Salon.com Tries to Make Print Obsolete

Let’s say you’ve missed what’s been happening with magazines for, oh, the past 10 years. If so, you might think a Web site named Salon.com is an online version of your average fashion rag. Au contraire, mon frere. This daily Web-based magazine is one of the granddaddies of online content. It’s The New Yorker meets Entertainment Weekly, a veritable menagerie of pithy political commentary, honest reflections on life, and crafty reviews of television and film.

But what makes an online magazine a magazine? Well, Salon kind of can’t answer that because it’s kind of not a magazine. Its articles, for one, reflect a tone that’s more blog than bite. Andrew O’Hehir’s recent “Beyond the Multiplex” posting Nov. 8 or Glenn Greenwald’s Nov. 27 ranting, “Everything that is rancid and corrupt with modern journalism: The Nutshell” are just two of numerous examples of clearly good journalists exchanging a polished magazine-y tone for a conversational informality. I don’t want to read a blog if I’m supposed to be reading a magazine, and this casual approach has made casualties of many an article.

But here’s the real problem. All this online magazine stuff is complete poohey: There are no such things, and Salon is proving my point. A magazine, at least by conventional standards—and I’m as leftist as the next grad student, but I’m also a traditionalist, and I’m not alone—has content geared toward a niche audience, uses a particular relaxed, but still detached voice, and is highly edited. That should be all of the time, not some of the time.

But Salon‘s lack of consistency among the writing styles jars this reader into thinking that the site may not be up to magazine snuff. (That may seem stuffy, especially from a Gen-Y’er, but if young writers don’t take journalism seriously, who will?)

Many articles, such as “When Rudy met Hillary” by Rob Polner posted Nov. 27 and Walter Shapiro’s Nov. 21 posting, “The Democrats’ foreign (policy) wars,” stick to a comforting format that is refined and eloquent, without boring the reader. But the site can get so bogged down with quip-y writers attempting to appeal to the online masses that such good work is overlooked. At a print magazine, an editor would monitor a story through several drafts, but an online magazine churning out dozens of articles daily may not have that luxury—or else someone might have stopped “How the World Works” columnist Andrew Leonard. He penned a lukewarm analysis of Bollywood’s latest attempts to bend to pop culture demands by exploiting the sculpted bod of one of its leading male stars. Could anyone tell me why this article is in the Technology & Business section? It makes zero sense.

But maybe it’s just me. Salon has a significant following. Now in its 12th year, the site clocks traffic in at 58 million page views per month; it’s also lauded left and right. Salon features a general-interest line of departments that run the gamut of: Arts and Entertainment, to Community (blogs, letters, personal ads, and forums), to News & Politics, and so on—most of which have their own sub-categories and columns. And all this seems very magazine-like in its orientation: A dose of lightness doused with a few newsy items seems fresh and welcoming, but there’s so much on one page, so many categories within categories, you’re lost with the first click of the mouse.

Perhaps therein lies the point. In this technological frontier, my favorite glossy reads—carefully pieced together and lovingly brought to my doorstep—will too be turning toward this hyper-content format. It’s then maybe evident that Salon is the emerging leader of this media cult. I’m just not ready to drink the punch. —Ainsley Bartholomew

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