Michael Wolff: Is there a place for Tina Brown?
by Michael Wolff
What will happen to Tina Brown? And should we care?
The most famous magazine editor of her generation is engaged in a desperate and operatic struggle, which almost no one anywhere believes has any chance of success, to reinvent Newsweek as a sustainable business proposition. In this, she is arguably no different from anybody else with a venerable media brand, except that Newsweek is in more dire extremis and her notoriety personalizes the fight.
She was a compelling character at the zenith of the media age and is a fitting one at its end. First at Vanity Fair, then at The New Yorker, then at her own short-lived title, Talk, she was a prime mover of many of the excesses of the business -- bigger parties, bigger paychecks, bigger staffs, bigger hype. And now, most awkwardly, she exists in the inverse culture, where doing without is the key editorial art.
But say this for her: She's pitching. Unlike her successor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, who has spent 20 years cannily running the magazine as though it were an antebellum plantation floating far above the media civil war, Brown has assiduously, and sometimes painfully, sought reinvention.
Talk was her recognition that the media was leaving its megacompany phase and entering an entrepreneurial chapter, though she herself was a poor entrepreneur. Her chat show on CNBC was a recognition that editors had to have multimedia talents, though she herself was an uncomfortable performer. And The Daily Beast was her effort to compete in the digital world, even though she is a famous technophobe.
Then came Newsweek, her most quixotic challenge.
Newsweek had died and been sold for scrap when, in a bit of jujitsu dealmaking, Brown's boss and patron, mogul Barry Diller, finessed control of the magazine in 2010 from Sidney Harman, the wealthy nonagenarian who had bought it for $1, and handed it to Brown to combine with The Daily Beast.
The issue was starkly simple: Could a traditional brand be reinvented in what is called a "digital first" context -- and soon migrate entirely to digital -- and, even more challenging, could it be reinvented by a traditional editor?
Now, it's notable that most of the recent successful editorial efforts in the digital world -- aka content sites -- have been created by editorial outsiders. Arianna Huffington, a political gadfly, created The Huffington Post; Henry Blodget, a disgraced stock analyst, created Business Insider; Jonah Peretti, a viral-marketing whiz kid, created BuzzFeed; Nick Denton, a Brit with a social chip on his shoulder, created Gawker; Shane Smith, a Canadian alternative-magazine publisher, has built Vice into a magazine-online-video-marketing phenomenon.
It's a world focused on the voodoo arts of traffic acquisition, cost control that depends on a cheap, young workforce that repurposes other people's content, and a boundaryless relationship with advertisers that blurs the editorial and commercial.
In contrast, Brown has continued an old-line, even purist strategy: hiring big names, courting attention with teasing covers and building her brand through the media itself. (She's well known for calling media bosses with whom she socializes to court favorable publicity or to discipline bad.)
She is, in a sink hole of cost, trying to use old-media tricks to meld The Daily Beast and Newsweek into the kind of zeitgeist-shaping, buzz-creating, cocktail-party-fueling package that the media has, for so long, been built around -- part craft, part culture, part snobbery. Rather a great age, if you were part of it.
To many, including many on her staff who have jumped ship, this means that she is blind to the realities of the new world. And, with only limited traffic, she hardly has the wherewithal to exist in it -- save for her patron Diller's patience and dough. (The Daily Beast and Newsweek have about 6.5 million unique visitors a month, vs. 35 million for The Huffington Post, according to ComScore.)
And yet, in her stubborn efforts to restore media culture -- and resist the demands of digital culture -- she is, in her way, making a larger point.
This new content world is hardly a vibrant place. Even successful sites are marginal, if not downright crummy, businesses without big growth prospects. As a rule of thumb, these sites -- suffering from the ad world's chronic dissatisfaction with Web content and performance -- make about $1 a year per user. In contrast, Vanity Fair with its 1.2 million circulation makes about $100 a year on each person who buys the magazine.
What's more, much of the content is at a subsistence level, a patchwork of the borrowed, stolen, hurried and amateur that has neither captured reader loyalty nor advertisers' imaginations -- arguably quite a vast wasteland, as FCC chairman Newton Minow famously labeled commercial television in 1961.
It's a bleak divide: a new business with constrained prospects and talent, and a fading old business once fecund and profitable, with Tina Brown artlessly in the middle.
While Brown may not have managed her reinvention, it is as true that the new business, anyway, one worth being in, has yet to be invented -- a challenge that will be one of the ongoing themes of this column.
We need a new Tina Brown -- whose enormous promotional gifts in better days enlivened the media business and brought attention to quality work -- if not quite this Tina Brown.
Michael Wolff is a new columnist for USA TODAY, focusing on the media. He is a two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and has been a longtime columnist for Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is also the founder of Newser.com.
Michael Wolff can be reached on Twitter @MichaelWolffNYC and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org