In the world of American magazines, Tina Brown is a contentious figure. She has her acolytes, ‘Tina Inc’ they’ve been called, a loud claque that celebrates her self-conscious iconoclasm; and there are the detractors who bemoan her vulgarity, her ambition, her unabashed self-promotion (curious criticisms for Americans, you might think). But this is, perhaps, an old argument. Brown, for so long a kind of media weather vane, attuned to the direction of the wind, is now done with magazines. She has struggled, like almost every magazine editor, to surmount the problems presented by the Internet. If she was once the glamorous face of a thriving magazine industry, she is also now the highest profile victim of its free fall.
After a bright start, The Daily Beast — the name borrowed from Evelyn Waugh — never managed to break even, losing millions of dollars every year, even tens of millions after the ill-fated merger with Newsweek. Barry Diller, the money behind Brown’s ventures, declared the purchase of Newsweek a mistake, disposing of the 80-year-old title for a derisory sum. Brown herself has stepped down as editor, devoting herself to her ‘Women in the World’ summits. She’s now talking up what she has described as “theatrical journalism”, the multimedia presentations that dazzle audiences, that explain the world in a more engaging, interactive way than any magazine article.
Print, she now says, is over. The kind of magazine Brown helped to create is no longer viable. Instead, the curating that was once the preserve of these magazines — the bringing together of diverse personalities in clever, engaged conversation — is now best achieved in public meetings, in salons, in talks, in conferences. Like ‘Women in the World’, funnily enough. Or, indeed, like THiNK. Brown is sceptical that magazines can be reproduced on the Internet, or that the beneficiaries of new technology, like Jeff Bezos, will be the saviours of old media. Bezos has just bought the Washington Post but journalists, Brown believes, are naïve to “look up at him like puppies with their tongues hanging out”. The Internet, she suggests, is given to short bursts of opinionated prose and readers are used to getting their material for free. Will people pay online for the kind of lengthy magazine writing Brown loves?
She’s not so sure. It is, Brown says, “a pathetic moment in journalism”. The fact is Tina Brown once knew exactly what she wanted from a magazine. She perfected the highlow cultural mix that is the lingua franca of smart magazines around the world. Her career began at Tatler, a high society glossy, which gave her access to Princess Diana, who became a sort of muse. But it was in the United States that Brown — the clever, social daughter of a film producer; at Oxford, she famously dated Martin Amis — found her stride. She transformed Vanity Fair from an increasingly self-serious magazine into one that published sharply written Hollywood profiles and gossip alongside reportage and ruminative essays, all of it by stylish, occasionally great writers. She also gave free rein to great photographers, the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon.
Flush with her success at Vanity Fair, she was offered the editor’s job at The New Yorker. The magazine, having long slipped from the glory of the William Shawn years, had grown fusty, precious. Brown fired dozens of writers and hired dozens of others. Whatever the damage her abrasiveness caused, The New Yorker emerged a better, hipper magazine. The New Yorker, as it is now, probably the best magazine in the world, is composed of Brownian DNA. David Remnick — the outstanding current editor and a Brown hire — has made it more serious (after 9/11, The New Yorker needed to provide more rigorous current affairs writing), but retained Brown’s light touch, her love of the popular and ephemeral.
Her love of trash, of glitz found its nadir in Talk magazine, the joint venture with Harvey Weinstein. Talk, as Brown tells it, became unsustainable when advertising collapsed in the wake of 9/11. Also, 9/11 made the self-celebratory, fin de siècle fizz of Talk less palatable. It was a public failure, the first of her career, and one from which she did not recover with The Daily Beast. Despite its editorial successes, The Daily Beast, which Brown began in 2008, could not find a workable financial model. It is this setback that has prompted Brown to turn her back on print, to declare, as she did at THiNK, that a certain kind of narrative journalism is dead.
Just shy of 60 — her birthday is on 21 November — Brown remains spry, her hair still a frosted blonde. She speaks quickly, can be sardonic, and is restless, as if eager to find the next project, the next thing, the next person. Already, she speaks of Newsweek and The Daily Beast as if it were history, some misadventure from the distant past. She isn’t going to be hanging around for a messiah to save print. Like some sharks, she just has to keep moving on. Keep swimming to stay alive.