David Talbot is founder, chairman and editor-in-chief of Salon.com, an award-winning site he launched in November 1995. Before Salon, Talbot was the arts and features editor at the San Francisco Examiner, and a former senior editor at Mother Jones magazine. Talbot has written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Interview and Playboy. He is the co-author of "Burning Desires: Sex in America." He is married to journalist Camille Peri. They have two sons and live in San Francisco. Salon.com has won numerous awards, including the Online Journalism Association's award for general excellence and investigative reporting in December 2000.
David Talbot: You're actually the first person who has made that connection. Yes, it's true. It's part of the same lineage. For one thing, it was edited by me and Gary Kamiya. So I think there was something in our editorial DNA that is also in Salon's. I think what we were trying to do with that Sunday magazine was to push the boundaries of Sunday magazine journalism. Most Sunday magazines, with the New York Times as an exception, are kind of sleepy, weekend service vehicles to move living room products. What we tried to do was just the opposite, which was to provoke the Bay Area on the weekend with political and cultural stories that made people think. And we were doing it, as we are doing with Salon, during a recession. So it was equally challenging from a business point of view.
Sunday magazines tend to be difficult business propositions. I always thought that, not to be boastful, the work Gary and I we were doing and the kind of writers we were drawing on here in the Bay Area were of a national caliber. But we didn't get much national attention. The Internet, of course allowed us to show the world what we can do. It was a way to have a national if not international platform. All of these people who were a part of our posse [at the magazine] are now with us, including Scott Rosenberg, who is Salon's managing editor, and Joan Walsh who is our news editor, and was a freelancer at Image. Laura Miller, our New York editor, was also a freelancer at Image.
JournalismJobs.com: David Plotz of Slate.com says Salon has a tabloid sensibility. Do you agree? And if so, how far do you go with the tabloid sensibility to get readers?
David Talbot: I like and respect David. In fact, he is a friend of my sister Margaret. I feel like he's a part of my extended family, so I'm not going to say anything mean about David. I think there is a difference between Slate and Salon. I think we both serve important functions on the Internet. As more and more Websites disappear, I'm thankful Slate is still around because it makes things less lonely. When I started Salon I thought there were going to be dozens of Websites like Salon throughout the country. Five years later, it's pretty sparse out there. So I respect David and Michael Kinsley and what they've done. There are differences, but I think the differences are healthy.
I would characterize the Kinsley editorial ethic as sort of more Harvard University versus a scrappy community college, which is what Salon is more like. They may be a little more high brow than we are. Even more important maybe, or equally more important at least, is they don't have to scrap for a living. When you're kept by a patron -- as Michael has been throughout his career in one form or another, lately by Bill Gates -- you don't have to duke it out in the media marketplace for dollars and for readers. In some ways that's a blessing because it takes a lot of pressure off you. In other ways I think it actually takes some of the lights out of your publication because you don't have to be as enterprising and as scrappy.
Is Salon more tabloid-like? Yeah, we've made no secret of that. I've said all along that our formula here is that we're a smart tabloid. If by tabloid what you mean is you're trying to reach a popular audience, trying to write topics that are viscerally important to a readership, whether it's the story about the mother in Houston who drowned her five children or the story on the missing intern in Washington, Chandra Levy. Slate, by the way, also had a story about Chandra Levy on its June 22 cover. Maybe Salon's tabloidism is starting to infect Slate as well, but they're not above or immune to writing about subjects that have a tabloid-like sensibility to them. While Salon has not yet broken any major stories on the shocking and scandalous practice of monkeyfishing in the Florida Keys, we have made other contributions in the field of investigative journalism of which we're proud.
JournalismJobs.com: Do you have any regrets about launching Salon.com, as far as the pressure to keep it going and stay profitable? Was it more fun before it went public?
David Talbot: I have no regrets about launching Salon. For the life of me, I can't imagine doing anything else. I just came back from a media conference where Salon was the only Web company that was invited -- by the Aspen Institute to this seminar that they convene every year for all major media CEOs, including Gerald Levin [of AOL Time Warner], who was kind enough to invite us this year, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. of the New York Times. While I have respect for a number of those people who were at this conference, I can't imagine working really within any of those companies because their framework for what they do has become so narrow.
I think media has become so marketing-driven and so constricting for journalists. As I told them, one of the reasons why Salon and other websites have been so successful at attracting talent from their newsrooms despite how risky it is -- particularly nowadays to go to work for a dotcom -- is because journalists were just at the end of their ropes. They felt they were completely stifled creatively because newspapers and magazines and television had become so formulaic and marketing-driven. So, I just can't imagine not doing Salon.
Do I regret taking the company public? Yes and no. Yes, because it put us under enormous pressure for a young company to go public at that point in its history, something you never could have done in the old days. We would have had to be profitable, for one thing. It does subject you to enormous scrutiny on the part of your investors and the press. Everything you do is public, by law. And it's demoralizing, often to your staff to read every little thing about the company in the press. For all those reasons it's been difficult. On the other hand, we raised $25 million by going public. It's that money that we used to build this company, to build the circulation, to build a high profile and to hire staff that made Salon what it is today. I don't think we would still be here if we hadn't gone public.
When other new brands are launched, like USA Today by Gannett or Entertainment Weekly by Time Warner, or any new magazine title or TV program, they are given a certain amount of time to find their audience and to become a successful business. The rule of thumb in the print world is that it takes between five to 10 years for a new media brand to become established. Salon was on the verge of profitability in the December quarter before the recession hit, and we will get there again, whether it's at the end of this year or sometime early next year. It's just a matter of time. Even if it takes until next year, that's about six years after our founding that it will take for us to be profitable. We've certainly become successful in every other way, editorially I think, and with our audience building -- our audience is 3 1/2 million readers a month. There are not that many new media brands you can say that about nowadays.
The kill rate in the magazine world and in most sectors of the media is very high. I'm proud Salon has been able to do it. We didn't have the backing of a huge, multinational media company. All we had was the venture capital that we were able to scrap together. It usually takes between $50-$60 million -- if not more. In the case of USA Today, God knows how much Gannett spent before it finally hit the break-even point. If I had one year back to do things over again, I probably would have done the year right after our IPO differently and had been a little more careful with the way we spent in trying to build the company. Other than that one year, Salon has been very cautious about the way it spends money. For instance, since last year, we've had virtually no marketing budget. It's just word of mouth. And our circulation continues to grow that way by breaking news stories.
The other challenge we had was to establish Salon in an entirely new medium. It wasn't like we were rolling out an Entertainment Weekly in print. We were rolling out a new brand in an entirely new medium that wasn't completely untested. There was no established business models. So we've had to learn as we've gone along. The whole challenge of trying to produce something for free and then finally trying to change the model as we've been doing the last couple of months by charging readers for a premium version of Salon.
JournalismJobs.com: Salon recently started charging for ad-free content. Is this strategy working?
David Talbot: Yeah, so far, so good. If you read that New Yorker piece recently by Ken Auletta about Inside.com -- I have respect, you know, for what those guys were trying to do -- I think they're smart journalists. But after -- what was it, about two years I think, it was in that piece -- he said they basically had only a thousand or 1,200 subscriptions. Salon is far, far ahead of that after only two months of charging for premium. Our goal is to get 50,000 subscribers in our first year, and we're running ahead of that goal after two months. If we succeed in getting 50,000, that's $1.5 million in revenue for the company. And considering that our current budget is $10 million, and we're tightening it up more because the advertising picture is so grim, we'll probably get the budget closer to $8 million -- so $1.5 million in that kind of budget obviously is a considerable help.
JournalismJobs.com: Salon gained critical acclaim for its coverage of the Clinton scandal. Is it hard to get people to visit your site when there's no compelling news?
David Talbot: Well, there's always news. In fact, while I'm critical to the Bush presidency, it's been enormously beneficial for Salon because we're seen as kind of an aggressive watchdog on the Bush White House. Particularly since Florida, our readership hit a whole new level, and we held onto those readers. Many people come to Salon for the sort of the alternative, aggressive, and more critical take on the Bush administration. So, we don't need Clinton. I don't think Fox News or Rush Limbaugh need Clinton it turns out. I think there's a hunger out there for -- whether it's on the left or right -- a more lively and provocative type of political journalism. I think Salon and Fox on the other side have both benefited from that.
JournalismJobs.com: Being a hard-core newsie, is it difficult to juggle the business side of things when all you really want to do is write and edit?
David Talbot: Yeah. There's sort of this annual ritual at Salon -- or bi-annual (every two years) -- of having to raise money. Hopefully that process is now coming to a close as we strip our budget down to get closer to profitability. But we just went through another round of financing. Hopefully this is the last one. But that is enormously time-consuming. That is probably the biggest time and energy suck for me as part of the business team here. I'm not out selling ads. That's not appropriate for someone who wears an editorial hat. But I do have to get out there -- as the person who had the original vision for the company -- and get investors excited about the company and convince them that it's the right thing to do, which is invest in Salon for financial reasons and because Salon makes a difference as a cultural institution. I'm really the best person to make that case. So that takes away lots of time.
My favorite thing is still journalism. I'm almost 50. This has been my life ever since I was in college. I knew I wanted to be a journalist ever since I was a teenager. While it is interesting and gratifying to be on the business side and to see how that all works, the main reason I kept a business role here was to protect the editorial integrity of Salon. I felt that if I didn't do that, then Salon's editorial mission would always be in jeopardy. So it's important that I continue to do it. And it's not the most fun part of my job.
JournalismJobs.com: Salon's stock closed at 24 cents per share today [June 25]. Going forward is Salon a good buy?
David Talbot: I think we're a steal. I mean it's insane. Even traditional media companies trade at two times sales. Our sales were $7.3 million last fiscal year. So we're grossly undervalued, even by the most traditional media metrics. So the pendulum on the Internet has swung from one wild extreme to an equally wild extreme on the other side now. Companies that are really solid companies -- just because they have the dotcom affixed to their name -- are being extremely, unfairly punished by the market. That's going to swing back. It's just a matter of time.
The entire economy, of course, is locked in a down cycle right now. Last time we weathered this was during another Bush presidency in '90. We were locked in it for a year and a half and everyone came out of it. Then we hit all new heights in terms of advertising revenue and everything else over the last 10 years. So, this is a cyclical thing. Salon will come out of it. The companies that do come out of it in the media world and the Internet world will be in great shape because for one thing our weaker competitors will be weeded out, there will be less competition, and we know how to run our businesses better and better. We know how to run them leanly.
Everyone talks about the wild and woolly business practices in the Internet world. Companies who have spent themselves out of existence. Of course that was probably the main phenomenon on the Internet because there was too much venture being pumped into the Internet. But there's also another danger, which no one has really written about -- is the Feed and Suck thing. It's kind of like scylla and charybdis in Greek mythology. You can crash on one set of rocks or the other set of rocks, and they crashed on the other set of rocks, which was probably being too little to be commercially viable.
I have enormous respect for Steve Johnson, and as I've told him, Feed was one of the inspirations for Salon. They were up there before we were. And also for Joey and the Suck people. I think they were the earliest pioneers and showed how the Web could be used. I think they did great work; I think they're bright people, but I think their business ambitions were too modest. I think they tried to change their path at some point but maybe it was too late. They didn't raise enough money; they didn't become seen as a commercially viable advertising vehicle in New York, and they just weren't able to get high enough revenues. So you can crash by being too small. The challenge for Salon at this point is: How can we continue to be attractive to advertisers, continue growing our circulation without spending too much? It's enormously harsh discipline that you have to operate under. I think we're really getting it right the last few months and hopefully we'll get better and better at it.
JournalismJobs.com: What are you most proud of at Salon?
David Talbot: The journalism. I think we've broken story after story that the rest of the media refused to break even when they had the story because they were scared of the story, or they just didn't think it was appropriate. Conventional media is pretty narrow when it considers what is newsworthy and worthy of their attention. I could mention a lot of stories, Henry Hyde would be one story. I think that was important for the American people to know. I think that had an impact on sort of the impeachment bandwagon that was building for Clinton. I think it slowed it down. I think our reporting on Ken Starr and his Whitewater investigation was historically important. I think our coverage of the drug war was important, and again, cuts against the grain. The entire American media apparatus bought into the drug war -- which is an enormously damaging and costly undertaking for this country -- and there wasn't enough critical reporting about it and that's why it's gotten out of hand. There are certain elephant in the room stories that the media for some reason has refused to cover or has not covered sufficiently, and I'm proud that Salon has done that.
JournalismJobs.com: You were recently quoted as saying good news is near for Salon. Can we get a hint? A possible partnership? Merger?
David Talbot: The good news is that we're completing our latest round of investment that will ensure Salon's survival and get us through what's been a very tough year not only for us but for everyone in the media world.
JournalismJobs.com: How long will that ride you out?
David Talbot: To profitability. We're determined to get there. I never want to go through another round of financing again in my life [laughs]. This will get us through the recessionary period back to where our income level was before and to profitability.
JournalismJobs.com: In addition to Salon, where else are we seeing great journalism? Any pieces that you've read recently that were especially well done?
David Talbot: Specifically, I like Andrew Sullivan. I disagree politically with 90 percent of what Andrew writes, but I like his spunkiness and fortitude. And I think it's good in a democratic way for journalism to have lively journalists who run their own Websites like that. I always respect the New York Times. People sort of take it for granted, but the more you see of the media world -- not just here but around the world -- the more you appreciate a paper like the Times where its family continues to invest in editorial quality and I think it's the truly is the best paper in the world. I know that doesn't sound very radical and webby of me to say that but I think the New York Times is important. I also think there's an occasional piece that will pop out.
Most magazines have become wallpaper, they're all the same, all the same celebrities. It's really an abysmal time in American journalism right now. But occasionally one story or two will pop out. There was a story in Sports Illustrated about a month or so ago. It was a joint portrait of Allen Iverson's mother and Larry Brown's mother. It was great. It showed how they came from these radically different family backgrounds, but they were the products of single mother families. It went into this sort of tension between the two guys, racial tensions, black-Jewish relations and how they sort of worked out their relationship. It just said a lot about America, and race and sports, and it's the kind of piece you rarely see nowadays.
JournalismJobs.com: Why did you want to become a journalist?
David Talbot: To make a difference. To make the world better. I came at age in the '60s, and initially my hopes and dreams were invested in politics and the movements of the time -- the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement. I worked on Bobby Kennedy's campaign for president as a teenager in California and the night he was killed. A lot of my idealism was frustrated by the end of the '60s because of the way things went with the assassinations and the sense that the political establishment was so fixed in its ways you couldn't change anything. After Watergate, which happened when I was in college, I became increasingly inspired by journalism as a way to change the world. It sounds corny, but to wake the public up, to serve a higher cause. I'm 49 going on 50, and I still feel the same fiery idealism as I felt as a kid, but it's using journalism as a crusade, I guess. That's still what motivates me.
JournalismJobs.com: Are you excited everyday you go to work?
David Talbot: Yeah. It's also to have fun. Journalism is not just a cause, it's also a wacky profession. The world is crazy. Everyday, the news business throws up another story of a person you've never heard or just some kind of breaking news that makes you go: "Holy shit, what a weird world we live in." It can be funny, sad, tragic -- it's all over the place. I guess it's the closest to being in show business, which is my original background. My dad was an actor, and I used to hang out with him behind the scenes when he was making TV shows or movies. He was co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild, and served on the guild board with Ronald Reagan. He was an old Hollywood veteran. His name was Lyle Talbot. He's dead now. But there was a sense of putting on a show everyday, particularly when you did theater with a group of your colleagues. That was so fun, when I was a kid watching it, putting together a play. Everyday we put Salon together I have sort of that similar hit. It's like: "This is great. I love these people I'm working with." It's like a cast of actors; you're all working together closely under pressure to produce something everyday. And when we put up an issue, it's like the curtains opening on a new play. I really like that daily sense of surprise.
JournalismJobs.com: Is Salon still planning to launch a weekly radio program?
David Talbot: We put that on hold because the market is so tough right now. It's hard to get backing to do any new ventures. But I still think it's a good idea for Salon to do public radio shows. There's interest at both PRI and NPR in a Salon weekly program. We were fleshing out a prototype for the show when the advertising market started to tank. We pulled back for now, but I could see us doing it next year.
JournalismJobs.com: Where did you go to college?
David Talbot: I got kicked out of high school, so I couldn't get into very many colleges. In my senior year I was sort of asked to leave my school. It was called the Harvard School in Los Angeles. It was one of the leading prep schools in LA. It was a military school at the time -- it was during the Vietnam War -- so I had problems with that. The only school that let me in was U.C. Santa Cruz, which is where I went. They didn't have a journalism program, so I took sociology, which is the closest thing to journalism.
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