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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

Brown's passion for aesthetics has made the Daily Beast one of the most attractive sites of its kind, and her trademark blend of gravitas and froth is on full display, sometimes in the same piece ( Meghan McCain on Afghanistan, anyone?).

Beast executives say they are pleased so far. They say the site has slightly fewer than 4 million unique visitors per month, which puts it behind Salon and Slate, which each claim 6 million unique visitors per month. (Measurements from ratings companies such as Nielsen and Comscore put the figures for all three sites much lower. Comscore says the Daily Beast got 2.2 million unique visitors in October; Nielsen said it had 1 million.)

Diller, who owns dozens of websites including Evite, Ask and CitySearch, approached Brown in 2006. "I wanted to explore the idea of creating an original Internet project," said Diller. "The idea was so embryonic, but it was to try to create a daily newspaper magazine."

"I wasn't that interested, actually," said Brown, who was deep into what would become her dishy, bestselling biography of the Princess of Wales, "The Diana Chronicles." "My head was still in print. I was immersed in my idea for the book, and he said, 'I'll wait.' I laughed, but after I finished the book he came back and said, 'I still want to do this.' I thought it might be interesting to learn about online journalism."

At this point in her career, she doesn't have much to prove. Sure, she was stung by the failure of Talk (whose plug was pulled by her partners at Miramax and Hearst Corp.). Her short-lived talk show on CNBC ("Topic A With Tina Brown") was a ratings bust, and she never quite found her footing in the column she wrote for the Washington Post Style section. But those events were bracketed by her astonishing run as a magazine editor and the success of her Diana book, which led to a reported $2-million contract for a book on the Clintons, a project now on hold. (Maybe for the best; as Brown might put it, the Clintons aren't "v v hot" anymore.)

Shortly after the site debuted on Oct 5, 2008, neo-con scion Christopher Buckley, a lifelong Republican, gave Brown an unexpected gift: In his Daily Beast column, he announced his support for Barack Obama. Buckley's unthinkable embrace of a liberal Democrat led to his resignation from the National Review, founded in 1955 by his father, the late William F. Buckley. The break, though personally painful for Buckley, was a boon for the Beast.

"We took off like a bucking bronco," said Brown.

Only half-joking, she divides her staff of around 40 into "grown-ups and kids." Her executive editor, Edward Felsenthal, who helped develop the site, is a former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. "Hooking up with Tina has meant getting to do what I wanted to do," said Felsenthal, "but also with the standards and values that I have used before. We want to be fast and we want to be fresh, but we resolved from the beginning that we are going to be traditionalists in the sense that we have editors here."

"Edward and I are tone police," said Brown. "We like wit, intelligence and irreverence, but we don't like snark."

To launch the teensy West Coast bureau, charged with entertainment and fashion coverage, Brown lured her friend of 30 years, Gabe Doppelt, from W. They hadn't worked together since Talk. "I don't think Tina ever realized I was off her payroll," said Doppelt in the utilitarian Beast outpost on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.

Celebrities once vied to be featured in Brown's publications, shot by her roster of world-class photographers. But Brown, who hopes eventually to beef up photography on the site, can't compete on that level anymore. Last month, she visited L.A. to schmooze the talent agencies that used to schmooze her.

Felsenthal said that everyone who writes for the Beast is paid, though not well. Freelance rates range from $250 to $400. "Most of our writers are energized by the site and do it to be part of the conversation," said Felsenthal, "not to get rich."

The Beast is peppered with the solid work of veteran journalists. Last month, Joe McGinniss revealed that Sarah Palin is traveling on a private Gulfstream jet, not a bus, for her book tour. (Palin gave the story extra legs -- but no link love -- when she responded via Facebook: "Media's priorities shine bright again!")

Brown's husband, former London newspaper editor Harry Evans, occasionally writes for the Beast. (Evans, 81, is back on the literary radar with his new memoir, "My Paper Chase." Their children, George, 23, and Isabel, 19, are in college. Isabel was accepted to Harvard, said Brown, and is taking a gap year.)

In typical Brown fashion, the spawn of the famous pop up with metronomic frequency on the site. (One of Talk magazine's "scoops" was a drab first-person essay by the cosseted Chelsea Clinton about Sept. 11.)

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