At 15, Salon.com Tries Once Again to Reinvent Itself

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That Richard Gingras is the latest Salon.com CEO tasked with saving the long-struggling online magazine is appropriate, if not downright poetic. In 1995, Gingras was the Apple executive who approved the initial $60,000 loan that served as Salon.com’s seed money, and therefore is largely responsible for getting it into this mess in the first place.

This mess, of course, is Salon.com’s 15-year struggle to make money, or, at least, stop losing so much of it (almost $10 million over the past three years, and tens of millions more since its 1999 IPO).

Gingras thinks he has the solution: increase readership by focusing on relevancy and SEO; bring in advertisers by modernizing the ad inventory; and create new revenue streams, such as an online store. What makes Gingras thinks he can accomplish this amidst the most dire ad market in decades? The magic bullet, he says, is the brand.

“I do think that in the content space, as we see the print publications decline, I think brands matter more than ever,” he said. “I think brands with sharp personalities matter more than ever, and I think that presents an opportunity for salon.”

Ever since its debut as one of the first all-digital magazines — not an aggregator, or a blog, but a full-fledged reporting enterprise that hewed to traditional journalistic standards — Salon.com has been both a sign of what’s possible online, and what is not. It has shown that long-form journalism can attract an audience on the Web. What it has yet to prove is that it can be profitable, or even self-sustaining.

The site’s audience now hovers at about 5 million readers a month. David Card, VP and principal analyst with Forrester Research, called it “medium sized but durable,” citing its large percentage of affluent and educated readers. Indeed, Salon.com boasts the highest percentage of college-educated readers of any Web site, according to Nielsen. It averages about 60 million page views a month, and average time spent on the site per reader is 11 minutes.

In an attempt to keep readers on Salon.com longer and push it higher in search engine results (it now gets 17 percent of its readers from search traffic), the redesigned site bundles articles based on topic. Now, if a reader clicks on a story about healthcare reform, he will be taken to a page with all of the site’s content on the subject, as well as related headlines from around the Web and relevant tweets or other outside information fed in by widgets. It’s a similar formula that’s helped the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast supercharge their SEO.

Gingras said SEO was Salon.com’s best opportunity for growing its readership.

“Search and social media are your sources of new users,” he said. “The whole orientation of the topic pages was, how do we both architect our content so it was more friendly for SEO purposes…and expose readers to other areas of Salon as well so that we can convert them from first-time visitors following a link into someone who comes back time and again?”

In an unusual move, Gingras has done away with pagination; all stories now appear on a single page, regardless of length. It’s a curious move at a time when sites from Forbes.com to Sports Illustrated to Cracked are focusing heavily on slideshows that drive up page views. Gingras said he would rather increase the time readers spend with a story — only a small minority of readers ever make it to page 2 anyway — than offer advertisers falsely inflated statistics.

Instead, Salon.com is trying to modernize its ad offerings. The site now supports a variety of “non-traditional” display units, such as “floaters,” which stay on the page as the reader scrolls, and ads that live in the margins of the page but expand into rich media windows. Gingras is also eager to strike more deep engagement sponsorships that “give advertisers access to our readers.” For example, as part of a sponsorship with Lexus this year, Salon.com asked the members of its Open Salon blogging community to write about sustainable transportation. Lexus then used the most highly rated posts in its own ads.

The site will continue its Salon Premium program, which allows users to view the site without ads for $45 a year. (The program currently boasts about 25,000 members.) Card, the Forrester Research analyst, expressed reservations about the program, saying it kept advertisers from reaching the site’s most engaged and affluent readers. “It devalues the value of the rest of their audience,” he said. Gingras disagreed, saying that in the current ad market, “$45 for a pair of eyeballs is a good thing.”

Gingras made it clear that Salon.com was done with the idea of gating content, something it experimented with in the 1990s. He said that making customers pay for access worked for sites like the Wall Street Journal that employers would pay for, not general interest sites like Salon.com.

In perhaps its most unusual move — and the greatest sign of faith in its brand — Salon.com is launching an online store on the Friday after Thanksgiving in which it will “curate” lifestyle goods from around the Web.

“Just as we curate the content, I think we can curate the products,” Gingras said. The store will include “interesting gifts, artisan foods and so on and so forth from merchants and designers and producers who are on the Web selling direct to consumer for whom a relationship with someone like Salon makes great sense.”

It is unclear whether Salon’s brand is strong enough to support a venture into e-commerce, or even to draw the eyeballs it needs to remain solvent when competing with sites like the Huffington Post, which doesn’t pay its writers, or The Daily Beast, which barely has any. But Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, says that despite the site’s rocky financial history, Salon.com still has one of the strongest news brands online.

“There’s Slate and Salon and then there’s everybody else,” he said. “For some reason nobody has been able to establish what they have. When you go there, you know you are going to a credible Web site.”

Card agreed and said he thought Salon had a good chance of becoming sustainable based on Gingras’ plan. The key, he said, was focusing on what Salon.com could be, even if it meant abandoning the vision of what it wanted to be when it launched 15 years ago.

“I believe they can make a go of it,” he said. “I believe they can be an independent, profitable business, but they might not take the lead in terms of total visitors or ad revenues, nor steering the news agenda. But they may continue to play their role.”

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