Less Time Lost to Web-Surfing!

Out of (quite possibly misguided) principle, I'm not reading Salon any more. Last week, in a round of cost-cutting, they cut their staff by 20%. While I'm never happy about "belt-tightening" in the name of the bottom line, given the sad legacy of the corporate climate of the last few decades, Salon's specific actions particularly bothered me. They sacked their books editor and a reviewer, thereby dropping the Web equivalent of a neutron bomb on the literary section of their site: the section's still there, but all the people have been replaced with little piles of ash. I'm not going to go into any kind of wild conspiracy theory about new media trying to kill off old or about Salon's empire-building plans. No fancy theories are required; Salon has a target market and apparently us bookworms aren't part of it.

Given the parts of the site that survived the cuts unscathed -- all of the really annoying columnists and the whole of the "Sex" subsection, for example -- it seems fairly clear that Salon has decided which side of the loaf its bread is buttered on. Even since I started reading it, Salon's snarkiness quotient seemed to always be on the rise. A quick glance at the columnists page instantly shows what's wrong: dammit, why are all of them smirking? A certain dismissive quality runs through most of the columnular writing, a tone of knowing superiority. Even the enjoyable columns strike a bit of a pose; the really abysmal ones are all pose. I can't escape the sense that Salon instructed its caricaturist to play up the sense of "attitude" in their grinning faces. And don't even get me started on Salon's sex obsession, the way the "Sex" part of the site functioned as some sort of black hole, inexorably pulling everything in the known Saloniverse towards it by virtue of its sheer mass.

Salon's not all bad, though, and this was kind of a tough call to make. Their recent redesign was terrible -- I suspect that the subsite-driven design was a scheme to increase the length of the average user's click-trail through Salon, as well as breaking out different parts of the demographic for better-targeted advertising -- but at least they listened to the avalanche of criticism and restored a reasonable facsimile of the prior design. Its newswire selection was, for my money, the most interesting such feed, story for story, available on the web. And even in their snarky moments, some of Salon's writers -- well, especially the late, lamented book staff -- had interesting things to say. The site made me think. Which is kind of why I'm going ahead with my mini-boycott: I care enough to hurt the one I love, and I harbor enough faith to think Salon might just reform its errant ways.

For now, that basically leaves me with Slate. Chase pointed out a few weeks ago what their deal is. Slate is to news what the later stomachs are to the cow: the part that deals with the the post-cud part of the equation. Even the crossword puzzle is about news published elsewhere. Sometimes there's value-added -- the commentary on Supreme Court arguments is filled with hilarious side comments -- and sometimes not -- today in In Other Magazines you can watch as Jeremy Derfner gamely tries to summarize the newsworthy contents of The New Yorker's fiction issue. On a recent cross-country flight, I sat behind New York Editor (does this mean she's in charge of cutting Brooklyn to fit in 30 column inches?) Judith Shulevitz, who spent a substantial chunk of time explaining to the fellow in front of her how online journalism works, and how to compare unique-vistors-per-month numbers to traditional circulation figures, and also how Slate is basically satisfied with its success, where that sucess is measured in terms of the level of influence Slate has on policy-makers in Washington D.C.

This strikes me as frightening, actually, given how little original content Slate contributes to our nation's discourse, political or otherwise. I guess Slate's rapid-response summarization-and-spin systems allow it to be a better mirror, to trap errant thoughts and ideas before they escape from Washington's byways, to force all political discussion back into the media-abetted rhetorical gladiatorial arenas where everything in that city is decided. Scarier than the idea that Slate is an entirely content-free publication is the idea that the decision-making apparatus of this country is lapping this stuff up.

On the other hand, as though to prove that nothing on the web is complete unto itself and that for even the most meta of meta-content there always exists some equal and opposite meta-meta-content, there's the Fray, Slate's reader-response section. Consider the following follow-up to a Moneybox article on the Pets.com sock puppet, posted by some fellow by the name of "Joe Public":

Now that veterans are coming forward with their inhumane treatment at the hands of the Japanese during WWII can we remember what Ronald Regan and the US Congress did during th 80's for the Japanese. Suffice to say they sold out the American people and are traitors. The epitome of this treason was when Ronald Regan got out of office he went to Japan and was paid $3M to do a commercial for a Japanese corporation . . .

The really good stuff is over in in the Chatterbox Fray section, though, where late-night insomniacs have turned this "threaded discussion area" into their own private IRC channel. In some sense, such uses are the most useful thing one could do with the Fray. No further topical comment is possible in the hall-of-mirrors Slate Quadrant, where every possible iota of interpretation has already been extracted; the only meaningful reply is the complete non-sequitor.