How so? Well, because Salon.com’s stock isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, such big media startups as TheStreet.com are struggling, and several others have bitten the dust. “I always said I’m a Web junkie and everyone would come around to my view” and “here it is 2001, and they didn’t,” TheStreet.com’s Jim Cramer whines. “There is no prognosis; the patient has died,” says New York magazine columnist Michael Wolff. “Virtually everyone who took public money is either going to go out of business or be merged out of business. . . . Everyone who’s saying, ‘We’re going to make these businesses work, blah blah blah,’ I don’t think it’s real. Everyone in their heart of hearts feels what I feel.” Of course, Wolff’s deep noir pessimism may have something to do with his own unsuccess: as Kurtz parenthetically notes, Wolff’s “own Internet company went belly up.” That, indeed, is the common denominator shared by virtually all the eulogists cited by Kurtz: they are a bunch of losers, who are now complaining that the market wasn’t smart enough to realize their own inestimable value.
A LIBERAL’S LAMENT
The biggest whiner is, naturally, David Talbot, chief honcho over at Salon.com: “In the beginning,” says Talbot, “journalism as we know it was going to be completely changed, and journalists like myself would become overnight billionaires. That was wildly inflated, and equally so is the gloom-and-doom media coverage we’ve been getting.” Poor little David: and he so wanted to be a billionaire. Just like the big-wheels of Hambrecht & Quist, the hi-tech investment banking group headed by William Hambrecht, Friend of Bill and Democratic party fundraiser, who put up the money for the fancy offices (in at least three cities), the hundreds of employees, and the much-ballyhooed public offering of Salon.com stock. Reacting angrily to repeated accusations that his brand of online journalism was simply Clinton.com in a “magazine” format, Talbot declared that “Salon’s board is a hodgepodge of political affiliations, from Libertarian to Democrat to Republican to Independent. Their only common passion is money, and the fervent hope that Salon makes lots of it.” It is a passion that has gone completely unrequited: for the price of Salon stock has plummeted ever since it was first offered for sale. Salon lost $8 million in the first half of its current fiscal year, the company has been shedding employees and closing branch offices like a dog with mange and Talbot is furious. “Where are the independent news voices on the Internet?” he asks. “Where’s the great, flourishing media democracy?” An article by Paul Farhi in the American Journalism Review, breathlessly titled “Can Salon Make It?” is a sounding board for his self-pitying lament: “He clicks on his list of bookmarked sites, turning up, among others, CNN.com, Matt Drudge, Slate, NPR.org. ‘Most of these are extensions of bigger media organizations,’ he says somewhat dismissively, adding, ‘There’s got to be room for a few independent voices.'”
NONE SO BLIND
What really bothers Talbot is that there are, indeed, independent voices on the Internet all of them on the Right. It’s no wonder his bookmarks are so, uh, boring NPR.org? Slate? Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. But of course the only really interesting and successful sites all have a rightish tinge, and Talbot either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know that a whole genre of online magazines and news organizations has grown up on the Internet. All have a mostly conservative or libertarian orientation: WorldNetDaily, CNS, Capitol Hill Blue, FreeRepublic.com, Newsmax, LewRockwell.com, and, yes, Antiwar.com, to name just a few. Joe Farah’s WND has a million-plus visitors on a daily basis, Free Republic has tens of thousands of registered users, and we ain’t doing so bad, either. But within the narrow confines of the world as seen through Talbot’s eyes, none of this matters, because his well-funded but ill-conceived venture is gong down the tubes.
A CLUELESS CREW
Farhi uses the example of Salon to make the same point as Kurtz: “Salon’s odyssey from struggling newborn to struggling 5-year-old raises a fundamental question: Can the Internet support a purely journalistic enterprise? So far, the answer appears to be no, or at least, not yet. Like Salon, almost every news or ‘content’ site remains in the red.” What follows is a long paean to the alleged “risk-taking, buzz-creating” scoops uncovered by Salon’s intrepid team of journalists: the Henry Hyde affair story, the alleged “stealing” of the Florida election (by disqualifying convicted felons), the Dan Savage-licking-Gary-Bauer’s-doorknob brouhaha, etc. ad nauseum. The complete cluelessness of this crew is reflected in what Gary Kamiya, a Salon editor, describes as one possible solution to Salon’s financial woes: charge for “subscriptions”! “The whole idea is fraught with peril,” says Kamiya, in what has to be the understatement of the century. “Whatever we do, we’re not contemplating gating off all of our content at once. That could be catastrophic. But this downturn has brought home the fundamental truth that it’s risky to be tied to advertising alone.” Salon is selling “high-quality, interesting journalism. That’s a real business model.” To which Farhi adds: “On the Internet, as in real life, there are no guarantees. But as Salon slowly fades, it’s worth wondering: Shouldn’t good journalism be enough?”
JAKE TAPPER’S EXPENSE ACCOUNT
Give me a break, willya? These are the same people who actually thought that a section entitled “Women Who Think” would be a real winner. A story on the most recent schoolyard shootings is headlined “Is There Anything New to Say?” Well, if there isn’t anything new to say, then why the **** should I click on it? This kind of gratingly “hip” know-it-all world-weariness, overlaid with Left Coast radical chic, has long been the hallmark of the David Talbot School of Journalism. Salon was never anything more than the online voice of the Clinton White House, a subsidized operation from the word go, which never had much to offer but the (infrequent) columns of Camille Paglia and is now undergoing a much-deserved and protracted death. As they sit there, in their offices on the sixteenth floor of a posh building overlooking San Francisco’s scenic waterfront, let the Salonistas contemplate the two major reasons for their demise. First and foremost, because there is no real market for sucking up to Power, except among the powerful few. When their generosity and patience runs out, and the money spigot is turned off or when they are turned out of office, and the perks and privileges of proximity to power are no longer available it’s time to close up shop and look for another gig. No ordinary person in this country needed or wanted to go online to hear apologias for the Satyr-in-chief, and Jake Tapper wasn’t worth half his expense account.
THE FALL OF THE GATEKEEPERS
Secondly, the whole corporate model of Internet success was and is completely misplaced. All the dot-coms cited by Kurtz, Farhi, and others as “proof” that the promise of Internet journalism has gone largely unfulfilled were funded by large corporate entities: Salon was loaded with cash, and pretensions, when it was first launched. And that, it turns out, may have been the problem. Large organizations invariably play down the intensely personal and individualistic aspect of communicating with readers over the Internet. The elimination of the middlemen, the once-might media Gatekeepers (Kurtz & Co.), points to a new model for cyber-success. As Farhi points out, Salon may be failing and TheStreet.com is practically in the street,
“But the niche market generating the most excitement: opinionated, idiosyncratic, one-person Web sites. In the wake of Matt Drudge’s phenomenal success with his gossip site, Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews.org, Mickey Kaus’s kausfiles.com, AndrewSullivan.com (by the New Republic columnist) and Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points have been attracting small but loyal followings.”
WHY THEY FAILED
Farhi cites Sullivan, who correctly opines that “When you put a regular magazine on the Web, you don’t have the liberating experience of getting rid of proprietors, editors, advertisers all the things that can constrain you. You’re just putting yourself up there and venting on a daily or hourly basis. You have this wonderfully direct connection with your readers. People take the time to dash off e-mail to me telling me I’m completely wrong about something.” But this pared-down and very basic sort of operation is the exact opposite of the set-up over at Salon, with its once-many-layered editorial hierarchy and army of worker bees. Amid all the hype about the promise of the Internet, echoed most enthusiastically by the Salonistas in their salad days, there was very little understanding of the technology or its meaning. That, more than anything else, is why they failed: and their leftist ideology had a lot to do with it.
THE INTERNET AND CAPITALIST DEVELOPMENT
The technology that led to the development of the Internet is part of the ongoing process of individuation that represents the not-always-upward march of civilization. As such, it values specialization: in its very structure, its multiplicity, the Internet represents the division of labor that is the hallmark of capitalist development. The Internet is a structure that distributes knowledge, but no one wants to know (or can know) everything at once: they want to know something in particular, which means that marketing on the Internet is niche marketing. Do you need to know before anyone else does? Go visit Drudge. Want the latest on the Marc Rich story? Go to a news site like FreeRepublic.com, and do a search. Are you a political activist, who needs intellectual ammunition in arguing with your liberal friends? Go to NationalReview.com if you hate Ludwig von Mises and yet still consider yourself on the right side of the spectrum: all others go to LewRockwell.com. So, you didn’t believe the lies of the NATO-crats as they bombed a nation without provocation? Then Antiwar.com was and is the place for you and there are more of you every day.
THE JOY OF GLOATING
I love gloating, as my regular readers know, and certainly the impending death of Salon is the occasion for it. On the grounds of pretentiousness alone, its demise is well-earned. Far from being the proof of the Internet’s alleged failure to fulfill its journalistic promise, the funereal orations delivered over the prone body of a near-lifeless Salon merely confirm what we knew all along: that the free market operates with maximum efficiency to reward the entrepreneur with foresight and to punish the clueless. And what could be more clueless than editor Kamiya’s suggestion that they “gate off” traffic to their site by charging for “subscriptions”? How Old Media can you get? This failed when Slate tried it, and, aside from that, the idea violates the number one value the Internet has to offer, and that is accessibility. Pricing on the Internet is dependent on a long-term relationship with the product: how much is a visit to Salon worth? There is no way to calculate this except over time. A site must make itself indispensable: it must deliver with regularity, and it must be always available. The only kind of “subscription” that works on the Internet is one given online and spontaneously by the readers. If Salon had set itself up as a Clintonian thinktank or propaganda organ, instead of pretending to be a bona fide magazine, and simply asked for contributions from die-hard Friends of Bill once a generous lot they would be raking in the dough. After all, wouldn’t you say that Salon is just the kind of enterprise that Marc Rich might be interested in?
The small, one or two-person websites that are now being hailed as the new model for journalism in cyberspace follow precisely the pattern of Antiwar.com’s development: our evolution, from a compendium of news stories and this column, to the premier foreign policy newsite on the Internet, prefigured this trend. We started updating daily in the first days of the Kosovo war, as a gesture of defiance against the “humanitarian” barbarity of an immoral and, as it turned out, disastrous intervention and have been at it ever since. Around what was originally a small kernel of reliably updated news and original commentary, Antiwar.com was formed like a pearl with a grain of sand at its core. In the near future we will be expanding our cadre of columnists, as well as our regional coverage, and making the first steps toward becoming an alternative news source, generating more original commentary and reporting in the foreign policy field than most corporate news operations. This is how real online journalism is going to evolve.