"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 April 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Likely Story


"I don't dream of IPO day,"

Salon Editor in Chief David

Talbot told the LA Times last

summer. "Money is not my measure

of success. I want my epitaph to

read: 'He made a cultural

impact.'" And while we have no

doubt the bliss-following,

ex-lesbian communist was speaking

truthfully when he uttered this

sentiment, the summer of 1998

was an eon ago in terms of the

Internet economy. When dozens of

Web-related companies have gone

public since the start of 1999

and dozens more are eagerly

anticipating extremely lavish

Fourth of July parties, an IPO

is the best way to have a cultural

impact. And thus Salon's recent

redesign and URLoplasty, its

purchase of online community The

WELL, and its inevitable

addition to the S-1 canon.


Initial critiques of its effort

were somewhat Kakutanian. "I

don't think people are foaming

at the mouth to get at this

one," observed Jupiter

Communications New Media Analyst

Patrick Keane in the NY Daily

News. "It's not an IPO for the

faint of heart," counseled the

Atlantic Journal and

Constitution. Other reviewers

fretted over this merciless

self-assessment: "We have not

achieved profitability and

expect to incur operating losses

for the foreseeable future."

Such ass-covering admission

statements are pretty much

standard procedure in today's

hyperspeculative market. The

prospectuses of Software.com,

Lowestfare.com, and MyPoints,

to name just a few, contain

similar sad-sack litanies. The

fact that Salon's announcement

drew far more newspaper coverage

(and criticism) than any of

these others suggests its

primary asset: It's a

brand that's at least

semi-recognizable to more than

just venture capitalists and the

habitués of IPO.com.


Of course, Salon also drew extra

scrutiny because it's a content

site. And content, ever since

its brief reign as king in the

mid-'90s, has been the Web's

contemptible court jester -

hence Salon's recent attempts to

pass itself as something other

than it is. Ultimately, however,

it's the most unconvincing

cross-dresser since Uncle

Miltie. The switch from

www.salonmagazine.com to

www.salon.com will help

nonintuitive new users find the

site, and transforming cutesy

department names like "21st" and

"Wanderlust" into utilitarian

Yahoo-style categories like

"Technology" and "Travel" may

appease Salon's no-nonsense

money men (who apparently also

encouraged Salon's roguish

band of acid-addled,

sandwich-nicking, dildo-peddling

editors to consolidate their vices

into new job titles). But these

superficial modifications hardly

substantiate Salon's claim that

it is now an " online network."

Beneath its new sensibly

businesslike portal drag, it's

still a magazine at heart.


But what's so terrible about

that? While community and

commerce have established

themselves as the primary

ingredients for an instant IPO,

we can't help but think that

content's due for a comeback.

After all, isn't Amazon the

Web's premiere commerce site at

least partly because of how much

content (customer reviews,

author interviews, etc.) it

incorporates? And while

community sites scale far more

economically than content sites

do, they're still faced with the

same essential problem: Very few

people are willing to pay any

kind of premium to access them.

Ultimately, then, community

sites are just as dependent upon

advertising as content sites are

- but from an advertiser's

perspective, they're far less

attractive. Indeed, if you were

an advertiser, where would you

rather have your ad appear:

above a Salon article about

Jennifer Lopez's culturally

important ass or the

presidential dog's dick or on

the Geocities homepage of the

Trench Coat Mafia?


Despite its run-of-the-mill

origins as a middlebrowbeating

lit mag, Salon has evolved into

something far more compelling

than that - an R-rated MSNBC.

Like The New York Observer,

from which it has appropriated

many key features, Salon brings

a sense of literary style and

profane sophistication to

perhaps the only facet of

contemporary media culture that

remains unself-consciously

hokey: mainstream news. And

while the weekly, regionally

focused Observer does it better,

Salon, with its national scope

and its daily publishing

schedule, has a wider appeal.

The Henry Hyde story, and the

Clinton-Starr saga in general,

proved how well Salon's new

positioning can be exploited;

if a few more fortuitous stories

materialize over the next couple

years, Salon might emerge as a

brand as well-known as any

old-media stalwart.


Indeed, given how well it has

already branded itself for the

relatively low cost of US$10.5

million (its accumulated deficit

since debuting in 1995), the

valuation it hopes to achieve

through its IPO - anywhere from

$112 to $144 million - doesn't

seem particularly outlandish in

the current hyperspeculative

climate. According to a recent

NY Times article on emerging

Internet brands, it takes

"anywhere from $50 million to

$100 million" to build a

national brand. With more money

to market itself, Salon could

solidify its status as category

leader of the R-rated MSNBC

niche, a position that will

become increasingly valuable as

Internet advertising revenues

rise rapidly.

Indeed, with various market

research firms estimating that

total Internet ad revenues will

top $5.5 billion in 1999 and as

much as $15 billion in 2003,

we're not quite sure why Salon is

even bothering to pursue

incidental commerce efforts like

Salon Club recruitment (so far,

only .000875 percent of its

readers have signed up) or the

liquidation of price-slashed

coffee cups. Instead, it should

be focusing all its energy and

resources on building the best

possible editorial product.


On the other hand, perhaps Salon

will soon have enough money to

engage in whatever tenuous

business pursuits it wants. In

choosing to make its initial

stock offering available through

OpenIPO, an Internet auction

system that allows the wild

speculation mall and large

investors alike to bid on an

offering, Salon stands to profit

from its IPO in a way that other

net.hopefuls haven't. In short,

the wild speculation that has

traditionally begun only after

an IPO has been completed can

start now: While Salon has set

the price of its stock at $10.50

to $13.50, investors can bid

whatever they want, and Salon,

rather than a syndicate of

institutional investors put

together by its underwriter,

will reap the rewards of such

overenthusiasm. Already there is

speculation in some quarters

that the winning bids, come 14

June when the auction closes,

may be as high as $40 to $50 per



While this seems somewhat

unlikely, nonetheless, we've got

our fingers crossed - indeed,

imagine the wave of content

speculation a successful Salon

IPO will usher in. The Drudge

Report and The Onion (which

reportedly has 600,000 more

monthly visitors than Salon's

1.2 million) are certainly

strong enough brands to warrant

IPOs of their own; we may even

see the resurrection of mid-

'90s content-is-king

artifacts like Spiv and Stim! In

short, it will be just like the

glory days of 1995, and the

thought of all the crazy content

schemes that will emerge makes

us swoon with nostalgic

anticipation. Who knows? Maybe

Talbot and a few of his vice

presidents will cash in their

shares, then use their

collective windfall to start

their dream publication - an

"interactive magazine of books,

arts, and ideas." We hear the

domain www.salon1999.com is

now available.

courtesy of St. Huck


[Purchase the Suck Book here]