I don't know about you, but I find very little on the World Wide Web that I consider required reading -- the Internet equivalent of the NBC slogan "must-see TV."

Oh, sure, the Web is an invaluable tool for research, and I open my browser whenever I need a phone number in a faraway town or the lyrics to a doo-wop classic. But I've rarely cruised the Net for pure reading pleasure; online publications just haven't been compelling enough to overcome my aversion to staring into a computer screen any longer than I have to.

Lately, though, I've been getting hooked by an online publication called Salon.

Never heard of it? It's one of the best-known publications on the Web, but that still doesn't mean much. Like a lot of online magazines, Salon mixes commentary, reviews and entertainment coverage. And like a number of them, it also offers readers a chance to engage in online discussions, the high-tech version of the aristocratic salons of yesteryear.

Unlike almost all other original online publications, however, Salon adds one crucial element that keeps guys like me coming back: investigative reporting.

When most people think about online journalism, they can be forgiven if folks like Matt Drudge, the Takoma Park-born gossip monger who puts out the Drudge Report, come to mind. He's been quoted as saying his information is 80 percent accurate.

On the other end of the spectrum from Drudge are the online versions of existing publications. These are often blessed with adequate funding to put together a professional product. But even the best of them have to lug around the institutional baggage of their parent companies, and that burden tends to render them somewhat dull.

That meant, I figured, that there wasn't going to be much journalism of interest to read on the Web until somebody pulled together the magic combination of money, integrity and creativity. The way things were going, that would take a long time.

Then the people at Salon really started to move. This year they dove into investigative reporting, the hard digging that can yield amazing things. They chose one of the biggest stories around: the continuing scandals surrounding the Clinton administration.

They followed the first rule of small-scale journalism: When you're up against an army of reporters trying to cover the same story, figure out what they're not writing about and hit that hard. They chose to focus on a question that had been all but dismissed by much of the mainstream press, the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has said is behind the constant scandal pressure on the White House. And Salon has broken a few stories before anyone else.

Most notably, it has uncovered evidence that key Whitewater witness David Hale received money from conservatives who wanted to discredit President Clinton. The online magazine's reporters wrote accounts of money flowing from conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife to fund anti-Clinton research and writing projects, including a $1.8 million "Arkansas Project" within the American Spectator magazine.

The New York Observer first publicized the Arkansas project this year, but the staff of Salon decided to take it much further. The Justice Department has now asked special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to look into the alleged payments to Hale. The story made quite a splash since if true it showed potentially serious conflict of interest charges undermining Starr's investigations.

I called Salon's editor, David Talbot, a former arts and features editor for the San Francisco Examiner. "Little Salon, with our newsroom of 20 people, has been {humbling} the mainstream press on this story -- and it's a great feeling," he said without a smidgen of modesty.

Talbot was careful to say he thought the stories that the rest of the media has focused on are important -- but that he felt his publication was making a contribution to the debate by shining a light over a largely overlooked part of the political landscape. "I'm not claiming that this is the whole story. It's just one piece."

He told me that the magazine has spent some $40,000 on its investigation this year, using the talents of such writers as Murray Waas, Jonathan Broder and Arkansan Gene Lyons. That amount of money doesn't put a dent in the side of major news-gathering organizations, but it made for a difficult squeeze at Salon, which is funded mainly by Apple Computer Inc., Adobe Systems Inc. and the investment bank Hambrecht & Quist.

Evoking the names of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two reporters whose stories on the Watergate break-in and aftermath led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon, Talbot said he was simply doing what his journalistic heroes had done during Watergate: follow the money.

As more and more attention has been drawn to Salon's reporting (Talbot recently showed up on Geraldo Rivera's talk show), the magazine has been characterized by conservatives as a mouthpiece for the president. But Talbot denied that his staff has some kind of pro-Clinton agenda. He said Salon had published stories highly critical of Clinton, and notes the staff's tongue-in-cheek statement that it consists of "militant centrists."

"I don't think the left, right or center has a monopoly on wisdom, on political wisdom," he said.

These days I feel if I miss Salon, I'm missing out on something. I can't say I agree with everything I read there, or, a lot of the time, even like it. The stories can be harsh and argumentative to a fault, even obnoxious. But it's always thought-provoking. That's what makes it special for me -- I'd much rather read something I disagree with than something that won't surprise or challenge me. Schwartz can be reached at schwartj@twp.com Places to Go To check out Salon for yourself, fire up the browser and head over to www.salonmag.com. To look specifically at the online magazine's coverage of the Clinton administration and its detractors, go to www.salonmag.com/news/1998/01/23list.html/.