught himself HTML and experienced the immediate gratification of web publishing for the first time. "The strike paper was just this kind of wonderful, exciting experience," he said. "All of the energy that I felt as a teenager publishing on my mimeograph, here it was again." Minus, of course, the fumes and thwack-thwack-thwack sounds.
One manager who was sympathetic to the workers at the Examiner was David Talbot, who had long hoped to start his own magazine. Finding investors to back a foray into the crowded world of glossy magazines was difficult at best, so Rosenberg and his associates encouraged Talbot to leave the Examiner and publish on the web. "Our colleagues viewed us as insane for leaving union jobs that were like having tenure, where you couldn't be fired unless you got drunk and assaulted someone," said Rosenberg. Crazy or not, Talbot, Rosenberg and several others took the leap. One year after the strike, in November of 1995, Salon.com was on line.
From the beginning, Salon was unique. Backed by investment from Adobe and hosted on the servers that had housed Apple's failed eWorld service, Salon was "created by a group of editors and writers rather than according to some marketing demographic," said Rosenberg. "David Talbot's original notion was to combine a certain level of intelligence with a certain amount of tabloid liveliness." Its long book reviews and overall literary quality fostered comparisons to the New Yorker. Salon was Time magazine's Web Site of the Year in 1996.
Salon embraces opinion but insists on truthfulness. "Objectivity is not really a part of Salon's DNA," said Rosenberg. "It is naive to think that a human being can be objective. We all know that reporters have perspectives of their own. When you read a story in the Atlantic, Harper's or in the New Yorker you know that the reporter is going to shape that material and give it a point of view." Opinion, yes, deceit, no. "If we know that something is not true we are not going to publish it," he said.
Fairness also dictates giving voice to opposing points of view, not simply following the party line. In 2000, Salon published a cover story by Andrew Sullivan, endorsing Bush. Salon's executive editor, Gary Kamiya, joined the chorus of praise for Bush's rousing speech given in the wake of 911. At the start of the current Iraq war, then senior news editor Ed Lempinen penned a fervent piece backing the war -- also a Salon cover story. "We'll do things like that that you wouldn't find at a campaign web site, and that I don't think you'd find at Fox News, frankly. When we publish a cover story endorsing Bush, it's by Andrew Sullivan and we're not editing it to make it less impassioned," said Rosenberg. "With Fox [News], you have this absurdity of this network that has the slogan "Fair and Balanced" which is just this ludicrous taunt, given what they are."
Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.
Publishing opposing views has its challenges. "I'll be really blunt," said Rosenberg, "it's a lot harder in 2004 to find intelligent people who will write a pro-Bush piece. They are few and far between."
In June of 1999, at the height of the internet bubble, Salon offered their IPO and Scott Rosenberg was made managing editor. The sudden infusion of cash presented its own problems. "For the year and a half to two years after our IPO clearly we spent way too much money," said Rosenberg, "it was in an era in which other people were doing so far more stupidly and aggressively than we were. We were supposed to grow big and take over parts of the market - that was the script."
Salon followed the script, ballooning to over 140 people and producing 40 to 50 pages of content every day. Excellent content from incredibly skilled writers, but too much too fast. Just a year after their IPO, the layoffs began. The talented friends that Rosenberg had surrounded himself with, he now had to let go. "It was one of the hardest things I've gone through in my life," he said.
Salon survived the dot-com implosion by cutting early and drastically. Their stock was de-listed from the NASDAQ just three and a half years from its IPO but things have stabilized in the face of many premature obituaries. Rosenberg, currently on a long overdue book-writing sabbatical, is hopeful, "For the last two years or so things have been really stable. The fact is, we've lost progressively less and less money. This year has seen a serious upturn in advertising."
As for the future of the net, Rosenberg says we'll have to wait and see:
I tend to think that we are, in the world of digital media, at about where TV was in 1960. That's the year that everyone watched Nixon and Kennedy debate before the camera, and realized that things were changing. But I don't think people then had any idea what was coming. The lessons people took from that were, you know, Nixon looked really bad, he needed a shave. And you might have come away thinking, the future's all about lighting! Or if you were a little more insightful maybe you started to think that we were moving toward a political system where a leader's appearance was going to matter more than his policies. But you could never have predicted Governor Schwarzenegger, or Fox News, or the Daily Show, or the Swift Boat Veterans for "Truth."
So we're where TV was in 1960 -- at a point where we know something is going to be hugely important, but not yet at the stage where we know exactly where it's going to take us. To the extent that an ever greater portion of people's media diet gets consumed in a two-way realm like the Net rather than a one-way broadcast universe, I have to think that's good. And to the extent that growing numbers of people see themselves as creators of media and not just recipients of messages, that can only be good for our culture and our democracy.
Whether slaying imaginary dragons, editorializing at Harvard, criticizing theater in San Francisco, or speaking truth to power on the web, Scott Rosenberg has never hesitated to saunter up to the table, in his own unassuming way, and roll the poly-sided dice. Even in the face of a second Bush administration, he's undaunted. "The Bush victory, however disheartening it is for most of us as citizens, is only good news for Salon as an institution. We've always thrived as an alternative, independent outlet, as a sort of smart and fearless opposition publication, and we now have such an abundance of stuff that cries out to be opposed, it's hard to know where to begin."