I am going to talk about the art of survival as has been billed, and I’d like to talk, and then I am going to open it up. I’d like to hear questions from you. I’ve always learned a lot when I travel and speak. There seems to be a boom-let of sorts here, from reading the paper this morning, in new media. I’d love to hear about some of the things going on here, that we might help one another.
I’m going to start off with a rant - in keeping with the spirit of the Net – about the current state of the media. And most of what I’m going to be speaking about is of course U.S.-related – because that’s where I’m from – but I think a lot of it is probably relevant for the Canadian publishing situation as well.
Nothing great has been created with only a business plan. By the way I want to thank Dave before I start – who’s an old colleague and friend, Dave Beers, for having me up here - and I also want to say it was terrific working with the students today in the magazine workshops. You can get pretty low being the last of the independents, as I was billed, battling the various forces in the U.S. But it’s great to actually meet with the younger people who have visions for new publications to bring out. A number of these ideas were really inspiring. So thanks, Dave, for bringing me up [to Vancouver], and thanks to all the students I’ve worked with today.
Anyway, back to my rant. Nothing great has been created with only a business plan. That way lies magazines like “In Style,” “Maxim,” and their dubious imitators. But nothing lasting has ever been created without one. That way lies “wired,” (the revolution, not the Condé Nast magazine), “Industry standard,” “Suck,” Feed,” “Spy,” and a host of their imitators. And Salon itself, as the last of the independents, is struggling to stay out of their cadaverous company.
Let’s assume that your aim, as people working in publishing is to one day create the great magazine of your era: one that not only captures the spirit of the times, but seeks to move the times forward. Magazines like Harold Ross’s New Yorker, Jann S. Wenner’s Rolling Stone, arguably Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair, Louis Rosetto’s Wired, Kalle Lasn’s and James McKinnon’s Adbusters - these magazines are ninety inspiration, ten manic energy. Harold Ross, creator of the New Yorker, born and bred in the rough and tumble American West, trained in the brawling bar rooms and news rooms of early 20th century American newspapers, a far cry from the elite, ivy-covered halls where today’s bland and professional news core in America is manufactured.
Nonetheless, this rough-hewn Ross somehow captured the jazzy fizz, the mongrel culture, the “terrible honesty,” to use the words of historian Anne Douglas, that created America in the 1920’s. He fashioned a witty, literate, sophisticated voice for that culture, that was famously not for the “little old lady in Dubuque.” And the voices that he discovered and showcased in his magazine - for this is an essential mission of any publication, to dredge up the voices that haven’t been given a chance to be heard - and those voices, those writers and artists and photographers defined their generation, from Dorothy Parker to Robert Benchley to E.B. White.
Similarly, in the late 1960’s when I started to read magazines with great interest, Jann Wenner created the representative magazine of that era with Rolling Stone, introducing such legendary by-lines as Hunter Thompson, Cameron Crowe, Greil Marcus, and photographer Annie Leibovitz. With Wired, Louis Rossetto, in the 90’s sought to express and embody the revolutionary spirit of the digital and the internet age. It was not the writers and designers so much that he brought to the fore but the explosive day-glo energy of a new idea being born. And Tina Brown not only best captured the cult of celebrity in the 80’s – which still runs us all, unfortunately, she sparked an unfortunate wave of lesser imitators that still rule the magazine newstands. These magazine visionaries moved their culture forward by defining their times, but they succeeded as businesses as well by carving out a new market niche in each case - identifying urban sophisticates in the case of Harold Ross, the Age of Aquarius rock and rollers in the case of Jann Wenner, the digerati in the case of Louis Rossetto in Wired, the celebrity-obsessed in the case of Tina Brown. And they delivered them to their advertisers. So the point here is that to create a great magazine you have to have first a great idea, and secondly, you have to have a way to deliver the people who circulate around that idea, who congregate around that idea, to paying subscribers or advertisers.
What was the big idea that gave birth to Salon in 1995? American culture had been stupefied, had been dumbed-down, in part because of the rise of the celebrity culture that I mentioned earlier, as well as various other forces. But we felt that the public had not been, and that there was a great disconnect between the literate American reader and what was being offered to them on the news stands and TV channels of the country. In our business plan we said that intelligence was going to be the next growth market in the media industry – an optimistic assessment. We’re still waiting for that to emerge! [Laughter]
We looked with hope at the rise of things like National Public Radio in the U.S., the early promise of HBO, the sudden emergence of intelligent best-sellers by public intellectuals, like Stephen Hawking, Allen Bloom, Nicholas Negroponti, Simon Schama and others. And of course, the emergence of the Internet itself. This vast democratic, history-making medium that’s reshaping everything we know. And still is. We concluded that a lot of people out there were starving amidst the glaze and marzipan of celebrity journalism, hungry for something more nutritious. And yet we, who started Salon, came from the world of newspapers, specifically the afternoon Hearst newspaper in San Francisco – an afternoon paper which because it was the second paper in town was forced to try harder to attract readers. And we knew that the general reader in our experience could not live on wonkerie, analysis and lit-crit alone, so we created what we called the “smart tabloid.” That was our journalistic formula. A publication that in fact hearkened back in many ways to an earlier 20th century style of newspapering, when Hearsts and Pulitzers were forced to duke it out in the major cities of America for urban readers. And they did that with not only great writing from people like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, but with lurid crime reporting, gaudy cartoons, and all the rest that was a staple of yellow journalism.
Over the past 8 years Salon has become known for its hard-hitting investigative reporting, during the Clinton impeachment period up through the Florida election debacle, in 2000, through 9/11, and to the current dismal political situation in America. But it’s also known for its celebrity dish - in fact we publish Tina Brown’s column and our unblushing sex coverage, among other things. In the process we have built a monthly readership of nearly three and a half million people. But while we are making progress towards profitability, still Salon has not reached that goal. We made about $4 million last year and we spending about $7 million. The dream of the Internet as a lush garden of possibility, of independent voices, has not come true, sadly. Instead, it’s dominated by the same global media giants that control the rest of our communications landscape - from AOL Time Warner to Microsoft to Viacom and all the other familiar names. And most of the advertising dollars flow to these same few corporate giants, while the independents out there continue to wither. The moral here is that an intelligent independent website, or any intelligent publication, is not a viable business as an ad-supported business alone. There simply is not enough advertising dollars to support those kinds of enterprises. So in April 2001 Salon went against the deeply engrained web custom, where information, as it was called in the past, want to be free, and began charging for access to our articles. This is simply why Salon continues to exist. While Suck, Feed, and a number of other worthy competitors have disappeared.
Once you start depending on your reader for your survival, you start taking an avid interest in what they are reading. And of course on the net, as in most media now, you can tally up not only how many people click on your site and various articles, but how many people are subscribing every day. A good day for us is over a hundred or two hundred subscribers; when it falls below ninety or eighty, you begin to worry. And what we found drives these people to do something very unusual still on the web - to take out their credit card for something that’s not pornography - is passionate political journalism. Specifically journalism that rips into the Bush Administration, and what the current presidency is doing to America and to the world. There’s a deep well of feeling among liberals and independents that the U.S. media has tilted dangerously to the right in the last couple of years, particularly after the selection of George Bush and 9/11, in some cases driven by unabashedly partisan media operators like Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. Fox is so self-assured that they are ruling the media today, at least in the U.S., that they were the only executives who would meet with Salon a few months ago to discuss the possibility of launching a Salon TV show on Fox News. It was a counter-intuitive idea I had. I admit it was a long shot when I called Roger Ailes, who was the head of Fox News, but he was the only network executive confident enough to sit down with a notoriously liberal web site. MSNBC, CBS, CNN, his competitors, are still so scared of being tarred with the liberal brush, that they’re working as anxiously as they can to imitate Fox. The corporate media today is almost totally embedded these days in the Bush world view.
I live in a country where the president was not elected, but selected by a court packed by his partisans, where the president inherited an economy with a record surplus and turned it quickly into an economy with a record deficit, where he will likely join Herbert Hoover as the only president in the last 100 years to destroy more jobs than he created, where he’s handed over stewardship of the environment to the very corporations that are despoiling it, where under the banner of national security he has built a secrecy state, that has systematically violated civil liberties, stifled official attempts to investigate the responsibility for 9/11, and has sabotaged democracy by lying about the case for the war with Iraq; where while leading a war against fundamentalist extremism he has encouraged the same theocratic impulses in the U.S. itself. And yet, despite the fact that we live in a country with the most radical administration in my memory, possibly in American history, our watchdog media continues to sleep. With the glaring exception of the New York Times, bless their hearts, the media has responded to these developments in the U.S. with a limp and even fawning journalism. The White House press corps dutifully waits each time when Bush deigns to appear before them, to be called upon in order, the order that he has chosen, with the responses that he has prepared. And they lapsed into a cowardly silence when veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas dared to speak up and called President Bush the worst president in U.S. history. ABC’s Diane Sawyer does the White House’s bidding by demanding the Dixie Chicks to come on to her show and engage in a Maoist-style bout of criticism/self-criticism for daring to criticize the president. Attack dogs like MS-NBC host like Joe Scarborough demand the blacklisting of celebrity anti-war critics like Danny Glover. And Anne Coulter goes all the way and calls for the resurrection of old Joe McCarthy himself in her new book, Treason, in which she calls for the execution of liberalism. Despite her totalitarian ranting she’s given a respectful hearing, even a cowed hearing, on all the networks in the U.S.
Begging the question, how long will journalists go on before they will even stand up to defend themselves against charges of treason. This is why Salon has been forced in recent years to veer from its original more genteel style of journalism to a more combative style of journalism. There’s simply no one else in the U.S. media landscape doing this on a daily basis. Democrats and liberals in the US are belatedly waking up to the grim reality that there is no such thing as a liberal media any more in the U.S. From talk radio to the Internet to cable TV, the media is now dominated by right-wing discourse. There’s a frantic effort lately to begin underwriting a liberal media response. I’m encouraged by the fact that John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in the White House, has started something called the American Majority Institute, that is trying to fashion a liberal response in the media and get liberals on TV for once. Because elections are won or lost of course not on election day but months beforehand in the media, where ideas are thrashed out and where hearts and minds are won or lost. You can look for the same disparaging themes to rain down on the Democratic candidates for president that rained down on poor hapless Al Gore in 2000. These poison pills are cooked up in conservative laboratories, in the Rush Limbaugh program on radio, in the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol’s magazine in Washington, by Matt Drudge on the Internet. And then these themes, these poison pills, are shot into the media bloodstream. Look for more and more reporting about how presidential contender John Kerry, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is cold, aloof, keeps recreating his past - all themes that were trotted out about Al Gore. Howard Dean is unelectable. He’s a McGovernite. He shouldn’t even be in the ring. These are the kind of ideas that get disseminated daily in the U.S. media and they start off, as I say, in the journals of the Right. The media has become part of the Republican attack machine. From the Clinton wars to Florida to Iraq.
But Salon refuses to sign up.
We’re inspired, ironically, by Rupert Murdoch himself who decided he was going to engage in a bold style partisan journalism. We believe there is a large audience for tough critical journalism about the Bush administration, we agree with the Canadian official who wisely called him a moron, and we’re trying to do everything we can to turn him out of office. Now is that good business? It’s a risk. Salon’s the target of a lot of wrath from the Right, advertising boycotts and the like. But you have to decide what your mission is. And Salon has decided that there is no greater editorial mission for us over the next year and a half than to oppose the Bush presidency. That’s what I want to, I think, underline here, because journalism - not just in the U.S. - but whenever I travel in Canada or Europe, it’s all too often what it seems to be about is merchandizing and conventional wisdom. And there’s so little that’s of a bold spirit.
When I came of age, the weekly underground newspapers were really the voice of my generation. And they came together that voice, at least in Rolling Stone, at least in the early years, and Ramparts magazine in San Francisco. I know there are magazines today like that – Adbusters, I mentioned earlier, I’m a fan of that publication – ones that just make you rethink the world we live in. And that to me is the challenge for all of us. Why else are we journalists? Journalists we’re the message-bearers, the ones to ring the bell, to wake people up. And there’s no more worthy job to have in our societies. We are blessed by the fact that we do live in free societies, in democratic societies. Many journalists – and I’ve known some – have died for their profession, in the cause of carrying out their profession, and we have to keep that in mind always in what we do.
Now you can do it with a sense of fun and spirit and glee, and Salon does that as well, I know I’ve been very sober and serious in my remarks tonight, and very political, but we also have a duty to entertain and engage our readers, to make them laugh and provoke them, and not just rant at them. And so the key is, how do you put that together, in some kind of package. And it’s a very daunting prospect, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know if Salon ultimately will succeed on all those terms. I don’t know if Salon can finally become a profitable business. I think it probably will, but I don’t know for sure. But I do know that if that’s the only thing you think about, then you’ve already sold your soul. And what you have to get up in the morning thinking about is not that, it has to be how can I connect with the reader, because all these great magazines I talked about earlier, they began with that. How can I connect with the reader and take them someplace that I know everyone wants to go. A lot of it is just instinctual, it’s like the feeling you get. It’s a feeling you get while talking to friends, or having drinks with them, or taking a shower, or listening to music. You know you gotta listen to that instinct, that voice in your mind that says, I know this is what Canada needs right now, I know this is what my city needs right now, I know this is what my generation needs rights now. I know there’s something emerging, because of this new technology, because of these new ideas, there’s something out there on the wind and I have to catch it, and bottle it, and put it out for these people to see and read, because that will inspire people. You never know what you are going to do that will change a mind. And start a movement. And again, that was the era I grew up in, the era of Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King and Viet Nam, and a countercultural spirit. San Francisco was my Mecca. I always knew - I grew up in L.A., my dad was in the movie industry - but I always knew that I was end up in San Francisco, because that’s the kind of city where new things get cooked up. And it gets made fun of for being weird, and it still is being made fun of for being weird, and it is weird! And God bless it1
And I’m sure Vancouver excites similar kinds of passions and animosities here in Canada as well. So you got to pick your place and let those ideas cook. It’s like being in a great band - I love to read histories of bands, how they got together, from the Beatles to Clash to Nirvana – bands that not only moved music forward but the culture forward - how did those people work together, and what was their dream? And none of those people went into it for the money. They went into it to do the best work they could, and somehow it synchronized with their generations’ yearnings, their deepest wishes. So that’s what I hope your generation, all of you, are going to be moving towards, ways to kick it in the ass! Particularly in the U.S., things desperately need to be kicked in the ass.
I guess that’s where I want to leave it. Good ass-kicking!
Transcription by Caryl Johnston and Sabrina Jara