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A low-key Tina Brown stares down a new beast, daily

A queen of old media resolves to profitably adapt it to what's new.

January 03, 2010|By Robin Abcarian
  • Tina Brown is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Daily Beast.
Tina Brown is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Daily Beast. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — It's possible that she's hard on herself in private, but in public Tina Brown has never been one for self-doubt. A precocious magazine editor who breathed new life into the fusty Tatler (at age 25), Vanity Fair (at 30) and the venerable New Yorker (at 38), Brown's success was notable for many things, among them the envy it inspired and her prodigious talent for self-promotion. And then came Talk, the magazine, book and entertainment venture that was supposed to secure her place in the cultural firmament, starting with the scandalously decadent launch party she threw at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in August 1999.

Tina Brown: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about Daily Beast website editor Tina Brown said that author Ann Coulter had called Meghan McCain "plus-sized." It was commentator Laura Ingraham who made that comment after McCain, the daughter of Arizona Sen. John McCain, had criticized Coulter in an essay on Brown's website. —

"I see it now as the end of the pre- 9/11 world," Brown said recently. "I remember sailing back to Manhattan on the ferry past the Twin Towers and there was Kate Moss, and Helen Mirren and Natasha Richardson, and we were standing on the side of the boat and a big cold wave came and just whooshed over us."

Prescient wave. Tina Brown, it turns out, wasn't too big to fail.

After Talk tanked in 2002, she acknowledged, and not in a self-pitying way, that she was immune to the near-universal delight that ensued because she'd spent the magazine's wobbly 2 1/2 -year tenure swimming in a "howling sea of schadenfreude."

The waters calmed considerably in the years that followed as Brown tried, with varying degrees of success, jobs in TV, newspapers and books. For the past 15 months, she has presided over the Daily Beast, the newsmagazine-style website she created for her friend, Internet mogul Barry Diller.

The site's growing readership suggests that she has been able to translate her trademark blend of intellectual depth and fascination with the shallows of pop culture to the Internet. But the big question looms: Can she help Diller figure out how to bring high-end advertisers to high-end consumers in a profitable way?

So far, the only person whose opinion really matters believes she is on the right track.

"Tina is, in my opinion, one of the great editors, and that's what she is doing every waking minute of her life," said Diller, chairman and chief executive of IAC/InterActiveCorp. "Tina brings everything to this venture."

Sitting in her cheerful, modest office at the Daily Beast, Brown smiled at the memory of Talk, her most public defeat. "Probably I brought it on myself," said Brown, days before her 56th birthday in November. "It was wonderful and I have no regrets about that at all, but you know, it sets you up."

Brown has learned her lesson about the perils of buzz. The launch party for the Daily Beast, she said, was drinks in a bar. The first anniversary passed without much notice. Her West Coast bureau opened quietly in October. In September, she launched an e-book venture with Perseus Books Group designed to bring books to market on an accelerated schedule, but no one's claiming it will radically change the future of publishing.

Even the top guy refrains from hype.

"It's a work in progress," said Diller, who has given the Daily Beast part of a floor in his Frank Gehry-designed global headquarters here across from Chelsea Piers. "As with anything, it describes itself after it's been around a couple years."

A lightness pervades the Beast offices, and it's not solely due to Gehry's undulating, white glass façade that vaguely resembles billowing sails. It's the enterprise, and perhaps Brown herself. In charge again of something very much like a glossy magazine, but without the physical burdens, she is back in her comfort zone.

More or less.

"Lena! Why is the site not coming up on my screen!" Brown raises her voice, not unpleasantly, for help. "Why is it my video screen has disappeared? Is it all right if I work on yours?"

Lena Jensen, a young assistant, hurries in and fiddles to no avail. Brown, in black stiletto boots and a violet cashmere sweater over a belted gray wool jumper, leaves her office and plops down at Jensen's computer, where the Daily Beast home page includes the embedded video mysteriously missing from Brown's screen.

Brown gives a guided tour of the Beast (motto: "Read this, Skip that") starting with the Cheat Sheet, the aggregated news that constitutes the spine of the site. She clicks through some "verticals" or themed sections: Sexy Beast (entertainment and fashion), Hungry Beast, Art Beast and "Big Fat Story," an experimental approach to narrative storytelling featuring pop-up copy blocks.

A beaut, all right

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