A Modest Proposal for the Future of Online Magazines
For well over a decade, Salon.com has tried to solve the puzzle of how to put out a daily online-only magazine featuring quality writing and journalism without losing money. They've failed. We have just one decent idea for their survival.
Daily journalism—even Salon's version, with a handful of superstar writers, a small stable of workhorses, and a bunch of freelancers—is expensive. The most comparable operation is Slate, which is nestled sweetly in the sheltering bosom of the Washington Post Company. This is what Salon itself now hopes to find: a large media company patron that will pick up Salon, cover its losses, and let it continue to operate, figuring that its prestige and opportunities for synergy are worth the (relatively small, by big media company standards) red ink it accumulates on a yearly basis.
It's fair, now, to say that this particular format simply isn't profitable. No amount of better content would make this particular format profitable. To become profitable in its current format, Salon would have to slash expenses to the point that their quality would suffer severely. Online ad money—even supplemented with subscriptions, which Salon's tried—just won't support the level of staff and expense necessary to produce that kind of content on an independent site. (Sorry, all you other startups who had the same idea!)
Gawker Media is a lean, mean stable of diversified blogs that can cross-sell. The Huffington Post is a bare-bones operation that takes much of its content wholesale from other news organizations, and gets another chunk donated for free by aspiring writers. Politico has print ads to bring in cash. Drudge, Perez Hilton, and other successful blogs are tiny operations with nowhere near the staff expenses of Salon. Media models that have proven to be profitable online tend to be cheap, or to have alternate revenue streams to supplement them. For Salon, and others who bring a print-style cost structure to an internet-style ad revenue stream, disappointment is almost inevitable.
And the dream of simply being scooped up by a bigger media company isn't a sound one. Sure, it still might happen, but for how long? Big media companies have their own problems—namely, that many of their traditional properties are losing revenue to online interlopers. Like Salon! Even Slate's parent company makes its money off test prep services, not off its namesake newspaper. Big tech companies like Yahoo that want to get into the content business are a better bet in the near term for journalism operations looking to find a new home, but they, too, will inevitably want those content businesses to prove profitable eventually; there is no free lunch at public companies. Only at Conde Nast.
If good but unprofitable media outlets really want to find a home, they should look to another industry: the porn industry. Porn is content. And porn is profitable. But porn isn't prestigious. A wealthy porn operation could use a nice, respectable site like Salon to burnish its image. They have the cash, and they have the respect for freedom of expression, and they have, in some cases, the desire for respectability. Remember the mighty Playboy empire? Don't think it's farfetched. This would just be assembling it in reverse. Salon itself could remain just as squeaky clean as it wants to be, and a porn king could become the next Hugh Hefner—or, at least, the next Larry Flynt.