I used to help run a small press/zine collective called Fall of Autumn. The other wonderful people that worked on FOA and I poured our hearts and souls into the project along with plenty of money straight from our wallets. I've mentioned in other blogs that I've been making and contributing to zines on and off for years. I made hardly any money from any of those efforts, most of the time just barely breaking even, but losing money more of the time. In fact, as a writer, I've made approximately $40 in ten years.
Most of the time, DIY media can be fiduciary nightmare, sucking money faster than a bad hand of blackjack.
During my time at Fall of Autumn, we had many discussions regarding advertising. We wrestled with the idea of asking for money for banner ads or even dropping ads in our quarterly zine. Eventually we decided that we could use the money and we would allow some advertising. We came to a consensus about our ad acceptance policy, which I am happy to say we never diverted from. Our DIY ethics were the most important thing to me - and though we were never approached by Pepsi or Shell to pay us for adspace, I could honestly say that in that (highly unlikely event) we would have turned it down.
Salon might be to the "left" of mainstream media and is definitely independent when compared to media empires like the New York Times or Fox News, but Salon isn't necessarily a DIY media outlet. One can buy stock in Salon and the company has offices, staff, and plenty of money traveling in and out - more on the "out" side, as it has reported millions of dollars in losses since its inception. Salon's staff may create, write, and publish for the love of the craft, but SMG is still a business and must stay afloat somehow.
Open Salon, as an extention, would seem to fall under that same rule. I don't think that OS sucks that much money out of Salon Media Group. Since OS gets content from users, and SMGs main expenses come from salaries to editors, writers, and other staff, OS could be considered small potatoes on the expense report.
We all see the signs that traditional media is failing. Most newspaper outlets report losses regularly and many have been shutting their doors. The same thing happened in a big way to more "indy" media outlets a few years ago when the Independent Press Association dissolved. Hundreds of amazing small press publications went under. Independent media and mainstream press suffer from the same malady - we're both going broke fast.
Plenty of people pen hundreds of thousands of words on this subject, trying to figure out just why the fourth estate can't seem to stay afloat these days. Many people fault the internet, blaming it because we're all sipping tall glasses of milk for free. We can't keep faulting new technology though on the basis that it's screwing our business model. Our business model needs to adapt to new technology, not the other way around. Open Salon appears to be SMG's way of trying to adapt.
As the internet evolves and changes our idea of what media outlets look like, a site like OS is a great step in that evolotion. The theory seems to be that the more people click around here, the more people will click around on the parent site. The more people that end up contributing to and reading OS, the more potential advertisers will want to spend their budgets slinging their products.
There lies the problem.
Sadly, media companies, both independent and mainstream, really only feel they have two revenue sources - subscriptions and ads. Unfortunately, this rings true in most cases simply because none of us can see any other way. In an ironic twist, this thinking won't help plug the holes in the dam, it will probably only make them larger.
OS and SMG got Shell to spend some cash sponsoring this site. That's been seen as suspicious at best by many users and downright offensive to others (myself included). Both parties have something to gain - OS gets funding for a little while longer and Shell gets to not only mine users for ideas on energy, but they can say they believe in independent media and support "progressive" ideas. Sadly, these supposed gains fall pretty short for both companies. I suspect most people aren't fooled by Shell's post and Shell won't keep cutting checks to OS forever. When it comes down to spending ad dollars on OS and say, the chance to send more weapons to Nigeria to protect its interests, I expect a cargo plane loaded with MP-5s in the air before another open call.
Unfortunately, we've got a long way to go in finding a way around begging corporate interests for money. In the meantime though, instead of jumping every time a questionable mega corporation opens their checkbooks when they need some good PR, sites like OS can find alternatives. One of the reasons DIY and independent media outlets fail financially is because we're all tiny little islands, barely connected by a few small bridges. We could take money from Shell or Coca-Cola, but we sell a little piece of our integrity when we do. We also become beholden to their interests.
Instead, why not solicit advertising dollars from more socially responsible companies? At FoA, our ad dollars came from other independent media outlets (publishers and record lables, for example) we believed in. Plenty of non-profits, from universities to charities advertise. Even though I wasn't terribly interested in the Strong American School's calls, I felt better about their money than I do about Shell's.
In the long run, media outlets need to find alternatives to traditional models. As more and more big corporations fail, the ad money will dry up further. When they're begging the federal government for money to keep the private jets fueled, they're probably not the best long term sources of revenue.