Tina Reinvents the Web

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008; 10:00 AM

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.

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