I’ve always wondered what Steve Brill the journalist would make of Steve Brill the aspiring mogul. The latter had a pretty lousy week, summed up in a headline in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal: “Brill’s Media Empire Ends in Collapse.” He confirmed that his watchdog magazine Brill’s Content is history and that his relationship with Primedia has unraveled. These things were widely expected and have been greeted with no small amount of Schadenfreude. Nevertheless, you can bet that Brill will be back—but which Brill?
Certainly we haven’t heard the last of Brill the journalist—or at least I hope not. In the interest of disclosure, I’ll mention that my first New York journalism job was at Brill’s American Lawyer. I ended up spending about two and a half years at the magazine, first as a reporter, then as an editor, leaving for good in 1995. By then he was spending a lot of time on his newer creation Court TV, but let’s just say that his presence was always felt at the magazine. And as a journalist, he was always incredibly impressive: He was fearless, had an almost-flawless bullshit detector, and held his employees to high standards. (Famously, he expressed those standards bluntly. “You should be fired” was part of the note he wrote at the top of one piece I edited. Another article that apparently fell short came back with the words “Is this some kind of prank?” scribbled across the top.) The Teamsters was a great book, and he wrote many excellent stories for AmLaw (and often improved the work of many talented writers who cycled through the place). He even made impressive journalistic contributions to Content. I certainly learned a lot at American Lawyer, although it would be disingenuous of me not to mention that one of the things I learned is that I had no interest in ever working for Brill again. (Then again, it would be even more disingenuous for me to leave the impression that he would care.)
Anyway, what I never really understood was Brill as mogul. His first mini-media empire consisted of American Lawyer magazine (which he founded a couple of years out of law school), a string of other legal publications, Court TV, and an online service for lawyers. The publications and online service were part of his limited partnership with Time Warner, American Lawyer Media; Court TV’s co-owners included Time Warner and NBC. The Brill entities produced a lot of quality journalism, but did they make money? Mogul Brill rarely if ever offered specific profit-and-loss numbers but always made an enticing case for the potential of this or that project. Regarding that online service, for instance, he once told the Times, ”It’s seen by people who know as the most successful business model of an on-line enterprise ever created.” Yeah? What would journalist Brill have made of that?
All these properties were sold to Time Warner in early 1997. (Brill’s payout was supposedly in the eight figures, though of course he’s never confirmed that.) Time Warner only wanted Court TV—which at the time was reported to have turned a profit the year before—and it sold off the rest to Bruce Wasserstein’s investment firm. Court TV never became more than a second-tier network at best and is today probably more valuable to AOL Time Warner as raw real estate on the cable dial than for whatever rounding-error revenue it produces. According to this SEC filing in connection with a debt offering by Wasserstein’s firm, American Lawyer Media had net losses of around $6 million to $8 million annually from 1993 to 1996, much (but not all) of it attributable to that Internet service, which was eventually shuttered.
If you consider how little Brill compromised on the editorial quality he produced while adding little to less-than-nothing to his corporate masters’ bottom line, it’s easy to see him as a good-journalism hero. What’s harder to figure is the logic of those who backed a second empire for a guy whose talent for journalistic innovation seems to easily outdistance his ability to profit from it. But Barry Diller and George Soros were among those to put money into the Brill venture that launched Content, and of course he got Primedia to serve as the backer of his final burst of empire-building centered on the acquisition of Inside.com.
It didn’t work out. Now Brill has said he’ll teach and hints that he may get a chance to run a “a larger, more established journalistic enterprise.” But his main message has been to steadfastly accept blame: “If we had built a vibrant, independent, successful magazine, which is what I told the world I was going to do, we would have survived the economic climate we were in,” he told the Times. So, does this mean that in his next incarnation he’ll conclude he can do more as a great journalist than as a so-so mogul? Well, maybe Brill the journalist could coax a straight answer on that one. But when the closest thing to his proxy, a reporter for Inside.com, set out to cover the unwinding of the Primedia relationship, Brill the mogul had no comment.