Nyeh Nyeh Nyeh

Salon on Slate; Slate on Salon. 

News Flash (March 21): Slate trounces Salon in February ratings!

Recent allegations by the editor of Salon cannot be ignored. We know they cannot be ignored because we tried for a couple of weeks. We might be well advised to pretend to ignore them. As a matter of fact we were well advised to do exactly that. Nothing is so irritating as good advice you don’t intend to take.

Distilled, the allegations are as follows:

  • Business-wise, Salon has “left [Slate] in the dust.”
  • Slate “just chews on what other people report,” whereas Salon specializes in original reporting.
  • The editor of Slate “is not the sexiest guy in the world.”

There is some truth in each of these points.

Salon certainly has left Slate in the dust in terms of losing money. According to its latest SEC filing, Salon had a net loss of $5.6 million in the last three months of 1999, for an annual rate of loss of over $22 million. That is several times what Slate is losing. (As a tiny division of a big company, Slate doesn’t release exact figures, so you can believe me or not as you choose. And, yes, this does include all costs an independent business would have to pay for itself.)

The cheery spin of Salon’s publisher about this large number is that “Salon … only needs to spend about $22 million a year … and in the next two or three years it should become profitable.” The Boston Globe reported recently, without direct citation, that “Salon expects to turn a profit sometime next year.” But that SEC filing, dated one day after the Globe article, has a strangely different take on what Salon “expects”:

We … expect to incur operating losses for the foreseeable future. We incurred net losses attributable to common stockholders of $27.2 million in the nine months ended December 31, 1999 and $6.2 million in the fiscal year ended March 31, 1999. As of December 31, 1999, our accumulated deficit was $40.0 million. We expect these operating losses to continue for at least the foreseeable future.

There seems to be a contradiction here. (And not for the first time.) As the editor of Salon correctly notes, “We’re a public company, unlike Slate. We can’t fib on our monthly reports.” And yet a man who also told the Financial Times recently that “credibility … is Salon’s most important asset” surely wouldn’t allow his publication to fib to fellow journalists. It is a conundrum. Perhaps he was fibbing when he said credibility was Salon’s most important asset.

To many in the dot-com world, of course, really big losses are macho. Accusing someone of having a big red bottom line is no insult at all. The real mine’s-bigger-than-yours, though, is traffic.

So whose is bigger? Frank answer: At the moment, Salon’s is bigger, but not by much. According to Media Metrix, the most widely accepted Web traffic measuring service, Salon had 1.51 million unique visitors (i.e., different people who visited at least once) in January, and Slate had 1.33 million. They beat us in December, we beat them the previous five months, and they beat us before that, except when we beat them.

Measuring Web traffic remains an inexact science. Media Metrix makes its estimates by installing boxes on a sampling of computers—the way Nielsen does ratings for television. Media Metrix figures don’t count non-U.S. traffic and systematically underestimate visits from work (as do employers, we hope …). But these biases affect the numbers for all Web sites, making Media Metrix numbers the best “apples-to-apples” comparison.

Salon claims to have had 3.4 million unique visitors in December, relying on a different rating service that uses a Web site’s own traffic logs. Along with the factors already mentioned, complicated questions such as how you deal with visits by automatic “crawlers” account for the difference. We don’t doubt that Salon’s internal logs show this number—in part because ours show something similar. (Once again, we aren’t a client of this other rating service, so you can believe that or not as you choose.) The point is that no one is leaving anyone else in the dust, traffic-wise.

So what about the charge that Slate just “chews on other people’s reporting”? This is partly true as well. Slate does consider smart synthesis, analysis, and commentary an important part of our mission. Although of course we do reporting, we think that helping people wade through the flood of information already available is a noble function as well.

The editor of Salon, though, apparently thinks chewing on other people’s reporting is contemptible. (As opposed to chewing on other people’s doorknobs, hyuk hyuk.) This is odd, since I think of Salon as being pretty chewish itself. Am I crazy or is he? I went to his site and found (at 3 p.m. Friday March 3):

A story revealing that John McCain’s sister has breast cancer. Let’s call that reporting. A commentary on last night’s Republican debate. A page of links to political stories in other publications. A comic strip. Another commentary on the debate. A commentary on a California ballot proposition. An opinion piece asserting that the public is tired of harsh punishments for minors. A book excerpt. A media commentary. Four movie reviews, a music review, and a TV review. A light essay about dogs. A gossip column (lead item derived from “various newspaper reports”). A commentary on Harry Potter. A review of some cookbooks. Another book review. A commentary on family issues. Two commentaries about teen-agers. Another commentary about the family. A column by an M.D. Two commentaries on technology issues. A technology column. Two first-person travel pieces—one about sex (no door knobs) and one about food (ditto). A travel anecdote (sex) borrowed from Reuters. And letters to the editor.

Score: reporting, 1; chewing (unless you wanna count those three travel pieces as reporting), 31. There is nothing wrong with this, in my opinion. But then I’m not the editor of Salon.

Obviously the most troublesome assertion by the editor of Salon is that the editor of Slate “is not the sexiest guy in the world.” How sexually appealing the editor of Salon finds the editor of Slate is of no practical interest to the editor of Slate—or, presumably, to the editor of Salon. Furthermore, the sexiness of the editor might seem like a strange “metric” (as we say in cyberbiz) for measuring the success or failure of a Web site. But in a world where everyone claims success although no one makes a profit, almost any alternative quantity will do.

As with the fellow’s other two points, though, there is an element of truth here. Taken literally, after all, the assertion is beyond dispute. It would be an extraordinary coincidence if the same person were both the editor of Slate and the sexiest guy in the world. How lucky can you get? To be both editor of Salon and the sexiest guy in the world might be, perhaps, less of a coincidence and more of a complex Faustian bargain or good-news-bad-news joke.

The trouble with “editor’s sexiness” as a metric is that it is hard to quantify objectively. Therefore I recommend that you consider the reliability of the editor of Salon’s other remarks and extrapolate backward as to whether you can trust his judgment on this crucial issue for the future of the Internet.