Salon's editor, David Talbot, wanted to create a West Coast riposte to the New Yorker, but the cost was too high. Electronic magazines are cheaper to launch than print ones, and they are also cheaper to consume. In the case of Salon, the real costs are borne by Apple Computer, the software firm Adobe, and a book chain called Borders. All the reader pays for is the cost of being on-line.
Whether pioneer projects like this will ever lead to an established, profitable electronic magazine sector will not be clear for some time, but for now, Salon is an excellent demonstration of what such a genre might look like. It is one of the best examples of Web design I've seen; a rare breath of fresh air, white space and sympathetic typography, executed by people who know how to lay out text so that it is attractive and easy to read. Simple, smart graphics and a judicious use of colour make Salon pages a pleasure to contemplate, and one doesn't get many opportunities for contemplation on the Web.
Editorial policy, mindful of the omnipresent doubts about how long people are prepared to spend reading from screens, limits articles to about 2,000 words. This seems sensible, given the newness of the genre - and it is consistent with the journalistic adage that if something can't be said in 1,500 words, it probably isn't worth saying. In the long run, though, on-line writing needs to grow beyond the constant fear that the medium will not support it. Good writing is sustained by what it says, not what medium it comes in.
Salon is smart and lively, but not especially bold. Like the New Yorker, it's a very useful means for British readers to gain insight into American culture and politics, comparing well with the US coverage in British newspapers. The overall approach, however, is not so much militantly centrist as simply mainstream. Julian Barnes and George Michael may be perfectly sound editorial subjects, but my ears strain to hear any howling.
The magazine sets much store by its "Table Talk" facility, the discussion forum which is the practical expression of its title. and here lies its biggest contradiction. The point of the Internet is that anybody can join in; the point of a salon is that it is by invitation only. Fortunately the result is a happy mixture of editorial values brought from the print world and the participatory ideals of the Internet.
In theory, interactivity is one of two distinguishing features of on- line genres. The other is immediacy, and here Salon scores with daily updates, usually news stories or features. The trouble is that this means yet another Internet address to look up. Salon offers a solution in the form of a free program, called Freeloader, which delivers updated pages automatically. The future of the commercial electronic magazine sector may well depend on facilities like these, as much as on what the magazines actually have to say.