The other day, we were poking around various job sites (purely for educational purposes! Really!) when we came across an interesting listing on our own site. "Manager, Social Networking Site," the title read. Really? Social networking? People are still jumping on that bandwagon? Then it all made sense: The listing was for Salon, which has never met a misguided online business strategy it didn't like. Now, they want someone who "will help direct an ambitious new initiative in social networking."
According to the site's most recent annual report, filed at the end of June, Salon is planning an initiative called "OpenSalon," which will be "a new service for its users allowing them to post user profiles; contribute blogs and other content; and collecting all their contributions to Salon, including Letters to the Editor, in one place." We're envisioning something like Facebook plus that failed Assignment Zero site, plus the LA Times' recent attempt to get people to contribute for free. So basically, Salon is looking for a way to monetize its most self-absorbed readers' contributions to the site. (Wait, isn't that why they hired Brazil-loving liberal scold Glenn Greenwald?)
Except, Salon already has a virtual community—or at least, they did. And they were never able to monetize or popularize it. So what makes them think they'll be able to do it now?
In April of 1999, Salon bought a property called The Well, one of the original online communities (started in 1985). By the time Salon bought it, it had been built into a healthy amalgam of e-mail services, personal web pages, message boards, and the like. In 1995, it had 10,000 members, and endless online-wonk cred. But what happened? It has become almost an afterthought on Salon's website, and according to its SEC filing, The Well currently only has 2,700 paying members.
Salon generally doesn't have a great track record when it comes to meshing with online trends—some of that is no fault of their own, except for bad tea leaf reading. The magazine got caught up in the IPO fever of the late 1990s and went public near the height of the hysteria, in June 1999. But even then, investors were cool to Salon's IPO, and the stock's price never really went anywhere. Then, in one of the most colossally misguided decisions the magazine would make, it decided to launch Salon Premium in April 2001—just as the stock market was going into freefall. But even at its height (the 2004 elections), Salon Premium had fewer than 90,000 subscribers. Today, the magazine acknowledges that it needs to emphasize getting ads over getting Salon Premium memberships; obviously, if more people visit the site, or at least the right sort of people, they can charge more for ads. (Update: A good point has been made to us—that Salon wouldn't have weathered that crash without the infusion of cash from subscribers, which they recruited with ardor. That does make sense as well.)
After years of turmoil, Salon might be getting its act together. The magazine is actually starting to turn a profit, and its stock today was trading at $1.35—up from a low of $.05 in the dark, dark days of 2003. But is social networking the right choice for their financial future?