Salon.com Reduces Its Staff By the Numbers

In the end, it was numbers that did in some of the literary talents of

Salon.com.

First revenues determined that it was necessary to reduce costs at the

on-line magazine. Then founder and editor-in-chief David Talbot used

numbers–web usage–to target which members of the editorial staff should go. The numbers, the equivalent of television ratings, allowed Mr. Talbot to pinpoint 13 employees, including seven editors and writers, who did not generate enough web “hits” to justify keeping them on in the face of dwindling funds.

The seven, as well as other Salon.com employees, learned the bad news on June 7. Among the newly unemployed was Mr. Talbot’s wife,

Camile Peri, the editor who started Salon’s “Mothers Who Think” section; travel editor Don George; book editor Craig Seligman; book writer Craig Offman; media writer Sean Elder; associate business editor Lydia Lee and Kate Moses, an editor who had worked with Ms. Peri. In addition movie reviewer Charles Taylor, who had been a contract writer,was dropped.

In all, the layoffs reduced the 44-person editorial staff by 15 percent. “It was a belt-tightening that was necessary after our analysts suggested that our revenues would be less than we anticipated,” Mr. Talbot told The Observer . “It was really painful,” he said of having to choose who had to go. “When it came time to do this, it was literally like cutting into my own flesh.”

Two weeks ago, on May 25, analysts at the investment bank that handled

Salon.com’s public offering in June 1999 cut its estimates of how much money the web site would bring in by 30 percent, forcing Mr. Talbot to find ways to cut his operating budget. Besides pink-slipping the 13 employees, he cut 20 percent from the freelance budget and reduced his advertising sales and marketing costs. Also let go were five people on the business side and a person who worked in the art department.

Painful as it may have been for Mr. Talbot to fire his staff, he did it by the numbers, targeting the writers and sites with the least traffic. “The web content business is a draconian world,” Mr. Talbot said. “My daunting task has always been to keep books and intellectual content, while also being aware that sex and celebrity is a huge traffic generator,” he said. “Balancing the two is tough.”

“Obviously there are are certain areas that are expendable because they didn’t get hit counts,” Mr. Offman, the book writer, said, noting that typically his stories were accessed 3,000 or 4,000 times the first day after they were published, doubling when one of his stories was picked up elsewhere, such as the New York Post ‘s Page Six.

“With books, from a purely supply and demand, Economics 101-perspective, we were overinvested with three editorial people, given the kind of circulation we were getting,” Mr. Talbot said. “I had continued to spare books, but in the end, again, you have to face blunt realities.” Mr. George’s travel section will be shut down now that he has been fired. Mr. Talbot said that the section attracted the least traffic on Salon.com. “Even though I think it has set the standard for literary travel writing on the Web, it wasn’t what readers were using our site for,” Mr. Talbot said. “They want to know where’s the cheapest flight I can get.” “It’s more like television,” Mr. Elder, the fired media columnist, said of writing for the Web. “If people don’t watch your show, they can it.” For an editor who had just been fired without notice, Mr. Seligman was in pretty good spirits. “I’m not happy, but it’s nothing personal.” Nor was he upset that he hadn’t been given any notice that he would be out of a job. “I have complete and utter trust in David,” Mr. Seligman said. “I hate to sound like a Moonie, but if it was done this way, I am sure it was done for a reason. Obviously the company is suffering.”

It had been clear for some time that Salon.com needed to cut its operating budget. Revenues were not meeting expectations; on May 25, investment bank W.R. Hambrecht said the content site would bring in $14.3 during its 2001 fiscal year, rather than the $20.5 million that had been previously projected. In fiscal year 2000, which ended on March 31, Salon.com lost $18.3

million on revenues of $8 million. Since its I.P.O. in June 1999, Salon.com stock has slumped 79 percent to $2.13 a share.

“The only conclusion you can reach,” said one Salon.com staffer reacting to the firings, “is that it’s an effort to raise the stock price.” Mr. Talbot didn’t go so far, only saying, “In the end, you have to face blunt realities.”