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NS Internet Column

In a generous spirit I would like to spend this column praising another magazine, which canít quite be seen as a rival to the NS since it costs nothing at all. Salon is freely available to anyone with a web browser; and it is a wonderful, probably unique, example of a magazine that is better for not being printed on paper. For the readers, the advantages are those of a good magazine anywhere: it is well written and edited with flair and attention to detail. It covers interesting subjects in ways that make them seem important and even, sometimes, vice versa. The design is simple and delightful: it has set a very high standard indeed in the use of little graphics. For technical reasons, the sort of pictures that work best on the web are rather cartoony: they need clear lines and few colours. Salonís designers have made these as eloquent as captioned cartoons can be in more conventional magazines.

But the real pleasure comes in writing for the magazine. It is not financial; nor is Salon unique in having the sort of editors who bring out the best in their writers by making us want to show off and delight. The NS has a crop of those at the moment, too, and great fun they are to work with. What Salon has that makes it unique in my experience is readers. I have never written for any magazine or newspaper, no matter how prestigious, where the feedback is so consistently thoughtful, and the loonies so few.

I donít know why this should be. As a general rule of journalism, no one cares about anything except what has been written by themselves or their friends ó obituaries are an apparent exception, but then theirs is the only page of the newspaper where everyone will earn a place. This is why the most popular parts of a well-run paper are the crossword, competition, and the letters pages, all of which suggest to the readers that their opinions matter. On a national broadsheet, it is rare for the journalists to get any letters at all from readers. Two is a howling success. Ten is a national scandal. I once had a hundred ó but they were all disputing the answer to one question in the Christmas quiz.

But on the Web there seems to be no such barrier. The readers of Salon need only click on the authorís byline to write back, and in huge numbers they click and write. All right, "huge numbers" in the case of the last piece I wrote for them is ten, but thatís still enough to make me feel like an agony aunt. Convenience must be part of it. you cannot read the magazine without a keyboard in front of you, which makes an impulsive response easy, whereas responding to a normal newspaper article demands that you find a clean and tidy place to write ó unless you like to work in green ink round the margins of coffee cup marks and marmalade stains.

This kind of feedback brings a frightful intimacy to journalism. The great drawback of the web from a writerís point of view is that one can find out exactly how many people read each article in a magazine. More humiliating still, when an article is broken into separate pages, it is possible to discover how many people bothered to plough through all the way to the end. The first piece I wrote for wrote for Salon was read by nearly four thousand people ó at least the first page was. This was so disappointing that I have never asked since. After all, the language of the web is in millions of page views.

In September this year, when it broke the story that one of Clintonís chief persecutors in Congress had himself cheated on his wife for years, the magazine registered fifteen million hits from a million addresses. But no one knows how this translates into readers. The editor of their "Digital Culture" section, Scott Rosenberg, says "My best educated guess is that Salon has probably 150,000-200,000 readers a week. But that is truly a guess."

The remaining mystery is why this success should be so difficult to duplicate. The content in Salon is mostly excellent. But so it is in many print magazines and newspapers, including some that have large web editions. NS readers canít be less passionate, well-informed, or literate than Salonís. they certainly write a better weekly competition. If anyone out there knows why itís so hard to get feedback, write and tell me.

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