Ever-resilient Tina Brown stares down a new beast, daily

by Robin Abcarian

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

7 January 2010

Tina Brown, photographed November 12, 2009 in New York City, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Daily Beast. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/MCT) 

NEW YORK — It’s possible that she’s hard on herself in private, but in public Tina Brown has never been one for self-doubt.

A precocious magazine editor who breathed new life into the fusty Tatler (at age 25), Vanity Fair (at 30) and the venerable New Yorker (at 38), Brown’s success was notable for many things, among them the envy it inspired and her prodigious talent for self-promotion. And then came Talk, the magazine, book and entertainment venture that was supposed to secure her place in the cultural firmament, starting with the scandalously decadent launch party she threw at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in August 1999.

“I see it now as the end of the pre-9/11 world,” Brown said recently. “I remember sailing back to Manhattan on the ferry past the Twin Towers and there was Kate Moss, and Helen Mirren and Natasha Richardson, and we were standing on the side of the boat and a big cold wave came and just whooshed over us.”

Prescient wave. Tina Brown, it turns out, wasn’t too big to fail.

After Talk tanked in 2002, she acknowledged, and not in a self-pitying way, that she was immune to the near-universal delight that ensued because she’d spent the magazine’s wobbly 2 1/2-year tenure swimming in a “howling sea of schadenfreude.”

The waters calmed considerably in the years that followed as Brown tried, with varying degrees of success, jobs in TV, newspapers and books. For the past 15 months, she has presided over the Daily Beast, the newsmagazine-style Web site she created for her friend, Internet mogul Barry Diller.

The site’s growing readership suggests that she has been able to translate her trademark blend of intellectual depth and fascination with the shallows of pop culture to the Internet. But the big question looms: Can she help Diller figure out how to bring high-end advertisers to high-end consumers in a profitable way?

So far, the only person whose opinion really matters believes she is on the right track.

“Tina is, in my opinion, one of the great editors, and that’s what she is doing every waking minute of her life,” said Diller, chairman and chief executive of IAC/InterActiveCorp. “Tina brings everything to this venture.”

Sitting in her cheerful, modest office at the Daily Beast, Brown smiled at the memory of Talk, her most public defeat. “Probably I brought it on myself,” said Brown, days before her 56th birthday in November. “It was wonderful and I have no regrets about that at all, but you know, it sets you up.”

Brown has learned her lesson about the perils of buzz. The launch party for the Daily Beast, she said, was drinks in a bar. The first anniversary passed without much notice. Her West Coast bureau opened quietly in October. In September, she launched an e-book venture with Perseus Books Group designed to bring books to market on an accelerated schedule, but no one’s claiming it will radically change the future of publishing.

Even the top guy refrains from hype.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Diller, who has given the Daily Beast part of a floor in his Frank Gehry-designed global headquarters here across from Chelsea Piers. “As with anything, it describes itself after it’s been around a couple years.”

A lightness pervades the Beast offices, and it’s not solely due to Gehry’s undulating, white glass facade that vaguely resembles billowing sails. It’s the enterprise, and perhaps Brown herself. In charge again of something very much like a glossy magazine, but without the physical burdens, she is back in her comfort zone.

More or less.

“Lena! Why is the site not coming up on my screen!” Brown raises her voice, not unpleasantly, for help. “Why is it my video screen has disappeared? Is it all right if I work on yours?”

Lena Jensen, a young assistant, hurries in and fiddles to no avail. Brown, in black stiletto boots and a violet cashmere sweater over a belted gray wool jumper, leaves her office and plops down at Jensen’s computer, where the Daily Beast home page includes the embedded video mysteriously missing from Brown’s screen.

Brown gives a guided tour of the Beast (motto: “Read this, Skip that”) starting with the Cheat Sheet, the aggregated news that constitutes the spine of the site. She clicks through some “verticals” or themed sections: Sexy Beast (entertainment and fashion), Hungry Beast, Art Beast and “Big Fat Story,” an experimental approach to narrative storytelling featuring pop-up copy blocks.

Brown’s passion for aesthetics has made the Daily Beast one of the most attractive sites of its kind, and her trademark blend of gravitas and froth is on full display, sometimes in the same piece (Meghan McCain on Afghanistan, anyone?).

Beast executives say they are pleased so far. They say the site has slightly fewer than 4 million unique visitors per month, which puts it behind Salon and Slate, which each claim 6 million unique visitors per month. (Measurements from ratings companies such as Nielsen and Comscore put the figures for all three sites much lower. Comscore says the Daily Beast got 2.2 million unique visitors in October; Nielsen said it had 1 million.)

Diller, who owns dozens of Web sites including Evite, Ask and CitySearch, approached Brown in 2006. “I wanted to explore the idea of creating an original Internet project,” said Diller. “The idea was so embryonic, but it was to try to create a daily newspaper magazine.”

“I wasn’t that interested, actually,” said Brown, who was deep into what would become her dishy, bestselling biography of the Princess of Wales, “The Diana Chronicles.” “My head was still in print. I was immersed in my idea for the book, and he said, ‘I’ll wait.’ I laughed, but after I finished the book he came back and said, ‘I still want to do this.’ I thought it might be interesting to learn about online journalism.”

At this point in her career, she doesn’t have much to prove. Sure, she was stung by the failure of Talk (whose plug was pulled by her partners at Miramax and Hearst Corp.). Her short-lived talk show on CNBC (“Topic A With Tina Brown”) was a ratings bust, and she never quite found her footing in the column she wrote for the Washington Post Style section. But those events were bracketed by her astonishing run as a magazine editor and the success of her Diana book, which led to a reported $2-million contract for a book on the Clintons, a project now on hold. (Maybe for the best; as Brown might put it, the Clintons aren’t “v v hot” anymore.)

Shortly after the site debuted on Oct 5, 2008, neo-con scion Christopher Buckley, a lifelong Republican, gave Brown an unexpected gift: In his Daily Beast column, he announced his support for Barack Obama. Buckley’s unthinkable embrace of a liberal Democrat led to his resignation from the National Review, founded in 1955 by his father, the late William F. Buckley. The break, though personally painful for Buckley, was a boon for the Beast.

“We took off like a bucking bronco,” said Brown.

Only half-joking, she divides her staff of around 40 into “grown-ups and kids.” Her executive editor, Edward Felsenthal, who helped develop the site, is a former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. “Hooking up with Tina has meant getting to do what I wanted to do,” said Felsenthal, “but also with the standards and values that I have used before. We want to be fast and we want to be fresh, but we resolved from the beginning that we are going to be traditionalists in the sense that we have editors here.”

“Edward and I are tone police,” said Brown. “We like wit, intelligence and irreverence, but we don’t like snark.”

To launch the teensy West Coast bureau, charged with entertainment and fashion coverage, Brown lured her friend of 30 years, Gabe Doppelt, from W. They hadn’t worked together since Talk. “I don’t think Tina ever realized I was off her payroll,” said Doppelt in the utilitarian Beast outpost on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.

Celebrities once vied to be featured in Brown’s publications, shot by her roster of world-class photographers. But Brown, who hopes eventually to beef up photography on the site, can’t compete on that level anymore. Last month, she visited L.A. to schmooze the talent agencies that used to schmooze her.

Felsenthal said that everyone who writes for the Beast is paid, though not well. Freelance rates range from $250 to $400. “Most of our writers are energized by the site and do it to be part of the conversation,” said Felsenthal, “not to get rich.”

The Beast is peppered with the solid work of veteran journalists. Last month, Joe McGinniss revealed that Sarah Palin is traveling on a private Gulfstream jet, not a bus, for her book tour. (Palin gave the story extra legs — but no link love — when she responded via Facebook: “Media’s priorities shine bright again!”)

Brown’s husband, former London newspaper editor Harry Evans, occasionally writes for the Beast. (Evans, 81, is back on the literary radar with his new memoir, “My Paper Chase.” Their children, George, 23, and Isabel, 19, are in college. Isabel was accepted to Harvard, said Brown, and is taking a gap year.)

In typical Brown fashion, the spawn of the famous pop up with metronomic frequency on the site. (One of Talk magazine’s “scoops” was a drab first-person essay by the cosseted Chelsea Clinton about Sept. 11.)

Still, Meghan McCain helped drive traffic to the Beast when she picked a fight with Ann Coulter. And Liza Gates (daughter of Henry Louis Jr.) filed a piece from inside the White House “beer summit.”

In the rush to grab a piece of a hot story (and eyeballs), some efforts feel like empty calories rather than nourishing takes on the news. Headlines frequently oversell stories. “Will Chelsea Convert?” was a recent story about Clinton’s engagement to her Jewish boyfriend. Neither the author nor anyone he interviewed had the slightest idea.

But that’s to be expected in a business where page views conquer all. “Anyone who says we’re not a slave to the numbers is a fool,” said Doppelt.

Beast Books, Brown’s venture with Perseus, has already promised more than it has delivered. The release of the first book, “Attack of the Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America,” by political commentator John P. Avlon, slated for publication in December, will be released March 2.

Diller scoffed when asked to confirm that he is plowing the widely reported figure of $18 million over three years into the Beast.

“These figures are silly,” he said. “I don’t know where they come from.” His investment in the venture, he added, “is not material to this company.” As for a timeline for profitability, Diller said, “I have no idea whatsoever; hopefully, in my lifetime.”

Diller hopes the Daily Beast will be able to create value for display advertising in an era of low rates, banner fatigue and too much product.

“What you have to try to attempt to do is try to create premium advertising for what is a differentiated — I would argue premium — product,” said Diller. “That hasn’t been attempted. We are trying to do it; it will take us time.”

He pointed hopefully to a beautifully photographed Daily Beast campaign for the luxury goods maker Bottega Venetta. Its several elements included a “sponsored” story about the mark’s designer, product photos that wrap around editorial columns and a Bottega Venetta “micro-site” that can be clicked to. Diller wouldn’t say how much Bottega Venetta paid, only that it is paying “a greater rate” than display ads normally command. “The rate for premium advertising will develop over time,” he said.

Henry Copeland, chief executive of Blogads, which sells ads for popular sites such as PerezHilton and DailyKos and has incorporated Twitter in campaigns, doesn’t think the Daily Beast has hit upon anything original yet. “I am a fan of Tina Brown,” said Copeland. “But they’re just pushing around pixels on the page. Nothing they are doing is radical.”

If the Daily Beast succeeds, it’s good news for all beleaguered old-media types.

Which is why even people who used to love to hate Brown are now rooting for her success.

“You get tired of whipping the same old horse,” said media critic Michael Wolff, founder of Newser.com and once a caustic Brown antagonist. “I like her site. I could not afford to do what she is doing, but I believe somebody has to be doing it.”

For Tina Brown, there isn’t much of a downside to professional risk anymore.

“One of the the great things about having had something that didn’t work out,” she said, “is: So what? I am fine.”

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