POLITICS OCTOBER 19, 2012
Tina Brown is, as she tweeted in the wee hours of Thursday morning, “tak[ing] a leap into the future!” Newsweek, the magazine whose editorship she assumed two years ago, is going “all-digital” in 2013, alongside its Web arm, The Daily Beast. Never mind the economics of publishing circa 2012, and that the deck was very much stacked against success going in: her much-scrutinized time at the helm is already being added—rightly—to the small but growing pile of Tina Brown failures. There was plenty of schadenfreude to go around in media circles yesterday, partly excusable only because Brown herself commissioned so many articles crowing over Newsweek’s incipient demise at the end of previous editor Jon Meacham’s tenure. “Who Killed Newsweek?” the Beast wondered in 2010, the finger of blame jabbing about wildly until landing, naturally, squarely on Meacham’s chest. The question to ask today is: Did Newsweek kill Tina?
In a New York Times Magazine profile from 2011, Brown recounted when, during her days as a sharp editor-about-town for Tatler in her twenties, she’d written up a dinner with a powerful man that was supposed to be off the record. “He wrote me a postcard—I’ve still got it. He wrote, ‘This is the worst act of social betrayal since the massacre at Glencoe.’ Which it was, but it was fun. The truth is, as a young girl, you can get a lot done.” It’s an anecdote that’s as much about the power of being underestimated as it is about the power of youthful charm. Brown, after all, has always been much better at being an insurgent than a grande dame. There was that successful run as girl wonder in Britain, followed by her storming the Conde Castle, first at Vanity Fair (which she helmed at the tender age of 30), and then the New Yorker, where, during her tenure, she pushed the revered weekly toward more celebrity coverage; it was SEO-optimized news before there was such a thing. It’s true that the stories might have become predictable and too-tied to the news cycle, as David Plotz complained in Slate in 1998, but they were still sexy stories in a previously unsexy place—buzzworthy, in other words, and exactly what Brown famously aims for. At Talk, the magazine created just for her, she had a harder time working up that same kind of heat. Brown had herself officially become an institution, and it wasn’t one she could exactly go about disrupting.
Newsweek, on the other hand, was a brand very much in need of a shakeup. But the problem was that Brown’s own editorial bones had gotten a bit creaky. Despite her enthusiasm for her web-only project, The Daily Beast, Brown hasn’t been able to keep up with the very media landscape she helped to create. We’re living in the high era of buzz (c.f. industry leader Buzzfeed), in which everyone is grabbing for attention in almost precisely the way Brown used to do (Now you build this person up! Now you tear her down!), and, arguably, the low-level chatter about stories has overtaken the stories themselves. To get their attention, Brown’s been forced to resort to what all those chatterers have labeled trolling (though, to her credit, often of a particularly imaginative bent): the Michelle Bachmann eyes, the gay Obama cover, the ghost of Princess Di, the Heaven Is Real argument. If they look like moves of desperation that’s because, well, they are. Former employees say that Brown had, quite clearly, lost her confidence. Many of her editorial decisions look more like catchup than agenda-setting: her recent efforts to amp up coverage of philanthropy, politics, and feminism seem driven more by her rivalry with Arianna Huffington than by any particular moral or intellectual imperatives. According to a former employee and Brown fan, “Tina didn’t have good concepts by the end, so she just started attacking public figures.” (It wasn’t that she couldn't still turn on the charm occasionally—she told that editor upon departure that she loved him “seven times in a row. It was like Vietnam.”)
Brown’s confidence was shaken because, like any good fastball pitcher, she knew better than anyone that the heat was gone: She’d lost her nose for what was of the moment. Early on in her tenure, there were covers for the Olsen sisters and Regis Philbin. Buzzfeed would have covered them, too, only in its “Nostalgia” vertical, which, like Brown, is preoccupied with the 1990s. As she has gotten bigger and the Internet has become flatter, Brown has lost her sense of proportion: Is a cover the same size as a Tweet? What’s the difference between a blog and an article, anyway? (No, really: she uses the terms interchangeably, in the manner of someone with an @aol email address and a dialup connection, much to the confusion of staff.)
Vertigo notwithstanding, Brown isn’t stepping down from Newsbeast, but it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if, in the not-too-distant future, she decided to leave her duties and finish the Hillary Clinton book she put aside. (Brown remains a very good writer.) If Clinton runs in 2016, after all, the timing would be just right, and Brown, after this latest debacle, would be back where she’s happiest: in the challenger’s seat.