After sensibility: Why is Tina Brown so ill-at-ease at ‘Newsweek’?

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Tina Brown. (Photo: paidContent.)
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This week, the cover of the international edition of Newsweek is a black-and-white portrait of Michael Bloomberg. There's a lot of black space around his extremely contemplative-looking profile.

The type is very small, given the space it might have taken, and reads "MICHAEL BLOOMBERG'S PLANS FOR WORLD DOMINATION," with the last two words set apart in slightly larger type, and in red, where the rest of the text is white.

The U.S. edition features a different cover. It's also black and white, but instead of Bloomberg, it shows a skinhead shot from behind, backlit by a large, burning cross.

"MY LIFE AS A WHITE SUPREMACIST" reads the headline; the last two words, again, are set in red where the rest are white.

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Take your pick: there's the Newsweek that sells itself like People for the Davos set, or the Newsweek aimed at devoted viewers of those downmarket edutainment channels high on the cable dial that traffic in shows about true crime or haunted hotels or what it was really like in Hitler's bunker.

It's been a year since Tina Brown got her hands on the magazine, after several years out of the business, and returned to the vocation for which she was once thought to be born. But for the first time in her life, it seems, Brown can't quite decide what magazine she wants to make. 

She is now, as she always has been, notoriously fickle about picking her covers, often ordering them redone at the eleventh hour. In all of her previous editor jobs that's been because, for better or worse, she knew that the covers declare a magazine's identity. She also knew exactly what a Tina Brown magazine needed to be about, and she duly held her covers to an exacting standard of compliance. 

She doesn't seem to know what Newsweek is about. 

In John Koblin's revealing report on the state of the newsweekly for WWD, one of the chief events is Brown's decision to rip up a cover based on Peter Boyer's article for last week's issue about insider trading in Congress. Replacing it was a cover shoot featuring Jerry Seinfeld, who has not given the culture anything new for more than a decade, and Regis Philbin, who has been cheerfully giving us old stuff in the morning for decades, and who is about to stop. Inside, Seinfeld interviews Philbin, and compares him to Dean Martin. (In an otherwise positive notice of the piece, Vanity Fair's Bruce Handy said the cover looked like "Interview magazine for elderly straight people.")

The proximate result of this decision, according to Koblin's report, is that Boyer yelled at Brown for pulling his cover, and Brown yelled at the managing editor, leading to his resignation. The event establishes Brown's fickleness and reinforces the idea that the place is not a happy shop. 

But the incident also illustrated a more profound dilemma of Brown's editorship of Newsweek. Which cover was the right one? Which magazine is she making?

For the world outside of America, this week's Newsweek is about a billionaire ideas man who has built a business-information organization that moves markets in several key international cities but has little effect beyond those precincts, and an American mayor who has sought to make New York City a sort of Copenhagen of the mind. Bloomberg's company is a local news service for about eighteen World Capitals. What happens in Peoria does not happen in the Bloomberg media universe. Bloomberg's New York is closer to Hong Kong than Pennsylvania.

And that reminds me of something that was said of Tina Brown when she ascended to the role of editor of The New Yorker. There was a feeling that a new, young international elite was upsetting the very American institutions that had dominated our media for a century.

"The real story is the end of a particular kind of cultural life," one "illustrious" New Yorker writer, unnamed, told Michael Gross in July 20, 1992 editions of New York magazine."The end of an era."

That era was defined by editors like William Shawn, whose New Yorker in the late '80s might have been as likely to publish a multi-part series on the vagaries of the grain industry as debut short fiction pieces by John Updike.

The same anonymous New Yorker writer talked to Gross about a new generation coming up in the world, defined by Anna Wintour at Vogue, Sonny Mehta at Knopf, and Tina Brown.

"They represent international chic," the writer told Gross. "They are people whose sense of the world is eighteen cities, not one place or tone or ethnic group. Their generation has been kept out of power for ten years by old folks. Robert Gottlieb [former publisher of Knopf and editor of The New Yorker before Tina], [former New York Times executive editor] A.M. Rosenthal, [Random House editorial director] Jason Epstein, [New York Review of Books co-editor] Robert Silvers—they're great people and they've done great work, but they've left their institutions badly attuned to contemporary circumstances."

HOW ATTUNED IS TINA BROWN TO CONTEMPORARY CIRCUMSTANCES?

The WWD article, written after the news of several staff exits, sums up many of its interviews thusly:

"Some on staff have blamed Brown for Newsweek’s struggles, saying she’s lost her fastball and the one thing that has long guided her—her gut, her knack at spotting the zeitgeist—has faded."

“You’re exposed relentlessly to the truth that we’re not putting out a good magazine,” one anonymous Newsweek staffer told Koblin. “I mean, Regis Philbin is our cover this week.”

 The managing editor who left on Nov. 14 was not the day's only exit. Brown's top deputy, Edward Felsenthal, also announced he was leaving the magazine. An alumnus of The Wall Street Journal, Felsenthal had joined Brown back in 2008 when she initially made her deal with IAC chief Barry Diller to fund a news aggregation site to be called The Daily Beast. (It was to be named after the newspaper at the center of the plot of Evelyn Waugh's novel, Scoop.) And the publisher, who ostensibly led efforts on Newsweek's business side, was let go.

Brown emphasized to Koblin in WWD that she sees herself as a turnaround editor, and that is indeed what she was for many years. Brought to New York in 1983 by Condé Nast publisher Si Newhouse to fix Vanity Fair, Brown quickly boosted sales of the magazine from 200,000 per issue to 1.2 million, with her mix of celebrity profiles and long, reported features. 

The covers were the stock-in-trade, and one in particular signaled that Brown had gotten a handle on her magazine: photographer Harry Benson's photo shoot of Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing in formal wear in the White House. The package was little more than pictures; William F. Buckley Jr. wrote some competent, purple stuff about their marriage and family life that made it a package.

As one editor has said to me, it struck him at the time that Brown, who met Newhouse as editor of the British society glossy Tatler when he bought it, and who from her earliest days as a reporter was obsessed with cracking the code of the British upper class and distributing the answer key to the public, had found the intersection between the magazine and herself. She was going to produce a magazine about America's royalty. That started with the Reagans, but it reverberated throughout Washington, Hollywood, New York, London, Paris and beyond.

Brown is the kind of editor who must make a magazine her own in order to know what to do with it. The magazine is for her an instrument of personal betterment, dating back to her days as a young reporter with a middle-class background and public-school education, tagging along on interviews with Auberon Waugh. At its most unignorable, a Brown-led title also reads like a chronicle of her journey up through the ranks of society, and of what she sees there at the top, once she gets there.

Each magazine she has run has consistently done that, until Newsweek

THERE HAVE BEEN SEVERAL DISTINCT kinds of Tina Brown Newsweek covers, of which three general types stick out to me.

There's what I will call the Spy-on-quaaludes cover: Princess Diana photoshopped to what would be her present age in a counterfactual story about what her life might have been like if she had not died in that car accident in Paris; the crazy-eyed Michele Bachmann cover that generated so much controversy; the cover in which Mitt Romney is figured as a dancing character from the irreverent Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.

They're covers that are meant to elicit hearty, knowing chortles from the smart set. But the characters often seem stale (in one case, long dead), and when they don't, the ideas do. Bachmann as the queen of rage seems like a slight reduction of the complexity of the character of the G.O.P. candidate that had been emerging on television the previous few months; not a distillation, and not a redirection. I think we can dismiss these cover stunts as failures. (And in fact, they didn't do well on the newsstand.)

Then there are celebrity covers, like the much-maligned one last week featuring Regis Philbin and Jerry Seinfeld. Once again, this only really works if the people on the cover really are, to borrow her writers' favorite Brown margin-note, "v. hot."

The third, and most successful, kind of cover I've detected: The ideas package. Sometimes there's a face for it (though Brown would do well to bring friends like Bernhard Henri-Levy and Howard Schultz to the fore instead of reverting even one more time to old pal Bill Clinton).

The Sept. 19 edition is a weird, counterintuitive one. The cover has no face on it at all, but rather a poster-like graphic treatment of an eagle in flight with a wrench in its talons, before a yellow sunburst. Red ribbons read "LET'S JUST FIX IT!" and the dek is "FORGET WASHINGTON. MOVE OVER, MR. PRESIDENT. EVERYDAY AMERICANS CAN TURN THIS COUNTRY AROUND."

In case you feared Brown was indulging in a sudden streak of populism, you should know that's just a bit of packaging. Three picture-heavy pages feature "everyday Americans," but the rest of the section has ideas from slightly less obscure individuals: Microsoft C.E.O. Steve Ballmer, Zipcar founder Robin Chase, NASDAQ C.E.O. Robert Greifeld, HSN C.E.O. Mindy Grossman, Sony C.E.O. Howard Stringer, "Texas oilman" T. Boone Pickens; Loews Corp. co-chair Andrew Tisch, former G.E. chief Jack Welch, Starbucks C.E.O. Howard Schultz, former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, Newark mayor Cory Booker and more of the same. (The package carries the byline of former Portfolio editor Joanne Lipman.)

I don't think this thing exactly leapt off the shelves. But it might be a useful manual for what kind of magazine Brown ought to be making: One in which she listens earnestly to her betters, on behalf of her readers.

Tina Brown is sensitive about the narrative arc of her career. After Talk folded she was without a platform, and reportedly worried about restoring her prestige. She talked to her literary agent, Ed Victor, about the possibility she could write a book based on diaries she had kept from 30 years in the business. Victor told her to do a book about Princess Diana.

"Brown, who, after all, had operated at the very top in journalism, knew the Diana story had become something of a last refuge for the unemployed writer" read the report, in The Scotsman, in the summer of 2007, just as Brown was about to host a party for the book at the Serpentine Gallery in London. "But Victor persuaded her she alone could do the definitive book, timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Diana's death."

That she took a $1 million advance to finish the book from Random House only raised the stakes: Her book on Diana would have to be the definitive one.

She assembled a team of reporters and editors to help her produce it, and found herself traveling back and forth between London and New York to conduct interviews on it.

She succeeded, largely, in parlaying her pedigree of Royals-watching into a significant cultural document. But it was, really, an act of self-mortification. You can go ahead and snicker about some of the names attached to the positive reviews, or some of the places that reviewed it positively: Yes, Brown has known them all before.

"It's Dianamite!" exclaimed Tom Wolfe. "Nothing comes close to Tina Brown's book for its tight grip on the dark human comedy that was Diana's life and death," wrote Simon Schama.  "She tells the story fluently, with engrossing detail on every page, and the mastery of tone which made her Tatler famous for being popular with the people it was laughing at," was the assessment of John Lanchester writing in The New Yorker.

But perhaps Brown did have to move backward to go forward. The CNBC experiment "Topic A With Tina Brown," which she ditched in 2005 to write the book, showed that she was not to become a television personality.

By 2008, she was closing in on six years without a viable platform to call her own. Then she made a deal that would allow her to proclaim herself the queen-elect of New York's digital media scene with The Daily Beast.

There, Brown managed to turn her brand into an annual conference, the Women in the World Summit, which in its last installment featured Hillary Clinton and Melinda Gates. There's a great deal of this going around, between TED conferences and Davos and who knows what others. The conference circuit, once just a way for important people with big names to make lots of money saying things to crowds, has become something else, a nonpartisan international jet-set of "ideas" people.

Hollywood, it ain't. But then, Brown might have aged out of that by now anyway. Why not amp all that up, and become the den mother of ideas-camps for international billionaires? Embrace the "18 cities" idea but put a distinctly American topspin on it, one that sells the concept to "everyday Americans." Extend its purview into new spheres of influence, from international monetary policy to development to health policy to … who knows what else. 

This application of Brown's particular talents as an editor to Newsweek is good, given the magazine's history.

Newsweek has been a lot of things in a lot of eras, and most recently it has been, from a business point of view, spectacularly unsuccessful. But a gut renovation of the magazine has to leave some element of the old house intact. What was left of Newsweek when Brown arrived was just this: It had not completely squandered Washington's faith in it as a potential broker of Washington conversation.

When MSNBC's Tim Russert, long-time host of Sunday morning staple "Meet the Press," died suddenly in 2008, Washington lost its version of James Lipton. Whether the interviews were hard for the subjects or not, Russert was engaged in a sort-of Socratic midwifery that had the effect of explaining the idea of Washington to the world in a language the world could understand.

Under editor Jon Meacham, Newsweek tried (and, I think, failed) to corner that narrowly focused market. But it's possible that Tina Brown could succeed, if she edits down her own vision of the magazine and made it about brokering ideas and power, and cuts everything away that doesn't fit. That means changing Brown's idea of what counts for an idea: It isn't Jerry Seinfeld comparing Regis Philbin to Dean Martin.