If some Internet companies have resembled rockets on their first day of trading, easily doubling or tripling in value, the online magazine Salon.com looked more like a life buoy, bobbing up and down but never really changing position.
Scheduled to open today at $10.50 a share, a price established by bidders over the last two months in a so-called Dutch auction, Salon.com rose all the way to $11, fell to $9.81 1/4, and closed at $10.
In the realm of spectacular debuts, it didn't exactly compare to, say, Marketwatch.com, which soared 474 percent on its first day. But fans of Dutch auctions say that's the point -- to establish before the opening day the actual value of a stock and to keep the price reasonably stable in ensuing days.
So today was a victory for Salon, offering proof that a general-interest political and cultural magazine -- given away for free on the Web, losing truckloads of money and with no firm path to profitability -- could still be valued by the stock market at more than $100 million.
Competitors both online and off said they were pleased in general but mystified in particular.
"I'm totally in favor of the idea that someone thinks magazines of any sort could be worth a lot of money," said Michael Kinsley, editor of the other leading online magazine, Slate. "But if you're looking for an explanation, I can't give it to you."
Wondered National Review Editor Rich Lowry: "What is it about being online that is going to make this a tremendously profitable endeavor, when no opinion magazine ever has made money? It strikes me as a bizarre phenomenon. Maybe NationalReview.com should go public."
National Review's founder, columnist William Buckley, used to say the magazine existed to make a point, not a profit. Slate had to abandon a plan to charge for subscriptions, and it survives only thanks to subsidies from Microsoft Corp.
Salon, which lost $6 for every $3 it took in last year, was started in late 1995 by David Talbot, a former editor at the San Francisco Examiner who recruited a number of his colleagues at the paper.
Irv DeGraw, research director at the Web site Stockstowatch.com, said Salon was "very attractive based on its operation -- it's a leading-edge electronic magazine, it's broken stories, scooped people. That's the first key to an IPO. However, from a business perspective, this is a case of a good company that's come to market too soon. It wasn't ready for prime time."
Had this been five months ago, during the heyday of the Internet IPOs, DeGraw figured Salon would have ended today in the $20s. Five months from now, he figured, "it'll be under $10." Personally, he said, "I wouldn't have touched it."
Michael O'Donnell, Salon's chief executive, said comparisons to magazines such as National Review and Harper's were irrelevant. "Those are niche books, with circulations of 50,000 to 100,000. We've moved beyond the magazine paradigm. We can broadcast like television, be as thoughtful as print, but be interactive like talk radio."
Besides, "some of our media brethren are a little jealous of our success. We built this company from scratch, and had to do it in the rough and tumble world of Silicon Valley venture capital."
At the magazine, which is based in San Francisco, there was a celebratory catered lunch yesterday, with free-flowing champagne. "Middle-range bubbly, not Dom Perignon," said O'Donnell.
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