October 5, 1998 6:55 PM PDT

Salon launches commerce efforts

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Web magazine Salon has quietly launched a membership area and e-commerce offerings, becoming the latest content site to augment ad sales by broadening its financial strategy.

Salon, which recently roiled the Net's waters with its controversial coverage of the White House sex scandal, put up a new membership area on Friday in which, for $25 per year, members get editorial content beyond what is offered on the free Salon site, the ability to participate in a membership lounge featuring weekly discussions with "special guests," a Salon T-shirt, a CD-ROM, a ticket to attend Salon's book awards in New York, and discounts toward Salon's new e-commerce initiative.

The store, called Salon Emporium, will feature high-end "Salon-inspired merchandise," according to Salon president and publisher Michael O'Donnell. Items such as a tote bag, prints, cards, and Salon-branded coffee already are up for sale at the site.

O'Donnell noted that although Salon is trying out e-commerce and membership, it will not charge for its basic content.

"Our feeling was that the Web was about building a sizable audience and community and then selling to that community," he said. "It wasn't about paying for content--at least not our type of content. For the most part, we think the Web has provided mostly free content."

Salon is modeling itself after public radio and television stations, which offer their content for free but entice members to contribute money for special merchandise and other perks. This strategy strays from that of the likes of the Wall Street Journal or Salon competitor Slate, which is owned by Microsoft. Both publications charge for most of their content.

In fact, Salon has been saying for several months that it planned to launch a members-only area. Whereas others have tried to charge for content that previously was offered free, Salon chose a different route.

With some exceptions--such as the Wall Street Journal--few sites have been successful charging for content, given the amount of free information available to Web users. The now-defunct news site Media Daily, for example, attempted but failed to implement a fee for its content, which was available widely across the Net for free.

Salon will be expanding the range of products to include items such as Salon-branded digital phones, electronics, and furniture, O'Donnell said.

He stressed that while merchandise might include prints derived from illustrations, it will not be "editorially driven. This is clearly a business and not an editorial operation."

But as Salon steps into e-commerce, it will surely be watched closely for potential conflicts of interest between editorial and sales.

Some people had criticized Salon in its early days for its relationship with Borders Books, an investor in Salon. A few media watchdogs had raised their eyebrows, questioning the online magazine's editorial integrity when it came to book reviews.

But observers attribute at least some of the worries to ignorance about the Web and the way linking works. These days, relationships with investors and sponsors that sell products that sites review are commonplace, just as magazine ads often tout products that also are featured in articles.

O'Donnell added that while Salon has been prominent in the national news of late for its controversial story about an affair the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee had 30 years ago, the move to launch the e-commerce and membership areas were completely independent.

"This has been on the drawing boards for the last six months," O'Donnell said. "We wanted to get it up by Christmas season. This didn't have anything to do with some of our recent press coverage."

 

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