Sultan of salon; David Talbot hates the outdaed idea of the editor as celebrity, but admits h's a very important part of the band at the red-hot Web magazine

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If David Talbot of Salon were to write an article about David Talbot of Salon -- well, he wouldn't.

First of all, that's so old media, so five minutes ago. Typical pack mentality, everyone rushing to jump on the same story, and saying the same thing, in the same namby-pamby, edgeless way. Talbot likes to think the 5-year-old Salon -- www.salon.com -- specializes in getting ahead of the curve.

The ink was barely dry, for example, on Rick Rockwell's marriage license when Salon posted a smartly horrified review of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" It took old media another 24 hours to realize the Fox prostitution spectacle had struck a national nerve.

Same thing with Linux, the revolutionary computer operating system distributed free over the Internet. Salon, in Talbot's opinion, owns the Linux story. Where else could you find a writer, Andrew Leonard, posting his book-in-progress and inviting input from the Linux-ites?

But do you read about Salon's speed and prescience in those old media pieces? Do other writers praise its technology coverage, or its "Mothers Who Think" section, or its campaign coverage?

No, it's always Henry Hyde and his mistress and, more recently, Dan Savage and his doorknobs and maybe, grudgingly, a pat on the back for a scoop here and there. (Savage, a Salon correspondent, wrote a piece claiming he stalked Gary Bauer and tried to infect him with flu during the Iowa caucuses, to punish him for his anti-gay rhetoric. Unless he didn't. Maybe it was satire. Yes, definitely satire. "I know Dan would not go around licking door knobs," Talbot says, making serious eye contact. Never? Well, not while covering the Iowa caucuses for Salon.)

Old media also likes to stress the Salon vs. Slate thing, while Talbot feels he long ago vanquished the Microsoft-funded webzine edited by Michael Kinsley. Old media always questions whether Salon can survive. Clearly, it has, or why would old media keep writing about it?

Finally, old media writes too much about Talbot, and Salon is more than one person. Forget the language in its IPO, which states the loss of Talbot "in particular" could hurt the stock. "SEC boilerplate," Talbot says.

He hates the idea of editor as celebrity, because the danger is the editor might buy into his own publicity and next thing you know, you're Tina Brown. "A terror to work with, incredibly egotistical." Or so he has been told.

"It's like a band," he says of his magazine. "And yes, I'm a key member, but so is Scott Rosenberg, and Gary Kamiya, and Laura Miller. I would say there are at least a dozen key people on staff, and one or two who could step into my shoes if I were hit by the proverbial truck."

OK, Salon is a band. That makes Talbot the -- ?

"Tambourine player?" he ponders, laughing. "The go-go dancer? I'm, I'm -- I'm a very important member of the band.

"I do have a certain showmanship that I get from my Hollywood upbringing," he continues after a pause, arrested, perhaps, as is his interviewer, by the image of Talbot as a go-go dancer. At 48, he's handsome in a fleshy, blue-eyed, brown-haired sort of way. But go-go dancer? No.

"Also, there's the Irish politician side. I've always been very political. And I don't think politics is a dirty word. It means moving people toward a common goal. I've always believed your life should have a dream and a goal and a mission."

In Salon, the once peripatetic Talbot may have found all three. Plus stock options. Sorry, that's so old media, infatuated with the legendary big bucks of new media. After all, Talbot, in a 1998 interview, said he cared nothing about IPOs. "I want my epitaph to read: 'He made a cultural impact.' "

If we were new media, we could put a link right here, take you to the SEC documents about Salon and show you David Talbot's salary and stock options. ($145,000, plus a $30,000 bonus and about 3.7 percent of the company.)

But we're old media. We don't do links.

Becoming David Talbot

Talbot is sitting in Salon's Washington bureau. "Sitting" is misleading, for it implies stillness. Talbot is in constant motion. His feet tap, his hands unbend paper clips.

He is in Washington to "introduce" his bureau to an audience at Union Station. Columnists such as Arianna Huffington, Stanley Crouch and David Horowitz will spar and promote their books. Michael Feldman of public radio's "Whaddaya Know?" will moderate.

An assistant pokes her head in the office to advise her boss to dress up. George magazine will be there!

"I think," Talbot volunteers sunnily at one point, "that I'm handling success really well."

His family was the family next door -- on your television set. His father, Lyle Talbot, was a character actor who played the next-door neighbor on "Ozzie and Harriet." His brother, Steve, was Gilbert on "Leave it to Beaver."

The twin threads of politics and showmanship began to intertwine early in life. As a high school senior, Talbot protested his private school's ROTC program and was forced to leave and get his high school diploma elsewhere.

The University of California-Santa Cruz was his only option for college. After graduating with a degree in sociology, he pursued a career in journalism, concentrating on magazines. He never expected to make much money, working for Mother Jones or writing books about such determinedly non-sexy subjects as Hollywood leftists and energy policy. In 1986, he took a job as a senior editor at the San Francisco Examiner's Sunday magazine but soon left to write a book about sexuality in post-AIDS America.

In 1990, Will Hearst, whose family owned the Examiner, asked Talbot to come back to be the magazine's editor-in-chief. "I think David, as an editor, grew up with the theory that you could talk about important things in an interesting way," Hearst says now. "He just seemed to be a person who would shake things up, yet not do stupid pet tricks."

Talbot was a lightning rod, in and out of the newsroom. Some readers were offended by the articles he ran on sex. Reporters claimed he wasn't a real newsman because he had never covered cops. Women wondered if he were a closet chauvinist. He was ambitious, some said. ("Well, duh," Talbot replies when relayed this observation.)

But the most common complaint, Hearst says, "was that David Talbot was having too much fun."

Discovering the Internet

Then, in November 1994, reporters went on strike for 11 days, producing their own paper via the Internet. The San Francisco Free Press showed Talbot a different way of doing things. Soon he was bouncing in his seat in Hearst's office, talking about the wonders of this new medium.

"David was, like, 'The Internet, man!' " Hearst recalls.

Hearst didn't take the bait, as a publisher or an investor, but Talbot found his backers and started Salon in 1995 with a small band of Examiner expatriates. In hindsight, his timing was uncanny. Salon hit the market when the economy was cooking and most Americans were just learning how to put an "e" in front of otherwise serviceable nouns, from mail to commerce.

Salon debuted as a weekly on Nov. 20, 1995, with articles ranging from an Amy Tan interview to a piece on Bosnia and a you-solve-it murder mystery, the Smoking Gun. A mild manifesto defined the magazine thusly: "SALON is an interactive magazine of books, arts and ideas SALON is not a techno-cult SALON stands for 'militant centrism' The Internet, which breaks down the distinction between readers and writers, is the most democratic medium in history. SALON hopes to employ this electronic forum to advance the cause of civic discourse."

One of the early hires was Dwight Garner, whose Greenwich Village apartment became Salon's first "New York bureau."

"I heard about this crazy magazine out west that was going to be an Internet publication, and I wasn't even using e-mail at this point," he recalls. "But David Talbot called me, and he seemed committed to books. And better yet, he was paying a living wage."

Salon quickly gained a reputation as a fun place to work. "Salon, without getting too gooey about it, in a bizarre way it's a family. David is a father figure," Garner says. "[He and executive editor Kamiya] were wild, cerebral left coast people unlike most editors I know on the East Coast. They're very loose. In a way, they're like big intellectual kids."

Within two years, Salon had gone from weekly to daily. It had enlarged its mission, expanding from cultural coverage to more traditional news stories. Its staff also was expanding; today, it has 150 people in bureaus in San Francisco, New York and Washington, and such famous free-lancers as Camille Paglia and Garrison Keillor.

Inevitably, old media began sniffing around, stealing some of the stars. Garner went to the New York Times Book Review -- a dream job for a long-time book writer. The New York Times, looking for new film critics, grabbed A.O. Scott, who had written a free-lance piece for Salon about Martin Scorsese.

Talbot doesn't want to be a farm team for old media, however, and some of the defections irked him. James Poniewozik, a media writer for Salon, left to become Time's television writer. Poniewozik has nothing but fond memories of Salon, and he credits the magazine with making his career. But he's not as evangelical about new media as his former boss.

"Everything he does, he conveys the impression that he is absolutely convinced that he is not only doing the best possible thing that the world of media has ever seen, he is doing something that is incredibly brilliant business," Poniewozik says.

Talbot says Time has muted Poniewozik's strong, distinctive voice. "It's like marrying a wild, sexy adventurous woman and then trying to tame her."

Whenever a Salon writer leaves, Talbot gathers the troops around him and assures them there is no better place to work than Salon -- Salon is the future, Salon is hot, Salon is the center of the universe.

"I am kind of clannish that way."

The Hyde story

One Salon defection, however, was welcomed. When then-Washington correspondent Jonathan Broder publicly criticized the magazine's decision to publish an article about Henry Hyde's affair with a married woman, Broder ultimately resigned.

It is an interesting dispute, in that the two men basically agree on what happened. A Florida man, Fred Snodgrass, approached Broder and told him that Hyde had wrecked his marriage -- 30 years earlier. Broder dismissed the story, feeling it was old and irrelevant to Hyde's role in the possible impeachment of President Clinton.

But Snodgrass, who had been rebuffed by 53 media outlets, persisted, calling Talbot. Broder argued strenuously against the story. Finally, on Sept. 18, 1998, Talbot wrote and published the piece about Hyde's 1965 affair.

The fallout was swift and furious. Journalists denounced Salon, unimpressed by the magazine's editorial arguing that "ugly times call for ugly tactics." Broder went public with the fact that he had opposed the story.

Nothing could have irritated the "clannish" Talbot more. He called and left a message on Broder's answering machine, accusing him of back-stabbing and saying he wanted to "strangle" him. Infuriated, Broder told his editor, Andrew Ross, that he was resigning. Ross suggested he fly to San Francisco and meet with Talbot.

The meeting never took place. Talbot called Broder and told him that he would accept the already proffered resignation. Broder says he was offered one month's severance, if he agreed to never speak about the incident. "So I turned it down, and I talked about it."

Not surprisingly, Broder, now at Fox Online, remains critical of Salon. Talbot, he says, wants to align himself with the "gonzo" journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, but Salon's pieces often fall short of that mark. Thompson inserted himself in stories as an observer, not as a player. He would never stalk a candidate, as Savage claimed to have done with Bauer.

Creating buzz

"If there's one constant that runs through everything they do, it's this obsession with creating buzz. They don't have an ideology, and they don't have a format that anyone can identify. Their ideology is buzz."

Buzz can be successful. Poniewizik says publicity from the Hyde affair made the company's June 1999 public offering possible. But it didn't make it particularly successful. Salon's shares went on the market at $10.50. When the market closed on Friday, they were selling at $6.375.

And while Talbot owns 3.7 percent of the stock, he's not a wealthy man. He says his credit cards are maxed out and he can't convert his paper wealth to cash without damaging the company -- the brand -- he helped create.

"I have to put Salon first, ahead of even the welfare of my family sometimes," he says. "To the chagrin of my wife, who would like a nicer house closer to our kids' school."

The Salon IPO not only created the illusion that Talbot is rich, it produced rich fodder for Michael Kinsley of Slate. He took the official document apart, pointing out the discrepancies between Talbot's public claims and the prospectus' more modest expectations in terms of revenue, profitability and advertising. Since then, however, Kinsley has decided not to take the bait when Talbot taunts him in print.

Mickey Kaus, one of Kinsley's oldest friends and a Slate contributor, however, is as dismissive of Salon as Talbot is of Slate. He points out that the most-viewed article in Salon's history was Christopher Hitchens' remembrance of John F. Kennedy Jr., a piece notable only for how quickly it appeared. In the end, he says, Salon scores by keeping the bar pretty low with "lots of poorly written articles on masturbation."

But here we go again, writing about Salon in all the obvious ways -- bringing up Henry Hyde, talking about Slate, and the stock. If David Talbot were our editor, he'd take a red pencil -- well, not a red pencil; something infinitely more high-tech -- and send this story back, telling us to start again.

He will talk about sex, however: "It's not stooping to cover sex," says the man whose magazine has harbored Courtney Weaver's "Unzipped," the diary of a call girl and a fat man's claim that fat men are better in bed. "I think sex is one of the most under-covered stories. There is no contradiction in running a publication that has, you know, frank and even graphic discussions about sex, then some serious-minded political coverage."

Hey, sometimes they even get both in the very same article.

Let's accept Talbot's premise that Salon is here to stay. Where will it be in five years?

"Salon 2005," he muses. "I think it will be a vibrant Internet newspaper that will cover even more subjects than it's covering now. We'll add business and sports. We'll also be a multimedia operation, with Salon radio and Salon television."

He is answering this last question on the phone from New York, where he is hiring people for the television program planned this fall. He also is recruiting investors for an international version of Salon. But where will Talbot be in five years?

"Oh, I'll be there, but that will be 10 years," he says, as if 10 years is a long time to hold any job.

Talbot again mentions his age, 48, which he brings up constantly, as if the number is meaningful to him. Just what is it with him and 48? Is he facing down his fear of 50, or feeling cocky for having done so much at a relatively young age?

His answer is characteristically disarming: "I feel like I did this at just the right time. If I had been a little older, it might have been too difficult. I'm aware there was a window in my life, I needed to jump through."

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