Tina Brown — who once edited Tatler, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker and Talk — has reinvented herself by editing a website that mixes high and low culture. Where have we heard that before?
Sixteen years after Tina Brown first pushed the notion of mixing "high-low culture" at The New Yorker, then at Talk, she's still blathering on like it's a stunning discovery—and lazy media reporters keep buying it. Now that Barry Diller is her new Daddy Warbucks and Brown is running The Daily Beast, she let the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz drop by the offices to watch the obligatory editorial meeting and bring back a report on Brown's intriguing experiment. What did he find?
"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."
This is, of course, nearly identical to the way Brown described her Miramax and Hearst-backed Talk. From the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 8, 1999:
"There is a sense now that the people who watch Regis and Kathie Lee aren't interested in books, but there's no reason why those two worlds can't be brought together," she said. "And that's what we aim to do with Talk—to admit that we all like to picnic, that we can take the time to read a serious article on one page, then turn the page and escape with a photo essay about a movie star. We want to convey this high-low culture."
But she started out using the trope when she took over The New Yorker in 1992 and everyone thought she was ruining (but, in fairness, turned out to be saving) the staid, boring magazine of yesteryear. From the Boston Globe, Feb. 28, 1994 :
"Look, there are two strands going on in the magazine," explains Brown. "One, the relevant and contemporary piece, and two, the timeless piece that could have run anywhere within the year. I think it's important to have both in any given issue, because we are a weekly, and we have to get people to pick us up and read us that week."
The problem with Brown's recycled schtick is the new medium to which she's taken it. The high-low dichotomy she has long struggled with is this: high expenses, low revenues. Barry Diller, the billionaire IAC CEO who's bankrolling Brown's latest venture, says he doesn't expect to make any money from the site for the next two or three years:
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."
Not that that's Brown's concern! She's never worried about money (though she occasionally worries about appearances). Under Brown, the New Yorker ran famous deficits. Talk folded in 2002 after losing an estimated $50 million.
With only 12 employees, the Daily Beast won't lose anywhere near that much money. But it's paying writers $250 a post, at a time when rival blog muse Arianna Huffington gets name-brand contributors for free. And the Beast isn't even bothering to carry ads yet. Unless a new business model springs forth from Brown's ever-inventive brain, her latest venture will end up as just another example of her ability to cadge bucks from media barons who should know better.