Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

Misbehaving on the page

By mikepence in Media
Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 04:13:49 PM EST
Tags: Interviews (all tags)

It started innocently enough, with a manual Olivetti typewriter at the age of 12, a writer's gateway drug if ever there was such a thing. By 1974, at the age of 15, Scott Rosenberg, the left-handed younger son of a physician, was huddled in the basement of his family's Queens house over his latest toy, a hand-cranked mimeograph machine. Now the world of publishing was at his fingertips and the steady thwack-thwack-thwack of copies coming off of the press joined the pungent scent of ink rising up the basement steps. The tie-dyed 60's had given way to the polyester 70's, but it still smelled like revolution.

Today Rosenberg is still front and center in the information revolution as managing editor and senior vice president for editorial operations of the popular on line magazine, Salon.com. He spoke with Kuro5hin about his 30-year journey from that Queens basement to downtown San Francisco, his struggle to maintain his distinctive voice from the mimeograph to the web, and his thoughts on the future of the net.

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."


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o Kuro5hin
o mimeograph
o Rosenberg
o Salon.com
o Charlie Varon
o Harvard Crimson
o San Francisco Examiner
o Village Voice
o American Lawyer
o Boston Phoenix
o George Jean Nathan Award
o San Francisco Free Press
o on line
o endorsing Bush
o praise for Bush's rousing speech
o fervent piece
o Andrew Sullivan
o Also by mikepence

Display: Sort:
Misbehaving on the page | 34 comments (28 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
Good stuff (2.42 / 7) (#3)
by rusty on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 01:24:16 AM EST

Now get him in here to answer some questions. I've got a couple. :-)

Not the real rusty
Dunno if he has the time (none / 1) (#6)
by mikepence on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 11:19:15 AM EST

But I will invite him to join in on the discussion here once the story is published.

[ Parent ]
Present and accounted for (3.00 / 2) (#18)
by scottros on Sat Dec 04, 2004 at 12:59:15 AM EST

Hey, I'm here, I'll do my best to read comments and respond. Keep in mind that as of a couple weeks ago I'm on leave from Salon, so I'm for the moment more of a private citizen and less of a working editor or company spokesperson. And I'm still trying to work out the hierarchical comment navigation. I'm more of a Well/WebCrossing linear-conversation kind of guy.

[ Parent ]
Hi Scott (3.00 / 2) (#21)
by rusty on Sat Dec 04, 2004 at 02:51:38 PM EST

Thanks for doing this interview, and even more for coming to comment on it. And as for negotiating the comments, try going to "Comment Preferences" on the right side of the page there, and put a "+" next to "Nested up to:" and blank the rest of those first section of fields. Might make it easier to follow.

My questions might be boring to you, because they're all basically financial/business-related, but I'll ask anyway.

I visited the Salon offices one time, in late 2000, when it was painfully clear to everyone that the boom was over and internet companies were dropping like flies. I remember my first thought when I saw the office after that long elevator ride was "These guys are doomed." I couldn't imagine what that top floor aerie in the heart of Market street was costing you (I found out later, and was not surprised). I'm glad and impressed that Salon is still around, and seemingly doing ok today. So, did you get out of that office lease, or renogotiate it?

Also, sort of following on that, I wondered at the time why Salon needed much of an office space to begin with. It seemed like it was a pretty likely candidate for a virtual company, without much need to have people actually in one physical location. Was there ever consideration of that?

And finally, about the subscriptions and day passes. I actually like the Day Pass thing quite a bit, because I'm not a regular Salon reader. I'll usually end up there from one blog or another a few times a month to read something. So it's not really worth it to me to pay for a subscription, but I don't mind sitting through thirty seconds of ad to just be able to read the article I came for. It seems like that program has been in place for a while now without any changes, so is the combination keeping you afloat? And why do you think it hasn't been picked up by others -- the WSJ, in particular, could really take a lesson on that.

Did I say finally before? I meant penultimately. So finally -- how have the TV commercials worked? I think Salon is the only internet publication I've seen TV ads for in a good long time. Have they made a difference?

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Some answers (3.00 / 3) (#22)
by scottros on Sat Dec 04, 2004 at 11:26:22 PM EST

Hi, Rusty -- I must have missed you on that visit in 2000, but I heard you talk a long time ago, on some panel or other, about K5 -- glad to see the site and community are still thriving.

On the offices: You know, I agree -- who wouldn't, from this rear-view mirror? -- that we overdid it. When we started Salon we subleased a bunch of desks in an architecture firm. Then we moved to a tiny hole in the wall in the then-barren China Basin Landing complex. Then to an only slightly more presentable office in an old building at 3d and Mission. When we went public, our CEO decided it was time for a proper home.

Now, a lot of decisions people made in summer 1999 looked unimaginable 2 years later. The thing is, real estate was never a decisive issue for Salon (the way it was, say, for the Industry Standard, which as I understand it was done in by its massive leases, which made Salon's look like very small potatoes). Even at the peak of our spending the overwhelming percentage of our expenditures were for people's salaries. I don't know all the ins and outs but I know that over time we had a series of negotiations and renegotiations with the landlord, we consolidated from two floors onto one floor, then last year we moved from that floor to a different floor of the same building, and things have worked out reasonably well.

Basically, if we'd been smarter and more modest in our real estate choices, it might have left us with a little more cash to burn on salaries, and we might have used it to save a handful more jobs a little longer, but it wouldn't have made any real difference in the shape of Salon's story, I don't think. People have every right to criticize us, and we spent more money than we should have for roughly a year and a half of our nine year life; but our big mistake was hiring too many people too fast, not renting big offices. And in none of our various locations did we ever own a single Aeron chair!

As for why we didn't go the virtual office route: That was really David Talbot's call. I think he is a believer in the newsroom dynamic and the value of "face time." While I started out thinking more along the lines of your question -- hey, we were an online publication, couldn't we function as a virtual office? -- after a few years I came more to agree with David. When the news is flying at you from all directions and you have to make fast decisions for a fast medium, it's a lot easier to do so when the key people are within shouting distance. That said, Salon has gotten pretty adept at coordinating people working in our S.F. home office, our substantial New York office and a smaller D.C. enclave. We even have a longtime staffer who works out of his St. Louis home. When there's big breaking news of some kind (Florida recounts, 9/11, etc.) we get the best of both worlds -- in person discussion and full-on Net-based remote control via IM, e-mail, and so forth.

Glad the Day Pass works for you. It took us some time to fine-tune the balance between Salon Premium and advertising. We started selling subscriptions at a time when advertising had nearly evaporated. We eventually landed on the Premium/Day Pass plan because we knew that someday advertising was likely to resurge and we needed to be able to take advantage of that. The result is all the good news in our financials this year. So yes, the combination is pretty much keeping us afloat! I don't know why others haven't adopted the Day Pass -- it would be great if they did, because one of the harder aspects of it is getting the ads themselves (the "creative"). Too often it has to be custom-made, the advertisers don't have anything suitable ready. Maybe if more sites used this approach that problem would diminish...

As for TV commercials: My colleague Patrick Hurley has been amazingly resourceful at getting these spots made very cheaply, and I think we've made good ones, but the reason we're still advertising goes back to a deal our then-CEO made something like 5 years ago, a stock deal with a cable network. Part of that deal gave us the right to keep running these ads. Aside from a brief (and quickly aborted) campaign at the height of the bubble Salon has never spent any significant amount of cash on TV ads. (It was bizarre, during some of our more touch-and-go moments as a business, that some reporters didn't get this, and thought that we were paying cash for TV time even while we were laying people off and struggling to survive!) I can't honestly say, though, that we have any good evidence TV advertising accomplishes very much in the way of driving traffic to a Web site. It's good for keeping your name in front of people, but if I were allocating an ad budget for a Web site today I'd spend my money online. I'm speaking here as a civilian, since this isn't really my job...

[ Parent ]

Thanks for the info (none / 0) (#23)
by rusty on Sat Dec 04, 2004 at 11:39:38 PM EST

I didn't mean to monday-morning quarterback the office thing -- I mean, it's easy to criticize a lot of things in retrospect, but I remember what it was like. I remember during one of the periodic "death of Salon imminent" rounds, maybe 2001 or early 2002, there was a lot of chatter about the office lease and how much it cost. Interesting to hear it was never actually that large a percentage of the total budget.

Following on the day pass thing, it seems like there has been an overall upward trend in advertising online, after the last couple of really awful years. I can see it here, in our own little nanocosm of the business, so I'm guessing it's probably more obvious on larger sites. Is there a point to which ad revenue could increase that would convince you to drop the subscription/day-pass model entirely?

And I forgot to ask in connection with the TV ad: was that TV-head-guy you? :-)

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Keep Subscriptions! (none / 0) (#33)
by memoryhole on Sat Dec 11, 2004 at 04:11:04 PM EST

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's looking at all those bloody ads out there. All flashy and attention-grabbing, and hideously ugly. That's why I use Privoxy to filter them out. If I couldn't subscribe, I simply wouldn't produce any revenue for them.

[ Parent ]
While this was informative and stuff, (none / 1) (#26)
by For Whom The Bells Troll on Mon Dec 06, 2004 at 06:20:17 AM EST

you really oughta hang out here in K5 more often:- folks here speak in one sentence or less, either providing interesting, but totally useless, information, or somehow insulting the poster's intelligence or both.

Consider how a normal Kuron would respond to Rusty's queries:


So, did you get out of that office lease, or renogotiate it?

Re-negotiate (the 'e' is proof of English's Franco-Norman roots; this dialectilisation is normal in Romance languages). We got out of the lease.

Was there ever consideration of that?

No, but you suck.

It seems like that program has been in place for a while now without any changes, so is the combination keeping you afloat?

DUH. Are you sure you're not a moron?

And why do you think it hasn't been picked up by others -- the WSJ, in particular, could really take a lesson on that.

And people ask why I think K5 is going down the drain. Clearly, WSJ and other Internet sites don't have the same creative energies as we do.

So finally -- how have the TV commercials worked? I think Salon is the only internet publication I've seen TV ads for in a good long time. Have they made a difference?

They're about as useful as asking the same question twice in the span of two sentences.


In short, work on your tone and style and get back to us after re-writing this. And oh, do remember to ask for editorial comments before putting it to vote.

The Big F Word.
[ Parent ]

Failure of the Day Pass (none / 1) (#27)
by wiredog on Mon Dec 06, 2004 at 08:58:34 AM EST

I run FireFox and it's easy to open a tab to, say, Wired, and read that while whatever ad is running at Salon for the day pass. I'm not sure if Salon regards this as a failure, as you get paid whether I watch the ad or not, but the advertiser probably would.

A couple of weeks ago, with my financial situation improving, I renewed my subscription. Which makes my abuse of day pas somewhat moot at this point.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

[ Parent ]

daily pass (none / 1) (#29)
by anmo on Mon Dec 06, 2004 at 03:00:32 PM EST

Do you make more money when I click on the daily pass or from 1/365th of an annual subscription? This info would help me decide whether to subscribe or not.

[ Parent ]
A Fair And Balance Paraphrase (2.50 / 4) (#9)
by thelizman on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 02:31:28 PM EST

"I'll be really blunt," said thelizman, "it's a lot harder in 2004 to find intelligent people who will write an anti-Bush piece. They are few and far between."
Lets face it folks. The debate going on in the public arena has been one of "Bush Sucks" vs "Bush Rocks". The left wasn't even trying to make a reasonably intelligent arguement against Bush, and the right was sick of even trying to argue with the left at all.

Oh, and +1 mikepence. He is about the only leftwit on this site who can form a coherent sentence, and punctuate properly.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
Correction (none / 1) (#10)
by mikepence on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 02:47:37 PM EST

Should be:

"He is about the only leftwit on this site who can form a coherent sentence and punctuate properly."

No comma. :-)

Thanks for the +1 (FP).

[ Parent ]

I disagree (3.00 / 5) (#12)
by mikepence on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 03:58:00 PM EST

The Nation, the New Republic, Salon, the Atlantic, Harper's, The NYT and many other publications from the left present a constant barrage of intelligent questions and commentary from the left.

From the right, we seem to have conservative drug fiend Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal and maybe the Weekly Standard. If there are other intelligent journals that present the conservative viewpoint, I am not aware of them.

No question there is the sandals, hemp and bead loving crowd on the left who are admirable in their idealism but frustratingly simplistic in their thinking -- just like the neocons on the right. But I reject the categorization of the left as unsophisticated and attempts to conflate the left and right as equally simplistic. Not so.

[ Parent ]

I disagree with both of you really.. (3.00 / 2) (#13)
by Kwil on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 04:39:35 PM EST

..it's no harder to find an intelligent person who will write either an anti-Bush or a pro-Bush piece.

What is harder to find is a person who will write an intelligent piece surrounding Bush.

The man is such a flare-point that people on both sides tend to lose track of what the hell is going on.

Personally.. I think that's why Rove picked him.

That Jesus Christ guy is getting some terrible lag... it took him 3 days to respawn! -NJ CoolBreeze

[ Parent ]
I suppose it depends on what you like (none / 0) (#24)
by Delirium on Sun Dec 05, 2004 at 12:10:11 AM EST

I don't really find The Nation to be particularly intelligent, what with their neverending focus on conspiracy theories. I have no real comment on the Atlantic or Harper's except that they're pretty boring. I do kind of like the New Republic, but they're more "libertarian" than "left" in a lot of ways.

Probably my favorite news source from any side is The Economist. Politically they're classical liberals (something vaguely akin to libertarians), but I most like that they're not hardcore partisans, and are willing to investigate each issue on its merits and come to conclusions based on what the matter warrants. With something like The Nation, on the other hand, you already know what position they're going to take before you open up the magazine, which in my mind makes them more "partisan hacks" than "intelligent news source".

[ Parent ]

and you suck a lot of dick! (none / 0) (#34)
by William Shakespeare on Thu Apr 21, 2005 at 04:30:46 AM EST


[ Parent ]
Argument against Bush. (none / 0) (#25)
by Wulfius on Sun Dec 05, 2004 at 07:30:21 PM EST

> The left wasn't even trying to make a reasonably intelligent arguement against Bush

You are trolling, right?
I wont even bother regurgitating the litany of arguments against Bush.

But lets put things into perspective. You are arguing that there are no INTELLIGENT arguments made against a man who the most common, credible argument against his suitability as a president is that he is NOT intelligent.


"We must believe in free will, we have no choice."
http://wulfspawprints.blogspot.com/ - Not a journal dammit!
[ Parent ]

Bonus material (3.00 / 4) (#11)
by mikepence on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 03:45:29 PM EST

There were some questions that were covered that did not fit into the flow of the overall piece. I present some of those here. Think of it like DVD bonus material -- presented without adornment or polish.

K5: [From a conservative friend.] Is there a conflict between Salon's duties to its shareholders and its more overt political partisanship as the Bush administration years have progressed?

SR: The answer is no, quite the reverse. There's no doubt that every time Salon has become a little more direct in its partisanship it has helped our business. When we survey our readers and ask them why they have paid for a subscription the overwhelming majority tell us it's because they want to support Salon's independent voice. They feel that the perspective we offer is not well represented by the dominant media. Our independence and perspective is what marketing people would call our "brand identifier"; it's a key part of what gets people to subscribe. The other part is our overall quality and our credibility.

K5: No matter who gets elected, there is going to be ninety-something percent of the congress that gets put back into office and the same unelected government officials running things on the ground. What do you say to people who feel like our choice is artificial in terms of affecting actual change? [Posed before the election.]

SR: John Kerry is not perfect, and there are many things about his career that I disagree with, and there are probably positions he has that I disagree with, but I look at the Bush presidency and I think, this is a disaster. I have two children who are five years old right now and I'm thinking long term. The mistakes that Bush has made already in the last four years are affecting decades to come. We had solved the long-term Social Security problem. He took that money and threw it away. We had an effective and bipartisan response to the terrorist attack and he had the nation united. He had an opportunity to change some really fundamental things, and he didn't. Instead, he made this colossal strategic error [the Iraq war] that we and our children will be paying for for decades. Then we have the Supreme Court in the balance.

These things are urgent. They are above the level of systemic problems [in our political system]. This is a time in which hugely important things are at stake. I feel that way for myself, for my children, and I can't sit here and tell you that I agree that this is just "meet the new boss / same as the old boss." I don't view it that way at all.

K5: In retrospect, was it a mistake to go public?

SR: If we hadn't gone public, I think that the odds are pretty good that we wouldn't still be here. If you look at the companies that were compared with Salon at the time - I mean, look at a great publication like Feed, which I was a huge fan of: Feed had content that was certainly the same quality as Salon's, a lot of very smart people wrote for it and were editing it, but they stayed small and they ran out of money. It's gone.

K5: Our site has integrated discussion and stories, something that I've long wished Salon had. Why are Table Talk and Salon proper decoupled?

SR: It wasn't supposed to be that way. Our original conception of Salon was that each article would have a thread in Table Talk, and that that would be where people would go to comment on the articles and give us feedback and whatnot. What we learned very quickly, and what in retrospect may be kind of obvious, is that the software determines a lot more than you think it does. It was very hard in 1995 to accomplish that kind of integration technically. It was hard for anyone and it was especially hard for us because we had invested no money, resources or staff on the technical side. That just wasn't our strength.

K5: Salon did not initially encourage Letters to the Editor...

SR: We found that the magazine metaphor was so powerful that people wanted to send us LTE and they just started doing it, and we said, if this is what the users want to do, why should we stand in the way and tell them no. So, we created a LTE thing and that became a huge channel of feedback that continues to this day.

What we'd like to do long term, and we've talked about this, is to turn what is now our LTE private e-mail and make it public. Anyone who sends a letter in, there it is.

K5: When you moved to California, did you know what you were in for?

SR: I had never been to California, it was not on my radar, except that I had seen Annie Hall and I knew that Los Angeles was a place where people with brains got beaten up. San Francisco and Northern California, there is a difference, its a little bit of a different world. I got here and I fell in love with it.

After it was all said and done, Scott's biggest regret -- aside from having to lay off so many of his friends -- was that he didn't pick up a guitar until he was 25.

In the end, we all just want to be juke box heroes.

Thanks to Anthony and Daniel DiAngelus for their contributions to this interview, and thanks to Scott Rosenberg for putting up with a month of rewrites and follow-up questions.


On wrting for Salon (3.00 / 12) (#14)
by johnny on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 06:17:47 PM EST

I've written three articles for Salon. Two of them were longish two-parters. Several people have asked how I went about it, so here goes. Apologies in advance for any percieved self-promotion.

In 1999 I read a book review by Andrew Leonard, editor of the Tech and Business section. He seemed like the type of reader who might like my novel, so I sent a note asking him if he'd like a freebie copy. He had read the Slashdot review of my book & said, "sure, why not." So I sent him a copy.

He liked the book & wrote a glowing review.

So, some while later I wrote to ask if he would be interested in a story about my experiences working as a construction laborer on the trophy house of internet Billionaire David Wetherell. He said, "maybe," but said that because I was a "nobody" author (he used a euphemism), and because Salon was really cash-strapped, they could hardly pay me anything.

I wrote the story and he really liked it & Salon published it. It got a good reaction--lots of favorable letters. Some while later I got a check for, I think, $50. I also got a free subscription to Salon for one year. But the main financial benefit to me was that I sold about 50 copies of my novel while the Salon story was up.

So I was feeling like I big shot. I subsequently sent a series of proposals for articles, and Andrew liked none of them. He turned down about ten ideas. So I wasn't feeling like such a big shot then.

Then he accepted a proposal for a story about Hugh Loebner & his Turning Test prize. That goddamn article took me for-freaking-ever to write, and I ran up a big phone bill too, interviewing people for the article. But Scott R loved it & it came out on Salon's front page and was a big hit. Seventy thousand people downloaded it in the first day it was up, and it generated a hundred letters (several of which strenuously argued that I was an asshole, idiot, or worse.) Then the second part of the article came out and people wrote how they really felt. (I was really an asshole and really an idiot.) Salon paid me, if I recall, $50 for the story. I sold a bunch of books. I ran in to Scott at an O'Reilly conference and mentioned how the Loebner article had been a net loss to me, because of the phone bills. He said to send the bills to him & Salon would reimburse, but I lost them and never got duplicate copies (my wife is still mad about that.)

But I felt like a big cheese again because a lot of people blogged the story, and Salon and BoingBoing picked it up, and so forth. Then over the next few months Andrew turned down another ten proposals.

Finally he accepted a proposal for a story about the Human Genome project and the Disability Rights movement. This story nearly killed me. Well, not really. But it took for-freaking-ever, again, and was very emotionally hard to write. But I wrote it and it was another front-page story, and it got a lot of reaction. This time Salon paid me some real money. Not enough to make it actually rumunerative, but enough that I was making more than a penny per hour to research and write the story. I probably made almost a dollar an hour.

Since then Andrew has accepted a proposal for an article on wireless technology and democracy, and I've outlined it & done some interviews. But I don't know if I'll ever write it. I would like to do it, but it's hard to convince myself that it's worth the effort.

One thing of note: my last two Salon articles were the subject of stories here on K5. Some people got pissy about that, saying I that if I wanted to get the discussion going here on K5 I should have submitted the stories on K5 insteaf of Salon. But most people seemed cool with it, and I liked having the chance to discuss the stories with actual readers, which you don't really get to do at Salon, or at least not in a K5-like forum.

Links to the various articles and reviews can be found on my website

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Che

BTW (none / 0) (#15)
by trane on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 08:41:25 PM EST

Hugh Loebner recently posted on robitron about your article, asking if anyone knew if it had been changed since first published, because he remembered you called him a "fool" but he can't find the reference now. Haha.

[ Parent ]
Robitron (none / 1) (#16)
by johnny on Fri Dec 03, 2004 at 08:57:16 PM EST

I used to read Robitron but it got to using up too much of my time, so I stopped.

The article has not been changed, so far as I know. I have not changed it, and I don't think Salon would do so without telling me. You can tell that to Hugh for me. He can find my email easily enough if he wants to write me.

After that article, in which I basically painted him as an egomanaical nut-job with a compelling sense of mission and a nice ability to laugh at himself, he invited me to be a judge at the next competition and he offered to buy me dinner the next time I was in New York. I've never met him face to face, but spent plenty of time talking to him on the phone and exchanging emails.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Che
[ Parent ]

At this point, isn't the motive.... (none / 0) (#17)
by hansel on Sat Dec 04, 2004 at 12:04:40 AM EST

Getting publishing credits on your c.v., and building it up enough to open new publishing doors?

[ Parent ]
Yes, pretty much (none / 0) (#19)
by johnny on Sat Dec 04, 2004 at 07:34:48 AM EST

But I have a day job and a family and I'm old. So I'm not really all very excited about "building a c.v.". If I didn't have other responsibilites I would definitely spend more time writing -- heck I haven't even submitted a story to the K5 queue since 2001 -- and I might actually hopt to make some money at it. As things now stand, that's unlikely.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Che
[ Parent ]
Traditional media vs. open content (none / 0) (#20)
by mikepence on Sat Dec 04, 2004 at 10:56:30 AM EST

For this story in particular I agonized over the getting-published-in-a-trendy-magazine question vs. posting here on K5. I obviously chose the latter.

Sure, I would love to have the bragging rights to say that I have been published in x, y and z -- my resume is pretty slim as far as writing goes at this point -- but I really believe in the principles of open and free content and in remarkable sites like this one where hundreds of intelligent (for the most part) people vote for your content, not just one editor. Instead, I have the bragging rights to say that I have had a dozen stories that have successfully run the gauntlet here.

Traditional publishing is so last century. At least that's how I rationalize my underachievement.

[ Parent ]

not good enough (none / 0) (#28)
by anmo on Mon Dec 06, 2004 at 02:43:55 PM EST

I don't think your article would be good enough for traditional media. For once, I would like to have more info about Salon's business model. Are they making money? Will they ever? Do they make more money if I subscribe or if I go every day through their advertised access to content? Stuff like that.

[ Parent ]
Ouch (none / 0) (#30)
by mikepence on Mon Dec 06, 2004 at 03:33:19 PM EST

Thanks for the feedback.

We discussed financials, briefly. Scott offered to let me speak to their CFO to drill down into the details, but I could not see how that would fit into the overall flow of the article. It would have been an interesting digression, I suppose, but a digression nonetheless. The subject of Salon's financials and of the viability of the web as commercial publishing medium in general is a multi-headed beast on its own.

It would be kind of cool if Scoop let you do a pull-out box -- a separate little mini-article that drills down into a related subject, which I have seen done in US News and World Report and other places.

A more interesting subject, to me, is the discussion of online communities -- what makes them succeed in terms of finances, sociology, technology, etc. There is a whole wiki about this, Meatball wiki, which is an interesting little well of information that one could lose a few hours reading.

If you have specific questions about Salon's finances, post them here. I am sure that Scott will answer them to the best of his knowledge within the constraints of his ability to share such information as an officer of the corporation. Their SEC filings (too lazy to link) are an interesting read also.

The biggest weakness of this piece is that there is no news hook -- Scott has no book/CD/seminar/gadget to pimp that would make this interview 'news.' I happen to like fluff pieces about interesting people because I think that it is the people who make it fascinating, not what they have to sell. If you can see yourself in the story of a Scott Rosenberg, that person becomes more approachable to you and, hopefully, you realize that mere mortals like us can obtain amazing stuff on this new medium of ours.

My goals in this article were to form a compelling story about a really cool guy while carrying the narrative myself and to have paragraph transitions that kept the reader going through the whole piece.  And, of course, to have good paragraph structure and most of all to have some fun with it. I think that I achieved those goals (in the article, if not in these off-the-cuff comments).

Your comment assumes that "traditional media" has better content than K5. Largely, I would agree, but then again I have seen an awful lot of crap in print that would never make it through the queue here, just as I have seen some real gems here that could easily have made it to the pages of a regional -- or even national -- magazine.

However, I shall take your challenge as a personal goal. I will go peruse the magazine stand at my local book mega-store and pick one that I would like to get published in and then commence collecting rejection slips until I get published in a "real" magazine.

Maybe I really am not good enough yet, but the point is to keep learning and to get better.

Thanks for reading.

[ Parent ]

ok... (none / 0) (#31)
by anmo on Tue Dec 07, 2004 at 10:27:39 AM EST

Ok, as long as you don't take my comment too seriously. It was a spur of the moment based on info I was hoping to get and wasn't there. You can't make everybody happy. I'll try to give another look at the article and get back with more detailed comments. Now I have to go teach...

[ Parent ]
Too late (none / 1) (#32)
by mikepence on Tue Dec 07, 2004 at 10:37:06 AM EST

I already went out and bought the 2005 Writer's Market tome.

Once I get published in Portable Restroom Operator or Cosmogirl! my street cred will be untouchable.

[ Parent ]

Misbehaving on the page | 34 comments (28 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:


All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!