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She wants to be your lens, darling

October 10, 2008|Maria Russo | Times Staff Writer

The Daily Beast, Tina Brown's culture and news website, went up Monday, and in case any puzzlement remained about what she's up to, there's a long Q&A with Brown herself laying it out. The site, she says, is not an "aggregator," as some have called it, including me. Meaning it will not merely collect stories a la Yahoo News, but will "sift, sort and curate" the Web every day, combining some original stuff with links to other sites' content.

Whether that's "aggregation" or not, it's a fairly standard approach to the Web. So Brown includes the key question in her Q&A: "Why should I visit you?"

"Sensibility, darling," is her answer. She hopes that if you like the site's sensibility in "choosing news and opinion, then you'll trust us to be the lens you view it through."

I'm not convinced you can sell this kind of site on the promise of "sensibility" alone. That's like offering "value" to stockholders. Brown might have told us a little more specifically what her particular sensibility is, and what it will add to our lives.

But I'll try to glean it myself. Judging by the first few days of the site's existence -- admittedly a limited sample, and every site evolves -- I'd describe the Daily Beast as a thematic relative of her defunct Talk magazine.

There's a bravura, devil-may-care tone in the display text and in the writing the site has commissioned. It's perfectly captured in a blog post from Brown herself on Sarah Palin. Brown celebrates the candidate's sex appeal to both men and women, Republicans and Democrats -- she's "hitting the hot buttons of bipartisan horniness even as her hope fades of attracting the hot flash vote of Hillary Clinton supporters." In that one phrase we see Brown at her best: clever, daring, randy.

It can be fun to watch her spin and dip heedlessly through what interests her, which is anything that inhabits any elite echelon of the culture. It can also be tiring. Brown has an unquestioning admiration of power, fame and conventional kinds of success, and that sets the tone for the site as a whole (and may explain why the age of contributors and subjects skews to over 45, and the sex of its contributors skews male, just as in most mainstream magazines). During the first few days, thumbnails of the faces of prominent, prosperous bomers were everywhere on the site. Bill Clinton, Arianna Huffington, Christiane Amanpour, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, among others, gave book and DVD recommendations, for example.

Upper East Side type

You could carp about how the site is behind the times, not "webby": There are no community-building goals in evidence on the Daily Beast's home page -- no sign that any mere reader's presence would be welcome.

The blog roll is displayed with too much fanfare, with no apparent principle of selection other than a preponderance of big, well-known sites. It's not clear what the Daily Beast's definition of "blog" is, either. Some of their "blog entries" are excerpts from books. So far, the site is talking at us, not with us.

I'm not sure this kind of Web filter benefits, in the end, from the kind of Upper East Side professional-class sensibility that the Daily Beast is conveying at this point. Both Drudge and the Huffington Post have succeeded, in part, by keeping a common touch. HuffPo's lifestyle stuff, for example, is of the homey, Ladies' Home Journal variety ("Ten ways to Recession-Proof Your Family"), while Drudge serves up supermarket-tabloidish scares and oddities ("Man Binds Arms of Teen on Flight.") What sensibilities the two sites have are derived from their political slants: Drudge to the right, HuffPo to the left.

But politically, the Daily Beast wants to be right down the middle, which is not going to inspire visceral responses. Without a guiding passion like politics, or something else addictive and attitude-filled, like celebrity news, maybe a good Web filter doesn't even need much personality. Helping us find cool stuff should be the point, not jazzing up the way you link to it.

Remember when we first got answering machines, and everyone wanted to express something through their outgoing message? Now, do you know anyone who would do a Chevy Chase impression or put an REM song on their greeting? Same with ring tones -- a ring does the job more efficiently than a Bananarama tune. As we get comfortable with a technology, it seems to me, we gravitate toward its pure functionality.

Too intrusive

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