'Hagfish' is back in the headlines

The last time Tina Brown launched a magazine, Talk, in 1999, she held a celebrity-stuffed party on an island off Manhattan where the fireworks were bigger, louder and longer than those at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding just a few weeks later.

To celebrate her first issue as editor-in-chief of Newsweek earlier this month Brown ditched the party idea altogether, instead inviting some of the world’s richest, poorest and most-oppressed women to talk about their rights in a midtown Manhattan hotel for the Women In The World summit.

The Murdochs were there too to discuss China, their marriage having outlived Talk by a whole decade.
The magazine cost its backers a rumoured $100-million over two seemingly spendthrift years. After its closure in early 2002 Brown hosted a chat show and wrote a biography of Princess Diana before setting up the webzine, the Daily Beast, in 2008.

The explosion in online social networking in the past decade now makes celebrity parties seem, well, old school, and the print media have been decimated by websites from Google to Gawker and the Huffington Post. But what hasn’t changed since 1999 is Brown’s ability to attract headlines, both good and bad. Brown is catnip for print journalists and the more vicious bloggers. When the Beast team merged with the even more loss-making Newsweek last November, Gawker ran a much-read piece comparing Brown to a hagfish, “a blind, slimy, deepwater eel-like creature that darts into the orifices of its prey and devours them, alive, from the inside”.

Brown is, inevitably, dismissive of these attacks. “Snark is the medium of the day,” she says when we meet over a hotel breakfast. In her transatlantic, staccato voice, she says she hasn’t read the stories. “I don’t have Google alert because it just distracts the brain. At the end of the day, we have bigger things to worry about than that. We have a magazine to remake.”

The task she faces in remaking Newsweek is one of the biggest of a 35-year career that has included taking on a failing Tatler when she was just 25, as well as editing Vanity Fair (1984 to 1992) and the New Yorker (1992 to 1998). In a world where advertising and circulation revenues have plummeted and the future of news magazines looks dire, Newsweek‘s losses are estimated at more than $20-million a year. Sidney Harman, a 92-year-old technology mogul paid $1 for the 78-year-old magazine last summer. He contacted Brown soon after.

So, the question is, after extolling the virtues of the 24/7 nature of the internet for the past two years, why would Brown and her billionaire backer, Barry Diller, return to print?

Distancing himself
Manhattan gossip suggests Diller simply wants to distance himself from the loss-making Beast, but he has a funny way of showing it. As well as continuing to fund the merged firm he will provide office space in his new Frank Gehry-designed offices in the next month. Brown says of her two new co-owners: “I’ve got two guys who’ve expressed their commitment and no one expects it to be quick. I think I’m much safer with them than I am with some big amorphous company that could just pull the plug any time.”

She has compared taking on Newsweek to rolling a boulder up a hill. Does she still think that? “Yes, I am that ant rolling the boulder up the hill,” she, says laughing. “Not that the Beast was easy, but it was unencumbered. There’s a legacy at Newsweek, but ... I have an appetite for it. I really do love journalism.” Her first issue showed lots of Brown magazine hallmarks: mixing Newsweek‘s traditional political fare with photojournalism, health, fashion, food and travel. “News and pleasure are a good combination,” she says.

More than 50 Newsweek jobs were cut before Brown joined and she has set about hiring veteran—and hardly cheap—writers such as Howard Kurtz, Peter Boyer and Andrew Sullivan. At Talk writers were paid $5 per word and, although Brown says “that payday has gone”, the Beast typically pays $350 for each article it runs—far more than its rivals.

“As a writer myself I cannot look other writers in the face and ask them to do things for nothing,” says Brown. “In the same way I wouldn’t ask my dentist to give me a free filling. Writing is a profession and you should have respect for that and pay for it.”

Which brings us to the Huffington Post, whose eponymous founder Arianna has been criticised for failing to pay writers after selling the site to AOL for $315-million. The two women are often written about together. “Nobody writes about the editors of Slate and Politico like that,” says Brown. “I guess it’s like girl-on-girl action. Everybody likes girl-on-girl action.”

So how does she get on with the former conservative commentator turned web queen? “Arianna is a really old girlfriend and I’ve known her for 30 years. I’ve always been fond of her and I think her success is marvellous.”

‘Total rivals’
After the Post sale the 57-year-old Brown hosted a lunch for Huffington, who also agreed to appear at her Women In The World summit. Would she like to emulate Huffington’s success? “Sounds like a very nice happy ending. She’ll be paying for the next lunch.” This best-friends scenario doesn’t quite ring true for a long-time friend of both women, who laughs and describes them as “total rivals”.

Brown, a darling of the media world with husband Harry Evans when Huffington was still better known for her politics, is twice accosted by other people during our interview. She engenders loyalty among the people she works with. “I’ve always tried to make the writers who work for me more successful than they were before.”

Asked why she never followed the trend for eponymous sites on the web, she says: “I did not want my name to be the name on the site and you know why? I think websites called after the person running them somehow minimises the staff working for them. I wanted to attract the very best writers and it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t an extension of myself.”

Famously tough, the only time she bridles is at the suggestion made by Slate writer Jack Shafer that the summit to celebrate women is “blatantly exploitative”. “What does he mean? How can he possibly say that? Exploitative of who?” she splutters. “The notion that this is PR is sort of obscene ... it’s a truly belittling thing to the women who care. “Let them get on and do what they want to do for the world. The Women in the World summit is about anything but that. Every one of those faces, nearly all of them you’ve never heard of before. I’m really proud of that.”

The two-day event was impressive, with Brown’s team bringing together a diverse array of people. Seeing her at the event, whether gushing over Bill Clinton or introducing sponsors to the doctor from Somalia who provides refuge for 100 000 people, Brown is the consummate networker.

What does she think of the charge that in the world of Facebook and Twitter such behaviour is no longer necessary. “You have to do both in this world. Listen, at the Beast we have this incredible community of interests who want to write and that I’ve never met. They’re not on my Rolodex. They just want to be part of it and that’s incredibly exciting.” By the end, about $150 000 had been donated.

Her interest in women’s issues is news driven. “It’s an exciting moment for women. The Arab revolution happened because women are insisting they are going to be part of this movement for democracy. We are right on the zeitgeist. But it’s not enough to just write about them.

We have to really introduce them to people who have influence and money and are opinion formers to help augment their efforts.”—Guardian News & Media 2011

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