Community Media

Everybody's a journalist at Open Salon

In early August, online magazine Salon unveiled a new platform of blogs written by the people formerly known as its audience—with one attention-grabbing feature. The platform, dubbed “Open Salon,” lets readers tip a blogger for a well-written post.

Plenty of established bloggers heaped scorn on the idea, citing concerns about whether tipping would cheapen the writing, fit with Salon’s culture, or work at all. Salon’s newest writers shared similar concerns. Some reactions were biting, some hand-wringing, some curious and enthusiastic. (One was a rather lengthy analysis that quoted Salon’s byzantine regulatory submission to the SEC.) All of the responses, however, were earnest and invested, and they cumulatively speak to what Salon is trying to create—a serious and growing community of bloggers dedicated to discussing, as a group, their shared interests and gripes, commending and condemning together, though not always at the same time.

The New York Times has called Dave Winer the “protoblogger.” Winer, who was blogging on his personal Web site, Scripting News, as early as 1997, loves to make pronouncements about the Internet and most everything technological—and not because he’s bad at it. “I’ve said it many times before, it’s worth raising again,” he wrote in September 2007. “Any newspaper or radio or TV station with a good reputation in its community could embrace the fresh ideas of the bloggers in their community by offering free blogs to members of the community, who may be new to blogging.”

“We had an existing Salon Blogs program that I’d started in 2002,” said Scott Rosenberg, Salon’s co-founder and author of Dreaming In Code. But “it had sort of fallen into suspended animation because the technology platform and company that we’d partnered with were moribund.” Back then, Rosenberg said, “My vision was of an experimental and even improvisatory sort of project; I figured we’d build something and collaborate with our users to figure out what they wanted and what worked.”

Open Salon is basically an attempt to put that philosophy into action. While the platform is based on the model of group blogs like DailyKos and Huffington Post, it takes the idea further by opening the doors to anyone, without invitation. The blogs on Open Salon “aren’t merely sidebars,” said Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh. “They’re the main show. And no one has to give you permission to publish or invite you in.”

That makes Open Salon something almost entirely new: an unfettered platform like Blogspot or Wordpress (which anyone can freely use), tied to a community and an established brand (which appeals to some and not to others). There is no agenda, in other words, but there is identity.

Thus far, Open Salon’s identity is a bit up-market. Its men are mostly well-mannered and feminist-minded, and its women are liberated. (Open Salon is also, unsurprisingly, more lefty than not—many of its bloggers are impassioned Obama supporters.) For the most part, they’re smart people who seem like they would be good company. They talk about personal tragedy and parenthood and sex, and sometimes they talk about all three at once, as when blogger terriblemother wrote about her mildly autistic son’s enthusiasm for lightsabers, and the time when he mistook her vibrator for one. Many of the articles are quite good—check out Michael Copperman’s post about his mournful return to the Mississippi Delta, or Gwen Cooper’s gripping “ Night of the Hunter (or, The Night My Cat Saved My Life)”.

The bloggers are surprisingly polite and courteous, a tone that Salon staffers have tried very hard to cultivate. “One of the things I’ve learned from years of experience and watching the success of the photo-sharing site Flickr and learning from its founders,” said Rosenberg, “is that the initial conditions of any online community really do set its course for years to come. Part of that comes from the really extraordinary community of readers that Salon has always had and continues to have.” And, he notes, part of that comes from “how skillfully Salon’s leadership has handled the launch” and “succeeded in setting a civilized tone.”

Unsurprisingly, the platform’s tipping feature was one of the Open Salon bloggers’ favorite early topics of civilized conversation. Contrary to what you might expect, not everybody loved the idea. “I find myself hesitant now to invite friends to visit Open Salon,” wrote blogger Donna Sandstrom. “I don’t want them confusing my invitation with an implied obligation to tip. Like going to someone’s house for dinner and finding out you were actually invited to an Amway party.”

Outside bloggers were much more dismissive. Read/Write Web blogger Frederic Lardinois, for example, noted that tipping might work out while people are still giving away the $10 they’re credited when they sign up. “It’s easy to tip if it doesn’t cost you anything,” but after that, “the real question” gets answered. CNET writer Caroline McCarthy quipped that tipping could make her inclined “to write something of decent quality” in order to “get some pizza money in return.” And, at the Inquisitr, JR Raphael panned the entire idea: “It may seem like the magical pot of gold at first—and I’m pretty sure it will pull in the content—but ultimately, one can only assume that it’ll cheapen the material and lead to lower quality work.”

While this cheapening hasn’t happened yet—recent posts included well-written stories about, among other things, fuel costs in small Alaskan towns, the Finnish language, and pharmaceutical ethics— there are valid reasons to be skeptical of the tipping feature. For one, no one else automatically knows when a post gets a tip, so there’s no running tally of dollars and cents earned. Tipping is a social act in addition to being an economic one, but, for better or worse, Open Salon buries much of the social grace.

Another wrinkle is that Open Salon seems at its best, as does most blogging, when people are in conversation, reacting to one another’s ideas by posting comments or original posts. Its chief attraction, in other words, is not just the reading; it’s the reading and the writing. The rub, then, is that if most people are reading and writing and are, accordingly, full members of the community, there can’t be much new inflow of money—just tips that transfer around from one blogger to another. Total wealth remains flat. “The tipping feature doesn’t hurt anything,” Winer said, “but I wouldn’t go around picking up nickels and dimes. The way to make money isn’t from blogging but because of blogging.”

For Walsh and Salon, that’s the idea. Open Salon blogger haggismold, apologizing for lacking an MBA, wrote a speculative analysis of Salon’s books, finding a troubled cash flow and premium subscriptions declining to about a third of what they were four years ago. As quoted in the regulatory filing, “Management believes Open Salon will attract and retain unique users, increase advertising inventory and lower its incremental editorial costs.”

Put one way, that means free content and more eyeballs for ads. You don’t need an MBA to realize that this might be great news for a company that’s in the red. Might be. “Deeper in the 10-k,” haggismold writes, “it emerges that the fiscal 2008 revenues for Salon were $7.5MM, but the operating costs were $10.88MM, for a $3.37MM operating loss. That’s a hefty difference, and Open Salon by itself probably won’t close the gap.”

Although Dave Winer has encouraged media outlets to open their doors to outside bloggers, he worries about Salon’s timing. “Eight years ago was the time to do this, but now Salon is probably late to the game,” said Winer. People are now familiar enough with blogging platforms, the thinking goes, that the benefit of indirect association with a publisher’s good imprimatur is less than the cost of being free of any entanglement with another’s brand—especially a financially troubled brand, the continued existence of which is by no means assured. And it’s unclear that the concept can grow to scale.

Still, Open Salon is an important idea, a laudable attempt to bring into the fold those people who were once just readers on the far side of the magazine or the computer screen. Salon’s writers and editors will become a bit more like readers, and their readers will become a bit more like them. They’ll share a space, or try to, anyhow.

“How many experiments are tried?” asked Scott Rosenberg. “How many fail? Ultimately, you want some success to point to, but if you don’t have some failures, it probably means you’re not trying enough different things.” It’s unclear whether Salon will get rich from this—and it’s unclear whether bloggers will, either. However the finances work out for Salon, though, the enjoyment from reading and writing remain. For most of Open Salon’s newly minted bloggers, that seems like plenty.

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Joshua Young blogs on new media at Networked News.