August 16, 2005 6:40 PM PDT

Salon puts The Well on auction block

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One of the Internet's oldest and most famous virtual communities, which has been losing members since its glory days in the early 1990s, is up for sale.

The board of directors of Salon.com, which bought The Well in 1999, said this week it has authorized the sale of the online community and e-mail account provider.

"We're diluting both our management and our resources by focusing on two brands," Elizabeth Hambrecht, Salon's chief executive officer, said Tuesday. "Finding another owner for The Well that will give it the resources it requires and deserves is the way we'd like to approach this. We're not looking for the first buyer out there--we're looking for a good match."

Salon said in a filing Monday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that The Well has been profitable and is expected to generate around $500,000 in revenue for the fiscal year ending in March 2006. The Well charges between $10 and $15 a month and has around 4,000 members, counting some staff and complimentary accounts.

Founded in 1985 as a humble computer conferencing system with six dial-up modems, The Well (or Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) soon blossomed into a "literate watering hole," luring tens of thousands of artists, technologists and writers.

The Well was the creation of Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, who squirreled away the original VAX server in a corner of Whole Earth's decrepit offices in Sausalito, Calif. Before long, The Well's conferences were attracting luminaries like Kevin Kelly (a Wired Magazine editor), Mitchell Kapor (the founder of Lotus Development), and science fiction author Bruce Sterling.

In the second quarter, Salon reported a drop in revenue to $1.6 million from $1.7 million during the same period last year. But at the same time, its quarterly net loss narrowed to around $100,000 from $1.2 million in the year-earlier period. Paid subscriptions to Salon's news and commentary Web site fell to 15,300 from approximately 20,900.

In a discussion this week, members worried about The Well's future and speculated about forming a nonprofit organization that would purchase the online service. Others suggested, cheekily, that it be placed on Craigslist with a description of "Early Internet BBS...barely used."

Hambrecht said that Salon intends to shift from something akin to a print magazine with articles posted online to a more interactive Web site. "Salon would like to focus on our base brand rather than divert our attention," she said.

 

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