MEDIA: Some tips for tapping Salon.com, but beware - Pitching print media is tough enough. Now add Salon.com, which prides itself on being ultra-original. Chris Barnett finds out what it takes to get your client in

Despite news of disappointing ad revenues, sagging share prices and staff sackings, Salon.com still won an award for original online journalism from the Online News Association and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism this month. It was a badly needed shot of adrenaline for the Webzine.

Despite news of disappointing ad revenues, sagging share prices and staff sackings, Salon.com still won an award for original online journalism from the Online News Association and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism this month. It was a badly needed shot of adrenaline for the Webzine.

Despite news of disappointing ad revenues, sagging share prices and staff sackings, Salon.com still won an award for original online journalism from the Online News Association and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism this month. It was a badly needed shot of adrenaline for the Webzine.

'Salon.com covers a broad range of issues - from politics and business to media and culture - with authoritative stories and commentaries,' said the judges. 'It has broken numerous stories, updates frequently and encourages discussion.'

But good luck to PR people trying to crack Salon.com - it's a tough hit.

It takes a thread-the-needle strategy, uncanny timing and a truckload of luck just to weave a client into a Salon.com story. And unless he or she has been indicted for polluting rivers or price-fixing, chances are slim to none that you'll get much coverage.

Its top editors insist Salon.com is not just another content mill. 'Our organization is a traditional journalistic enterprise rather than a newfangled dot-com,' insists Scott Rosenberg, the site's managing editor.

'We compare ourselves to a daily newspaper, rather than a magazine. But in truth we're neither. Still, we combine the jump-on-the-story attitude and intelligent writing of a daily newspaper with flair.'

Salon.com's 100 person staff (40 in editorial) toils in style. Its headquarters are the top two floors of a sleek San Francisco high rise lined by a dramatic staircase that looks more like an ultra cool ad agency than news digs.

But then Rosenberg's own cluttered, claustrophobic private office - complete with stale bagels in his personal toaster oven - is in sync with Salon.com's newspaper roots.

Understanding Salon.com's culture is a leg up in knowing how to pitch the site. Despite their chic, expensive venue, Salon.com's writers and editors look raffish and seasoned - they're not all young techies.

Listen to their phone interviews and they sound like a cynical, questioning lot who dig deep and write long rather than simply pounding out copy.

Not surprisingly, Rosenberg says Salon.com was originally perceived as a 'New Yorker of the Web.'

Salon.com is in the process of consolidating. Six editorial staffers were pink-slipped in a belt-tightening move in June; the site's travel and media coverage has disappeared or been incorporated into other sections; once two separate sections, Technology and Business have merged; women's health coverage has been incorporated into the 'Mothers Who Think' column, edited by Jennifer Sweeney; and broader health issues are now being addressed in the News section, overseen by Joan Walsh. Untouched are the Arts & Entertainment, Books, People, Politics and Sex sections.

Salon.com maintains the editorial on its site is 'overwhelmingly original' except for some columns. For instance, CBS MarketWatch and TheStreet.com now supply most of the Wall Street news and analysis, and AP wire feeds are used to fill in the holes.

Salon.com is not reluctant to dispatch people to cover breaking news.

It had three reporters on the ground in Florida covering the vote-recount story. And even ex-staffers often stay tethered to the site.

What kind of story pitch would fly at Salon.com? Says Rosenberg, 'I was technology editor here for three years and I can't give you a single example of a story that was actually inspired by a (PR) pitch. Our approach to technology news is designed to puncture the hype.'

Suggesting an expert source or a savvy executive for authoritative comment or reaction to breaking news is also a longshot. Rosenberg claims the odds of a Salon.com reporter or editor following up with a phone call are not great. 'In areas we cover very thoroughly - open source software, politics, health, arts - our reporters have their own Rolodexes.'

'If we know that a release is going out to 50 outlets at once, we won't do a straight story,' insists Rosenberg. 'We might be the ones who take the survey apart and say it's totally bogus.'

Bypassing Salon.com and going directly to one of its numerous freelancers is futile 'unless it's a really great story,' says Rosenberg. 'Even if you can persuade a freelancer that your slightly larger disk drive is a hot story, it's not something we're going to jump on.'

Tenacious PR people who aren't cowed by Salon.com's professed deaf ears to story queries should suggest ideas by e-mail only. 'E-mail is absolutely the best way to pitch,' contends Rosenberg. 'Generally it's a waste of time to phone pitch, plus I don't listen to my phone messages until the end of the day.'

Regular mail isn't as off-putting as phoning, but it's usually too slow for a hot topic. 'And if it's not hot, I'm not interested,' says Rosenberg.

So is a mail pitch a total waste of time? 'We don't just trash them.

But the mail volume is huge,' he says.

Even contacting Rosenberg as he prefers, by e-mail, is no guarantee he'll actually read anything sent en masse.

'I have filters on my e-mail and if you add me to your mailing list and send me press releases I didn't ask for, the filter routes them to a separate mailbox that I never open.' He claims he's gotten 1,000 invited messages in the last two months that he doesn't have time to delete, let alone read.

But not all PR folks are fans. 'I'm overwhelmed just trying to keep up with the (print) media that I don't even look at Salon.com,' says Maria Kalligeros, co-founder and principal of PT&Co., a New York City public relations firm.

But Paul Johnson, associate director of media relations for White House Writers Group in Washington, DC, says Salon.com can be a high priority, depending on the client, and is also a pleasure to work with. 'Salon.com reporters are very tenacious and very in touch with their readership, which seems to be people in their 20s and early 30s who will go to the Internet for their news. They also return e-mails. They're hungry.'

Salon.com also has clout in New York and inside the Beltway, says Johnson.

He finds Amy Reiter, who writes 'Nothing Personal,' a column appearing in the People section, quite receptive to his suggestions.

'Her column is a big draw. I know a lot of influential people who read Salon.com and the feedback is tremendous.' However, he concedes, 'Some clients are a little nervous when you include Salon.com. Why? Because they're very opinionated and outspoken, and people here think they tend to be a leftist publication. To me, they tend to be open to both sides.'

Rosenberg says most sections of the site are updated daily, but technology, news and political coverage are updated every half hour. 'We don't have one fixed deadline. There's always a deadline,' he says.

But will Salon.com be around to meet them? When the site went public in 1999 at dollars 10.50 a share, it had dollars 25 million in the bank. Today, its stock is around dollars 1 a share and, as of September 30, cash on hand is dollars 11.6 million. Rosenberg, for one, is optimistic.

'Things are tough all over the Internet industry but we are not a company that was born on a napkin a year ago. We've been around five years.'



CONTACT LIST

Salon.com

22 Fourth Street 16th floor

San Francisco, CA 94103

Phone: (415) 645 9200

Fax: (415) 645 9204

Web: www.salon.com Managing editor: Scott Rosenberg (SF) scottr@salon.com

News editor: Joan Walsh (SF)

jwalsh@salon.com

Books editor: Laura Miller (NY)

lauram@salon.com

Arts & entertainment editor: Bill Wyman (SF)

bwyman@salon.com

Washington bureau chief: Kerry Lauerman

klauerman@salon.com

People editor: Douglas Cruickshank (SF)

dcruickshank@salon.com

Business/technology editor: Andrew Leonard (SF)

aleonard@salon.com.



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