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What can the failure of Tina Brown and The Daily Beast tell us about the future of media?

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Tina Brown, the legendary former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, is stepping down from her latest attempt at reinventing magazines: she announced on Wednesday that she is leaving as editor of The Daily Beast, the online media outlet that she started in 2008 with the backing of media mogul Barry Diller and later tried unsuccessfully to merge with Newsweek. Diller is now considering a sale of The Beast, according to some reports — although it remains to be seen whether anyone will actually want to buy it.

Can we learn something about what is happening to media in the web era from Brown’s failure at the Beast? Michael Wolff — an author and former entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about online failures himself — argues in a piece for The Guardian that Brown shouldn’t have to shoulder all the blame for the (almost) demise of the site, saying she is “a representative figure of the struggles of modern media life, rather than the person who should be blamed for it.”

“Magazines – knowing, insidery, cruel, fawning, beautiful, upscale (remember that word?) magazines – died, leaving her without a profession… and then, without warning, she had to learn the methods and sensibility of the new digital publishing world, which must have seemed like another country to her.”

The good old days of print are over

Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

Wolff and others have noted that Brown’s approach to the Beast — and to Newsweek as well when it was still part of the operation — was very much taken from the good old days of print magazines, when advertising revenue was still flowing like a mighty river, and no one had to worry about aggregators or competition from upstart online publications like BuzzFeed or Perez Hilton. Brown used all the tricks she had learned (and taught others) and yet they failed to work their magic. As Wolff puts it:

“She shortly recreated… an ever-expanding publishing operation in the old style. In a digital world of strained circumstances, she hired editors, paid writers, killed pieces, rethought and revamped and redesigned… and generally conducted herself as much as she possibly could as though the world was still recognizable, even comfortable.”

Obviously revenue (or the lack of it) was a big part of the Beast story, just as it has been for many other magazines and publishers trying to make a living online: despite her protests that things were getting better, the Daily Beast’s traffic numbers were terrible, and the site is expected to lose as much as $12 million this year. That’s an expensive hobby, even for Barry Diller. And even the Beast/Newsweek’s attempt to troll readers with salacious “cover” stories didn’t seem to work.

In part, that’s because there are plenty of other sites already doing this, such as BuzzFeed and Gawker and dozens of others. If anything, the web is drowning in that kind of content — the ability to put together a catchy headline and a controversial photo with some snarky commentary is no longer the exclusive preserve of a handful of printed magazines like Vanity Fair or Esquire. Try as she might, Brown could never seem to grasp that, or adapt to it.

The Beast never really seemed to get it

There are magazines making it online, although the list is fairly short: some continue to pursue the iPhone app or paywalled approach, but the ones who are really succeeding (depending on your definition of success) are titles like Forbes and The Atlantic. They have completely reinvented themselves for the web, by taking advantage of the speed and breadth of what online publishing offers — and also the potential advantages of user-generated content and innovative advertising approaches like sponsored content or native advertising, although not everyone agrees that the result is beneficial.

More than anything, Brown’s failure seems to stem from a lack of understanding about how the publishing game has changed, not just in terms of revenue, but in the fundamental ways in which content and the marketplace intersect. The old model, where an editor like Brown could be the queen of a tiny magazine empire and shape the coverage and impact of stories almost single-handedly, has given way to a future driven by readers — a demand model rather than a supply model, to put it in economic terms.

It’s not just algorithms: what people want to read becomes the guiding principle, not what editors decide they need. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the media industry, or for society as a whole? That’s a question for another post, but that fundamental shift is what Brown failed to navigate, and it not only eviscerated Newsweek but seems to have killed the Beast as well.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Denise Chan

9 Responses to “What can the failure of Tina Brown and The Daily Beast tell us about the future of media?”

  1. Print magazines had high production and distribution costs. Which made for a high barrier to entry. Which meant not many people could afford to start them. Which meant that there were not that many of them. Which meant unless you miscalculated completely the existence of, of the nature of, your audience, some return on that investment was likely. Now, ‘anyone’ can do it. So the customers that publisher had cleverly pulled together around his magazine, really don’t need him. Certainly, they don;t need to pay him. Advertisers aren’t going to pay what they used to in print days either – more supply of venues, lower prices. So ideas like Beast – ‘gee, a magazine, but like, not printed!!’ – have doomed written all over them. Amazing it took the rich boy so long to work it out.

  2. No-one who watched Tina Brown develop her track record at The New Yorker and then at Newsweek should be the slightest bit surprised that she has overseen yet another calamity. In the few years she was at the New Yorker it lost its 75-year reputation for quality, class, and exquisite proofreading and fact-checking, and developed a new “image” as a faux-British version of New York Magazine for the Upper East Side. Subscriptions declined along with the quality of a fine old magazine.
    Then she took on Newsweek, and by the end of her tenure there the magazine didn’t exist! She had run it so far into the ground that the best writers and editors left, leaving a half-baked cross between People and Vanity Fair. It never seemed to occur to Miss Brown that it was a NEWS magazine.
    Alas, as long as Americans think that even the most lower-class “British” accent guarantees some sort of education and “class,” we will be duped by the third-rate exports from the island. Those who are capable of good writing and editing in England don’t have to come to the U.S. to pretend to be good by virtue of their accents.
    PLEASE let Ms. Brown return across the pond … where they’ll laugh her out of every editorial office in the land, except those owned by that other pretender Rupert Murdoch.

  3. Peter Bainbridge

    I liked the Beast-in part. I loved the modern take it had online. But i didn’t like the gossip and its imagined glittering prized pork celebrity, truely put me off, It seemed to be saying.”Hey, look at Brad & Co, but underneath would be a serious new article, at an editorial meeting that sounds perfectly wonderful, to some. If i can put it this way, When i read the Guardian i don’t want a Bran-jolina story next to my hard news. And i wasn’t mad about the feeling i had that it was a transfer in you will of Vainity Fair-ish. which looks a tad old. It looked like it might have been designed at a weekend woodwork course. (Albeit a damn fine one).

    Here in Australia the gossip mags were the first to hit the wall during the GFC and they haven’t picked up, in fact, many have closed. So, to summarize, i guess joe public likes their online like experience to be separate, cleaner layout and fast. I think she was very close to a working model, but it somehow it slipped away. But credit where its due. she’s ok me thinks. she tries while others sit about and just bark.

  4. It has been mentioned in previous articles on ‘paidContent’ that success for magazines and even newspapers will depend on their willingness to appeal to a more selective audience. In a way this becomes a synergistic interaction of reader demand and editorial discretion. A feed back loop if you will.

    I don’t know the consequences of such a business model, but I would suppose quality of the content will positively correlate to pay walls and subscription prices.

    The fly in the online ointment is of course the aggregate sites mentioned in Mr. Ingram’s article. If I were an investor in online content of opinion pieces for example, I would want a business model that would address this issue.

  5. Duncan Anderson

    “More than anything, Brown’s failure seems to stem from a lack of understanding about how the publishing game has changed. . .”

    Since long before the publishing game had “changed,” Tina Brown has had a track record of failure that has never changed. She lost money for Tatler in London. Then she came over here to lose $20 million, $40 million, $80 million each at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk—before being gracefully fired in each case, to the same puzzled headlines.
    Tina Brown empties rich men’s treasuries wherever she goes, in return for spending scores of millions of dollars in every possible direction to buy admiration in the rest of the media. Until the sugar-daddy gets tired of feeling cool, and needs to pay some bills.
    Her editorial formula is always the same—snarky, celebrity-obsessed, self-indulgent, and relentlessly political in that million-dollar Marxist way. In the magazine business, the upside was that once Tina was safely out the door, a professional could take over the reins, keep the ditsy editorial formula, and cut the budget.
    But Newsweek’s done. Perhaps the Beast can be saved from the Brown.

  6. DanaBlankenhorn

    Gee. Someone who doesn’t know the business can’t make it work. The Internet rewards either incredible depth or extraordinary reach and interactivity. Brown offered neither. Case closed.