When it was founded in 1995, the general wisdom about Salon.com was that it was a great idea. A magazine - online only! The future is here!
After the tech bubble burst and tons of seemingly brilliant online companies fizzled out, sentiments changed. An online magazine? With no print ad revenue? It can't last.
But it's almost 2008, and Salon, somehow, is not just still around, but thriving. In the past two years, the company says, unique visitors have risen from 2.2 million to 4 million per month, and page views have shot up from 27 million in 2005 to about 40 million in 2007. Salon has somehow managed the rarely duplicated feat of riding out the tech boom as a respected online media outlet without sacrificing its own credibility in the process.
Much of the site's recent success has coincided with the reign of editor-in-chief Joan Walsh, who took over in early 2005. Salon was founded with a focus on arts and culture, but its sweet spot had evolved into political journalism, with a stronger grounding in reporting than many other popular online political sites.
"We'd come out of a bruising election year, and we had a heavy politics readership," says Walsh. "And I really wanted to brand us as a place for breaking, reliable, trustworthy news. We're known for commentary, and our commentary is terrific, but the thing I've admired over the years is [that] the thing that's put us on the map has had to do with breaking news stories that you could trust."
For a relatively small outlet, Salon has had its share of national scoops. It broke the story that Henry Hyde, former head of the House Judiciary Committee who presided over the Clinton impeachment trial, had an affair of his own. More recently, Salon obtained and published internal Army files regarding abuses at Abu Ghraib, including horrific photos.
Such reporting, most serious media outlets will tell you, is the best PR possible - if harnessed correctly. During the height of the tech boom, Salon had the money to spend on TV commercials during Good Morning America. But even that did not compare to the impact of good stories, notes Walsh.
"The thing that bumped our numbers consistently was having scoops that people have to cite Salon for," she says. "Part of that was investing in reporters who can do that kind of work... but the second part was working with an agency that could let the world know that we broke that scoop."
Indeed, Walsh recognizes that larger, more mainstream media outlets have, in the past, frequently followed up on Salon scoops with- out acknowledging where they came from. For a niche outlet, that can be a devastating loss of credit and subsequent site traffic. So one of the primary tasks for Plesser Holland, Salon's AOR since 2005, has been to ensure that credit is given to Salon across the board and to help push out key stories to the rest of the press for wider distribution and pickup.
Equally important, though, has been the agency's quest to turn Walsh into the "face" of the Salon brand. "Every news organization needs a personality or brand, and in this case, it's Joan's," says Kent Holland, who leads the account for Plesser Holland. "We realized last summer, going into mid-term elections, that we needed to build up Joan Walsh's profile... That's what we did."
So far, that means dozens of appearances by Walsh in the past year and a half as a pundit on cable news shows and the launch of her own blog on Salon.com to give her a regular, personal outlet.
"Her being on television not only drives traffic to the site - which it does - it also helps their salespeople close on deals," Holland says. "As an independent news site, they can't cross-sell with other media properties... If the [clients] they're calling on have seen Joan on [cable news] the day before, it obviously helps the salespeople."
Salon has always been followed heavily in the blogosphere, particularly among liberal political bloggers. It strengthened that tie by bringing prominent liberal blogger Glenn Greenwald's blog in-house earlier this year. But Walsh says that while the blogosphere is both a helpful promoter for, and a sometimes competitor to, Salon, she continues to focus on reporting news "the old-fashioned way, but faster and with a point of view."
The traditional view is that Salon's chief competition is Slate.com, but newer entrants like The Huffington Post, along with Web sites from traditional newspapers and news magazines, are also playing on the same field.
"We have a 12-year head start... and I think we invested a lot in the brand," Walsh says. "Trust takes a long time to build, and I'm not sure many people have the resources to take the time to build it at this point."
AT A GLANCE
CEO: Chris Neimeth
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: Joan Walsh
HEADQUARTERS: San Francisco
REVENUE: $7.7 million (2006-07 fiscal year)
COMPETITORS: Slate.com, The Huffington Post, WashingtonPost.com
COMMS BUDGET: Undisclosed
PR AGENCY: Plesser Holland