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Media Mavens Meet Industry's Newest Watchdog

June 18, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn't a case of biting the hand that feeds you, but of feeding the hands you may bite.

Editor and publisher Steven Brill packed the Grill Room of the Four Seasons in New York, the lunchtime epicenter of media power, with dozens of journalistic stars whose work he may criticize in his new media-watchdog magazine.

That is, if he hasn't done so already.

Monday night's launch party for Brill's Content drew Mike Wallace and Morley Safer, whose "60 Minutes" is judged harshly in the premiere issue for a 1986 piece that sank sales of Audi cars, and for the broadcast's sympathetic interview in March ("Fast & Flawed") of Kathleen Willey, who says she was groped by President Clinton.

ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr circulated, even though some of her network's sourcing on early Monica Lewinsky stories is challenged in Brill's own cover story.

Richard M. Smith, editor in chief of Newsweek, wore a smile between sips of a drink that Brill was paying for, despite having taken hard swipes in Brill's Content for the way the newsweekly pursued the Lewinsky saga and for what Brill calls the "mouthing off" of its reporters during TV appearances.

"Sure, I think there were some unfair shots in the [Brill's Content] piece," Smith said later, "but there's no business plan for this magazine unless there are a few bodies left lying around."

Except for Brill's much-reported cover story about the media, Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr, little of the content in Brill's Content had been seen by the guests until copies were made available at the party and taken home for a closer read.

"I think it looks very good and it's very substantial and off to a good start," said Clay Felker, the legendary founding editor of New York magazine and now head of the magazine program at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Media practitioners offered mixed views as to whether there's a market outside their own circles for a magazine that simply may confirm readers' bitter assessments of news, publishing and broadcasting.

"I have no doubt there's a market," Felker said. "I have discovered as an editor over the years that people are interested in how they are manipulated by the media because they are such avid consumers of the media. The more they know, the more they're interested."

Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of the Nation, said he stayed up into the wee hours of Tuesday morning to read Brill's lengthy cover piece. He came away impressed that Brill "got something new" on Starr's Lewinsky investigation and how the media covered it early on.

"But whether this can be something between a journalism review and a mass magazine, I have a real question about that," Navasky said.

Brill said this week that he has guaranteed advertisers an initial circulation of 150,000--about five times the circulation of each of the two leading journalism reviews--but he expects total paid circulation for the premiere to run as high as 225,000 to 250,000. His ambitious goal: 500,000 in five years.

The 152-page issue carries 44 ad pages. That's not a lot of advertising, but Madison Avenue strategists say it's smarter to start with a modest number of ads and then build in subsequent issues, instead of starting out fat and turning thin.

"Our advertising is six months to a year ahead of expectations," Brill said. "Advertisers really 'got' this a lot faster than I thought they would."

Conspicuous among the first ads are full pages for other media such as Forbes, Fortune, Men's Journal and the Fox News Channel, as well as a poster-like insert touting the Conde Nast magazines, one of which (Vogue) is tweaked inside.

"It's the same challenge anyone has, and that is that you've got to write what you've got to write and not worry about the advertisers," Brill said. "The Los Angeles Times writes about General Motors and takes General Motors advertising."

The next issue is scheduled for release Aug. 18 and the third in mid-October before Brill's Content becomes a monthly in 1999.

The incredible buzz that Brill's cover story has generated in print and on TV since last weekend can only help the magazine stand out on newsstands crowded by the launch of 852 magazines in 1997 alone.

"Steve Brill must feel as if he's covered by pixie dust, to launch a media magazine at the same time that people are talking about the coverage of a presidential sex scandal," said Stephen G. Smith, editor of National Journal.

Newsweek's Smith said Brill thanked him for coming to Monday's party. "I told Steve, 'I'll always raise a glass to someone who's courageous enough or foolhardy enough to launch a new magazine.' "

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays.

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