The former magazine editor and chronicler of Diana talks about her new website, Barry Diller, and the elusive nature of buzz.
In Tina Brown's favorite novel, Scoop-Evelyn Waugh's classic send-up of Fleet Street-the fawning editor of the Daily Beast, Mr. Salter, must maneuver delicately past the iron will of his domineering proprietor, Lord Copper. "Up to a point, Lord Copper," Mr. Salter purrs instead of saying "no."
Now that Brown has launched her own version of the Daily Beast-a buzz-worthy website backed, to a reported $18 million, by billionaire media lord Barry Diller-she claims no such mealymouthed evasions are necessary.
"The thing about Barry is that he enjoys vigorous conversation," Brown told Portfolio.com in an exclusive interview last week, as TheDailyBeast.com was rounding out its second week in the Frank Gehry-designed Chelsea headquarters of Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp. "I love his input, and he understands that I'm an editor, and we do what needs to be done."
At 54, the British-born, Oxford-educated Brown-perhaps the most famous magazine editor on either side of the Atlantic-is a virtuoso at handling hard-driving visionaries with big demands: Condé Nast mogul Si Newhouse (for whom she was the groundbreaking editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker); movie magnate Harvey Weinstein (with whom she launched the short-lived Talk magazine with an over-the-top bacchanal on Liberty Island); and now the famously difficult Diller.
In between, she has hosted a CNBC television show, written a bestselling biography of Princess Diana, and, with her husband Sir Harold Evans-himself a famous newspaper editor-become a glittering fixture of Manhattan social life. At long last, Brown is hoping to make her mark on the World Wide Web.
Lloyd Grove: Can you answer the question, Why now? Arguably people might say that you and the Daily Beast are a little late to the game. But, then again, what's the game?
Tina Brown: The whole point of the site is being late to the game. I mean, the site is a response, with the overwhelming volume of sites, and the site is a simplification so that you can go to the site and get the speedy, fast, clear, simple menu of what is purely interesting, exciting, or provocative, and not give everybody the huge, great big all-you-can-eat buffet.
L.G.: Walk me through just the process by which you decided to do this. Was this your idea? Was this Barry Diller's idea?
T.B.: It was actually Barry's idea. And he had the idea first, as a matter of fact, in 2006. And he asked me to do it and I said, "You know, Barry, I'm in the middle of my book. It sounds fun, but your timing is off."
L.G.: That was The Diana Chronicles.
T.B.: Yeah. I said I really can't do it. I said you have to get someone else. I said I regret that, but I just can't do two things at once, and he said, "Fine, I'll wait for you." I said, "Yeah, yes." I laughed. It's a nice thing to say, but it doesn't sound very convincing. However, he did. And no sooner did he read in one of the columns that I'd finished my book-just literally written the end-than he called me up and said, "Hey, I really want to do the thing we talked about, I'm still here." So, in fact, I had finished my book then and I said, "Well why don't I just come in and spend a few months sort of fooling around with dummies and layouts and stuff, no harm done after a few months if neither of us wants to do it. It'll be fun for me to kind of investigate the Web in a more intense way, from a managing point of view." Because, you know, I'd used the Web all the time and write columns and all the rest of it, but I hadn't actually produced a website. I hadn't done that physical, hands-on thing of doing a site. So I thought that would be fun to learn about as well. So I said "Okay, why don't I come in and do that?"
L.G.: In your previous lives, for instance, Talk magazine obviously had a website attached to it.
T.B.: Yes, but I didn't focus on it very much because Harvey [Weinstein] didn't want to bother with it, he didn't want to do it. So there was no focus on it at that time.
L.G.: And the same thing with the New Yorker.
T.B.: That was so long ago. That was another era.
L.G.: Right. And, of course, Vanity Fair. Forget about it.
T.B.: Yes, the past was another country. I can't believe how long it now seems. I did the New Yorker in 1992 through 1998. But I said to Barry, "I'll come in for a few months and see whether it's fun to do and whether you want to do it." It was a very, very loose kind of commitment. But then I did a dummy and then kind of showed it to him. He said, "Right, let's do it," and I just thought he was kidding. In a way, the idea was to have some fun and do some experimenting for a few months. I didn't really expect it to go forth from that because I didn't think I'd really want to do it, and I didn't think he would either. But he did, and he said, "Let's do it." I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "Go hire a general manager, and we're just going to do it." [He was just] being Barry.
L.G.: When did he pull the trigger?
T.B.: He pulled the trigger in January, and I then had to kind of totally get them to begin to put together a structure, and I hired Ed Felsenthal from the Wall Street Journal who was terrific.
L.G.: He was from Condé Nast Portfolio at that point.
T.B.: He had been at Portfolio, Edward Felsenthal. Don't call him Ed, he doesn't like being called Ed. He came aboard, I thought he was a terrific choice, he's just been absolutely wonderful. And then I had to find a G.M., and look, and I really knew that I wanted to have a business partner who was tremendously sort of tactile about editorial, who understands editorial. I didn't want to have somebody who kind of spoke geek speak at me and didn't understand the intense interface that I wanted with editorial and building a site. And we found Caroline Marks at Comcast, who was running a social-media aspect of Comcast, and I just liked her immediately. I thought she's very dynamic, and she's spirited and smart. She came on in June. Ed came in March, April. And now we have about 12 staffers on editorial and about eight on [Web technology].
L.G.: And these people don't work cheap, do they?
T.B.: Well, some of them do. [Laughs] I think every site has to have the right combination between the grownups and what we call the gremlins. I've got a whole bunch of very young kids here, a couple of interns from The Colbert Report, two or three who are right out of college, another two terrific young sort of web editors-one from Us.com, one from Nerve.com and ABC.com. And then we've also got what I call the kind of more mainstream media editors: Jane Spencer from the Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Wapshott from the New York Sun, and Bryan Curtis is from Slate.
L.G.: Obviously, for some of these people, these are real jobs and serious commitments on their part. You have the good luck to be working in a situation where this was Barry's idea, so he's invested in it from the get-go, psychically and emotionally. But what sort of commitment has he made?
T.B.: I feel well protected, and I feel that the site will have his full commitment, and everything about the way it's going, I think, is very encouraging to him. After two weeks I think we're all very encouraged at the response to it. Barry's a big believer in having faith and strong nerves as long as the numbers are going up.
L.G.: I see. And what sort of a commitment, just monetarily? I've seen $18 million.
T.B.: I don't want to [discuss that]. That's an excess. Websites are not as expensive to launch as magazines. There's a real sense in this company [IAC] of trying things. Barry stayed with a lot of the things that he's launched quite a long time, and quite frankly, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as far as I'm concerned. This is very much an exuberant editorial project for me. I've got to have a book as well-the Clintons are my next book-and I have that coming in 2009, and I've also got a production development deal with HBO. This is one of the things that I'm doing, but of course I'm getting my whole sort of gusto right now. We'll see what happens.
L.G.: You say that the Clinton book is due in 2009?
L.G.: Yikes, Tina, you have a lot on your plate.
T.B.: 2010, I'm sorry. Thank you. Otherwise, I'd be having my brains blown out.
L.G.: But, even so-
T.B.: Listen, it's a lot, but you know what, Lloyd? My children have grown up, it's astonishing what kind of energy you unleash when your kids have finally left the house.
L.G.: Describe to me what the business plan is.
T.B.: I don't want to go into a long-term business plan. We're still really in formation with our business plan. This has been very much a "beta" (in the dry-run, testing stage). We're seeing what it needs. What I love about Barry is he's basically saying let's blue sky something; see what it needs, what it requires, see what kind of investment and development we need. He's very much in listening mode, in evolutionary mode, with this project right now.
L.G.: But, as you know, every print publication with extensive internet operations has been scratching their heads trying to figure out how to monetize this.
T.B.: I know, but then you have to have some patience, and some vision. One of the reasons I wanted to be in this with Barry Diller is because he does, as he showed with the Fox Television Network [which Diller built from the bottom up]. He believes in this project, and he believes in this world. And he was very smart to get into it when he did. And there's no question in everybody's minds where it's all going. I must say, from my point of view, even if there was a transitional period when advertising is divided between mainstream media and new media, and a sense that clearly people are not sure how to monetize these things, there's no doubt in anybody's minds that online is the great growth advertising venue of the future. It may take some time to transition it, but you have to take the plunge at the right moment or you're left behind. So, from my point of view, what really excites me is that I've spent so much time in mainstream media, and just in the last seven, eight years, frankly, you get so tired of the sort of constant hammering. There's such a depression in the mainstream-media world, whether it's publishing or network television or magazines, and everybody's kind of glum, and feeling they're kind of being outpaced. It's all about budget cuts. From my point of view and our point of view here, it's exciting to be in a situation where you feel the only way to go is up, that it's about finding an audience fast, and catering to that audience fast. I love being able to adapt. Obviously the site will perform and do well in the areas where the readers and users tug us, you know? And I like being able to do that, because it means you can adapt very quickly and become commercial very quickly because you can get a sense of response.
L.G.: Have you started selling advertising?
T.B.: No, we haven't even gone to advertisers yet. This is a beta period. It means we've not really fully launched. We came out before the site was 100-percent baked as we might have done. I mean, we might've put in several more verticals and all the rest of it, but we decided not to wait for that, because we felt that this news moment was so good and such a great way to build audience in this news market, that it was better to get it out now and find our audience and gradually evolve as we went along. We'll start going into advertisers in early 2009. It was Barry's idea. Barry said to me, "Don't think about advertising until you've been through this period, because you're going to want to retool things, think about it, and then you'll be able to know where you're going and what your story is."
L.G.: Obviously there's been a great deal of buzz, but the traffic is understandably low. You just started, after all.
T.B.: But, hey, buzz equals traffic, as you well know, Lloyd.
L.G.: It's a steep upward curve since the start?
T.B.: We're very encouraged-very. We've been up for 10 days. So don't push us too hard, because I don't even know. Things at the beginning can say one thing-who knows? Talking about numbers, we don't know, we have no idea.
L.G.: You've been up for 10 days, but since you're Tina Brown, you've been getting a lot of attention for it.
T.B.: I'm completely worn out. It's like, "What are your metrics?" I'm thinking, If I had a minute to bloody check them, I could tell you.
L.G.: This, for you, is like a soft launch, isn't it. Maybe you can have a party in, like, a puddle somewhere, on a little traffic island, maybe.
T.B: Oh, I don't know, yeah, traffic island-that's a good idea.
L.G.: I was amused: In your own interview with yourself, you asked yourself whether you could bankrupt Barry Diller. And you said, "Even I can't burn through money that fast."
T.B.: It's true.
L.G.: Well that's very reassuring. You've had a number of good hits, as with our friend Christopher Buckley [whose endorsement of Barack Obama and subsequent resignation from National Review, the conservative magazine founded by his late father William F. Buckley Jr., received widespread coverage in the mainstream media].
T.B.: Yeah, that was like Christmas Day. Chris and I are really good friends. We agreed he was going to do a regular column a few months ago, and he said "I'm all yours once the Beast begins to roar." So up he goes with his first column, and it's great, and then I say, "Hey, what's the next column, Chris?" He says "I think I've got something that you're going to enjoy," and I said "Okay, great, we'll put it up on Monday." He said, "I have a funny feeling you might want to put it up right away," so of course as soon as it came in, we rammed it right in. Then the next thing is, he does the other one about the fact that he gets fired, and then of course it goes crazy. It's just been amazing. It's been a huge traffic driver. It's been picked up everywhere. Everywhere. It's amazing how it continues. It's one of the great fun things about the traffic metrics to be able to see. It's still driving. We published the piece whenever it was, and now I can see people are going back to the new piece about having left the National Review, but they're also then going to the other piece to see what he said in the first place. So it's been great for us.
L.G.: Have there been other things that have driven traffic to the Daily Beast?
T.B.: We've had a lot of good stuff, actually. Mike Kinsley's piece about McCain at the craps table got a huge amount of traffic.
L.G.: That was the one where McCain chewed out the old lady?
T.B.: Yep, that was great. We had a terrific Kevin Sessums' Jennifer Lopez piece that drove a lot of traffic. We had a wonderful piece where one of our interns got McCain's auntie on the telephone, [laughs] and she gave an exclusive interview to the Daily Beast about what she feels are the chances of her nephew-and that's been picked up everywhere today. I think frankly we're a very lively staff. As long as the ideas keep rolling, obviously people are interested in content, so it's the content that's driving the site, which is very nice for us. I think news is the best marketing budget. I mean, I'd rather have news than a marketing budget. If you have stories people want to read, that's the best way to market your site. It's much better than pictures, posters, and expensive advertising.
L.G.: Do you have a marketing budget?
T.B.: Not really, no.
L.G.: I think Tina Brown is the best marketing budget.
T.B.: God, I want to go to bed, Lloyd. I was up at 4 a.m. blogging [about the final presidential candidates' debate].
L.G.: I read that. That was very amusing.
T.B.: Thank you. I used to take two days to write a column for the Washington Post. Now I'm writing one in two-and-a-half hours. You're used to it. You've always been a kind of content monster, churning it out like a maniac.
L.G.: Okay, the flattery portion of the interview is over.
T.B.: It's true. I used to wonder about that, but now I know what can be done when you're in a frenetic state.
L.G.: Here's a question I'm curious about: Are you paying your writers?
T.B.: We pay professional writers.
L.G.: At market rates?
T.B.: Certainly at competitive Web rates. Listen, let's put it this way, if I ever hear the words, "he's at Condé Nast," I'd put down the telephone.
T.B.: Condé Nast only competes with itself at the moment. But there's a hell of a lot of writers out there who are floating around who are looking for places to publish things.
L.G.: Right, but a lot of the people that you have featured are your A-list, right?
T.B.: Those are people I have very good relationships with. It's wonderful. I feel very touched that some of the old friends have sort of come forth and multiplied. I think the thing about writers is, most of all, they like feedback and they like to be read. And in this competitive place for eyeballs right now, it's so hard to make an impact with something, you get so overwhelmed with others' competing material that I think when writers feel that there is a place where they can put their stuff and get a response, it's quite remarkable what type of material starts to come in. One of the things I'm freaked out about-and it's wonderful-is I wake up in the morning and there's something in my inbox from somebody that I didn't actually call, to say, "I just read this," "I just came back from so and so," "I just wrote this," you know. I woke up this morning, and now I had a post from Andrew Neil, former editor of the London Sunday Times, and he's started to be one of our bloggers on the British economy. And, quite frankly, he's got a ton of other things he could be doing.
L.G.: Arianna Huffington doesn't pay her writers, as you know-her bloggers particularly.
T.B.: Don't forget, Lloyd, it's a completely different model, because that's a come-one-come-all, multi sort of present site. We are commissioning and not just trying to publish every blog that comes in as a post. It's going through editors. It's not people posting without an editor, it's people writing for either a commission or a particular editor. We accept and we reject.
L.G.: Some people have written that yours is sort of a "voice of God" internet site.
T.B.: No, no, because there's still comments, an interactive nature of the site, there's a lot of free exchange. Let's put it this way, it's a much more free marketplace than a magazine where you have to kind of harbor your print pages. We want to cultivate our own voices, and as the site grows, there probably will be many voices. We really want, first of all, to establish a literary standard and a level of thought and conversation, which then in a sense becomes self-replenishing, with people who are attracted to the site because they're those kinds of writers and thinkers and people. And then you could establish a roster of people that you particularly love to hear from, and then they, in turn, attract others like them. So it's really, at this point, about establishing the tone and quality and standard of the site.
L.G.: There's always been a tension, on the internet and within various internet companies and journalistic enterprises, between democracy and editorial control. You are an editor, obviously.
T.B.: We are in between. We do feel that our service is to be discerning, so we're kind of in between a site that is really an edited, fully commissioned site and one that is wholly kind of user-generated. We have user-generated content, and we also do stuff about user-generated content, and we aggregate user-generated content. But we're not just looking to simply post everything in the world that's close to the door right now, because we're trying to say this is a site that will save you time, so we're only going to give you stuff that interests us.
L.G.: What about the notion that, as your old "friend" Michael Wolff-who I gather went to Barry and asked Barry if he would back his site [Newser.com]-.
T.B.: I didn't know that history.
L.G.: But he was saying that buzz doesn't get you the kind of traffic you want, that the businesses that make money are the ones that you don't hear all that much about.
T.B: I certainly think he's hoping for that.
T.B.: Listen, that's his story and he's sticking to it. What can I say?
L.G.: But even Arianna-
T.B.: Arianna makes a lot of buzz. That site has made itself on news. It's done great things and made a lot of news. That's why it's succeeded.
L.G.: She says, in the Los Angeles Times piece, which you probably saw, that "I agree with Michael that buzz is not something you plan for, and it should never be your goal. You should follow your heart, speak the truth, and work to connect with your readers."
T.B.: This is like the election: Is anybody anywhere telling you the truth?
L.G.: I hope you are!
T.B.: I am! You know what buzz is?
L.G.: I want you to define it for me.
T.B.: Buzz, contrary to what some people think, is not something you graft onto a site. Buzz is just another word for providing interesting things that people wish to talk about. That's buzz, and that's what an editor's job is, to provide material that is stimulating, provocative, and interesting enough to make people actually want to converse about it. So if we're generating buzz, it's because we're actually appealing to what makes people involved and interested.
L.G.: That word has been most associated with you.
T.B.: Yes, in the case of me, they tend to call me "the erstwhile queen of buzz." In fact, I now sign my letters, The Erstwhile Queen of Buzz.
L.G.: But it's a term that's used derisively.
T.B.: I know it's been used derisively by people who've never been able to create any.
L.G.: [Laughs] Very funny. What is your view of the climate for the media business. The economy seems to be heading into the dumpster. Wall Street is a horror show.
T.B.: It's pretty scary. It's scary, scary, scary.
L.G.: It's scary, and isn't it a crappy business environment to start up anything these days?
T.B.: But you know there's one kind of liberating thing about it-nobody's pretending to be doing well. So it's a kind of liberating climate for experiment and go-for-it [mentality]. So since nothing is working anywhere under the sun, you may as well play your best ideas. I mean, let the Darwinism begin!
L.G.: I think you're very much somewhere in the middle or perhaps the end stages of survival of the fittest here, aren't you?
T.B.: Survival of the fattest. Thanks a lot for that, by the way-am I really, it's unbelievable-I'm not that much of a dinosaur, for God's sake! I'm here writing my books and getting on with my life.
L.G.: Yeah, well you're the one who called yourself a dinosaur.
T.B.: True, but I'm going to keep going. My husband is still 25 years older than me, he gets up and blogs and swims 80 lengths, finishes his book, does a lecture, and gets on a plane and does a panel.
L.G.: That is truly frightening.
T.B.: It is pretty frightening. We have a lot of fun over our work. Actually, part of our thing is if you love your work, it's not work. We just love our work, we always have. I love our work, I love being creative, I love writing and editing, talking to creative people. It's not onerous, it's really fun.
L.G.: IAC is partly a media company, and there are all these media behemoths that have been having trouble. News Corp., Time Warner-
T.B.: I love what Rupert's done with the Wall Street Journal, by the way. I think it's great.
L.G.: Tell me why.
T.B.: I just think he's vigorously improved it. It's often my first read these days. I think he's put muscle into it, flair and focus. I just think the paper is terrific. I think they've superbly covered the crisis. In a way, just as Gordon Brown has certainly had his moment as prime minister because he was chancellor of the exchequer, what could be more of a gift to the Wall Street Journal than the gift of every single company they cover in trouble. You know, it's like they were put on this earth to be in this crisis. And Rupert, being, as usual, devilish in his sense of the zeitgeist, is exploiting it to the max.
L.G.: Right, but one of the companies that's having a tough time in this environment generally is News Corp.
T.B.: Oh, I know. This is what I like about him as a business guy, as a matter of fact. He's got a long vision, he's been through bad times before. Don't forget, he was brought at one point not that long ago to the kind of brink of financial peril, 10 years ago or whatever it was, and they came out of that.
L.G.: Leveraged to the hilt, trying to get the banks to renegotiate with him.
T.B.: He's used to that, and I think he will have the nerve for it. I'm not concerned about him. In some ways, if you had to pick a company to be worried about, it would not be News Corp.
L.G.: Which companies would you be worried about?
T.B.: Listen, I don't want to start naming them-
L.G.: Oh, please, just name a few.
T.B.: No, I'm not going to do that. There are a lot of companies who have lived high on the hog, lived on their fat and so forth, and just aren't as nimble, and I think there's going to be a time when nimbleness will have to prevail.
L.G.: You're talking about media companies-there are only a few.
T.B.: Yeah, I think all kinds of companies. I'm going to have to wrap it up, one more question just because I have a little line outside here.
L.G.: Oh, you have a line outside your office. You've had a television show, you've edited four magazines, you're writing books, now you have an internet operation. Is there anything you've learned from all that?
T.B.: I've found that all the different things that I've done-editing magazines, TV show, writing a book, having a column-have really enabled me to kind of adapt happily to the Web. I do feel very happy about what we're doing, much happier than I thought I would be. I didn't think I would like online editing, but it's just proving to be something that I really have taken to. I'm not saying whether other people like it, but I certainly like it just because it's good for my metabolism. I'm the single-most-impatient person in the world, and now I can literally have an idea, dispatch an email, somebody writes something, it comes back, I choose a picture, and I put it up. I just think it's fun. I think doing a TV show helped to speed my metabolism. I also think doing TV really taught me a great deal about being concise and being punchy. And I came out of doing long-form magazine work for the New Yorker, which is such a different rhythm and speed, and then I had to kind of speed up faster and faster, which has turned out to be good training in a way for this new, highly caffeinated moment in media.
L.G.: So you've sped everything up?
T.B.: I mean, I woke up in the morning and I saw the news about Madonna, who was getting a divorce, I emailed Andrew Morton. And I think that's lucky in a sense for this project that there's a lot of writers that I've known over the years. And I emailed Andrew, and I just said, "you've written a book on Madonna, the interesting angle about this to me is that it will mean her English idyll is over." He wrote back to me and said "I love the great angle, it'll be with you in a few hours." He types it, sends it in, and a few hours later, we have a piece ready to post. And that's very exciting, really. It's great. It's a good piece, he's a smart guy, and I love that. I must say, it's very gratifying.
L.G.: Are you going to stick with the size you are now?
T.B.: You know something, it all depends on how fast we grow. I don't feel the need to kind of hire up like crazy. In this media climate, there's a lot to be said for virtual-editing situations. We have actually one freelance editor in Washington. It's a terrific thing to have her there, because she's out of the craziness of the hour-by-hour, and she can work on the slightly longer pieces that are going to be slightly more long form, more in the distance. And I think there's a great situation where you're going to have some freelance people, and you can capitalize on some of the people who want to work at home or people [who are] in-between jobs. It's great. I actually enjoy the spontaneous kind of bringing people in for periods, seeing how they like it, how it works. It's a good way to develop exactly the right team. You're not wedded in stone to the kind of structures that you've put in place.
L.G.: And is Barry pretty much giving you air to breathe and space to work?
T.B: He's given us a very free range. He comes down to visit us every so often, chats away, gives us his input, always smart, and that's it. And we all love seeing him when he comes down.
L.G.: Do you ever find yourself saying to him, "Up to a point, Lord Copper"?
T.B.: [Laughs] I think that Barry likes combat actually.
L.G.: I've heard. You haven't had any screaming matches with him yet?
T.B.: No, not at all. I mean the thing about Barry is that he enjoys vigorous conversation. No, we have a great mutual respect. I love his input, and he understands that I'm an editor, and we do what needs to be done.
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