By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008
NEW YORK -- Tina Brown has just been briefed on a series of potential stories when she asks her staff about another element of her new Web site.
"What are we doing on video? I want to put Condi playing the piano up," she says, referring to the secretary of state performing for Queen Elizabeth.
A staffer says a day-old clip of Britney Spears choking up on MTV is still popular. "Should we put it in the top box, or is that overkill?" Brown asks. And she loves the idea of poking fun at the new "Meet the Press" host with morning-show footage of a dancing David Gregory.
The woman who transformed Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, only to crash and burn with Talk magazine, is reinventing herself yet again. In launching the Daily Beast, the celebrity editor who once fussed over each headline and photo is trying to adapt to the relentless pace of the blabosphere.
"I've always liked the high-low mixture, and it seemed to me that was missing from a lot of the sites," Brown says in her small, unadorned office, looking very New York in a leather jacket, black shirt, gray pants and black boots. "We like a hit of Britney but not much. I want to know far more about Mumbai and Larry Summers and what's happening at the Federal Reserve."
It is an intriguing experiment, and not just for the 54-year-old Brown. The Web is packed with liberal sites, conservative sites and destinations that link to every other site on the planet. Brown is promoting herself as a tastemaker-in-chief, serving up such features as "Cheat Sheet," touting must-reads, and "Buzz Board," in which famous people recommend everything from books to boots.
"Can you create a following for a particular kind of sensibility, and basically make them feel what you're picking is what they want? And I realized that's what I've always done," Brown says.
Thus, her site mixes serious pieces with such fare as "Obama's Transition Hotties," "Thanksgiving With Six Celebrity Chefs" and a pseudonymous college student's "How I Got Myself a Sugar Daddy," complete with cleavage shot.
Whether such an operation can make money for its sugar daddy -- the Beast has a lean, 12-person editorial staff but pays writers $250 to $500 per post -- is unclear. Barry Diller, who runs the media conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp and pitched Brown the idea two years ago, is bankrolling the multimillion-dollar budget. Brown, who has an equity stake, works out of his gleaming new building on 11th Avenue, across from Chelsea Piers. The Web site, which launched in early October, drew 1.1 million unique visitors in its first month but has made no serious attempt to sell advertising. (The Huffington Post, by comparison, had 8.1 million visitors.)
Diller says he is "quite surprised" at the quick start. "I thought we would take six months to get to the point where you could actually even say, 'Look at us.' I thought there would be a very long incubation period. What I discounted, stupidly, is that I'm dealing with a pitch-perfect editor who knew exactly what she was doing."
Diller, a director of The Washington Post Co., says he doesn't expect to make a dime on the venture for two to three years, if then. "If you say, 'Can today's online economics support a venture like this,' the answer is no. But if you say we're at the beginning of developing new advertising methods online, then the answer is profoundly yes."
Brown has brought in a stable of prominent writers, including Tucker Carlson, Stanley Crouch, Ana Marie Cox, Peter Beinart and Christopher Buckley, whose declaration of support for Barack Obama led to his departure from National Review, the magazine founded by his father -- and provided an initial burst of publicity for the Daily Beast.
"I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't Tina," Buckley says. But, he says of his new blogging home, "it is an insatiable beast. It doesn't take time to digest its food before it wants the next post."
MSNBC's Carlson recently posted a piece titled "Why are Christians having better sex than the rest of us?"
"I love Tina," he says. "She's totally open-minded. She has a single criterion: Is it interesting? She's never said, 'That doesn't fit my political view.' "
Brown describes her politics as "centrist," but she often seems to lean left. She recently described the Bush administration as a "Halloween shop of horrors." She launched Talk in 1999 with an exclusive interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton and, in the New Yorker, once gushed over Bill ("his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes"). She is working on a book about the Clintons. But the Daily Beast routinely publishes pieces by conservatives, including attention-grabbing essays by former John McCain advisers Mark Salter and Mark McKinnon.
"It's like a dinner party where people are arguing from both sides," Brown says. "The New York Times columnists are terrific, but I kind of know what they're going to say."
Brown, a onetime Washington Post columnist, is a master at generating attention. She blogged last week that liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow should be tapped for "Meet the Press," a suggestion that was widely picked up. "I was being mischievous," she says with British understatement.
Some early accounts focused on a rivalry with Brown's old friend Arianna Huffington, because the Beast is obviously competing with the Huffington Post, one of the most popular liberal sites. Brown says she is "hugely admiring" of Huffington and calls the media chatter "irresistible, because it's so much fun. If there isn't a catfight, you have to invent one."
Brown launched Talk with an 800-guest party at the Statue of Liberty, but the Beast was rolled out quietly. She spent months trying to master the tools of the Net -- "completely freaked out" that she didn't have an art department -- and assembled a staff that included Wall Street Journal veteran Ed Felsenthal as executive editor. "I knew with Tina at the helm it would be real journalism," he says.
Brown starts firing off e-mails to her staff at 5 a.m. "Tina's a machine," says Caroline Marks, the Australian-born general manager. "She keeps pumping juice into the brand with her appearances. Tina is always on. This is a medium made for her."
During a recent morning meeting, Brown's predilections are on display as a half-dozen staffers, most of them young, gather around her desk. Brown is marveling at the depth of the reader feedback on her Maddow piece. "I've become addicted to the comments," she says.
The talk turns to the latest hot topics. "Sarah Palin is crack cocaine to the Internet," Brown observes.
A constant question is how long to display stories prominently before bumping them for newer fare. "Tucker on sex is down, but I think it's been up long enough, frankly," Felsenthal says.
One author is about to file a piece on the Tribune Co.'s cost-cutting boss, Sam Zell. "I hope he excoriates him," Brown says.
She constantly tosses out potential ideas, such as starting a feature on "newly relevant books. Because people keep saying, 'God, you should read X.' " Seconds later, Brown asks what "hot movies" are coming out. They run through which celebrities they want to pursue. "We can get Dustin Hoffman for a Buzz Board. I can ask him," she says.
After the meeting, Brown describes part of her mission as helping authors reach a broader audience. As the host of a short-lived talk show on CNBC, she finds television rather shallow.
"They can't get on unless they're telegenic. The chances of engaging in a serious discussion are slim; it'll likely be a quick shouting match. The public intellectual has been so outlawed for some time, and the Web has really brought it back to life."
In joining the online crowd, Brown may be trying to embrace the inevitable. With such publications as U.S. News and the Christian Science Monitor essentially becoming Web sites, the journalistic migration is toward a medium that favors quick hits over long narratives. The most celebrated magazine editor of her era believes that print has had its heyday.
Brown was encouraged when she ran a piece by a former Ronald Reagan speechwriter -- "Obama Is the New Reagan" -- that generated substantial traffic. "It made me feel the world of ideas is sexy on the Web," she says.Jumping the Gun
The Washington Times scored a front-page scoop Friday about the Vatican condemning cloning and stem-cell research -- by breaking an embargo on a document given to 10 newspapers in advance.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says she is "appalled" by what she called "a violation of journalistic ethics." She says she told the Times and other papers that the 6 a.m. embargo -- set by the Vatican -- meant no print publication Friday because newspaper trucks roll earlier than that.
Times Editor in Chief John Solomon says the violation was inadvertent and "we weren't trying to sneak one past the church. If I had known all the facts, I would've had editors call the church . . . as opposed to divining what the church meant."