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

March 13, 2000|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

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.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on March 13 about David Talbot and Salon magazine incorrectly identified the webzine in which A. O. Scott's piece on Martin Scorsese appeared. The piece appeared in Slate magazine (www.slate.com). The Sun regrets the error.

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.

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