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.