Schadenfreude being the house religion of the New York magazine world, this has been a particularly satisfying week for glossy mag writers and editors. New Yorker Editor Tina Brown–who essentially invented magazine “buzz,” perfected buzz, made buzz high art (and made high art buzz)–is becoming buzz’s victim.
This is the moment that loyalists to the Old New Yorker have been eagerly anticipating for six years. Every day brings new evidence that Brown is no longer–to use a Tinaism–hot. Condé Nast Publisher Steve Florio just removed his brother Tom from his position as The New Yorker’s publisher, then appointed a replacement without consulting Brown. Steve Florio and New Yorker owner S.I. Newhouse Jr. also declined to name Brown as The New Yorker’s president, a job she reportedly coveted. Recent articles have exposed the magazine’s sorry financial shape: The New Yorker, which Brown promised in 1992 to make profitable by 1997, lost $11 million last year, and its ad sales are stagnating during an economic boom. In November, Newhouse dropped Brown’s husband, Harry Evans, the other half of New York’s most formidable media couple, as head of Random House, raising speculation that Brown and Evans are out of favor with King Si. Now New York media are speculating (without evidence) that Newhouse may not renew Brown’s contract when it expires July 1.
(Even non-Tina news is being turned against Brown. The publication of two new books about former editor William Shawn has inspired another round of pompous elegies for the grand old New Yorker.)
Who would have thought it–the queen of spin is losing a spin war. “You live by buzz, you die by buzz,” says an ex-New Yorker editor, with malicious glee. It’s not that anything has actually changed at The New Yorker in recent weeks, but there is a perception that Brown and the magazine are stumbling. And as Brown knows as well as anyone, perception matters.
Brown, after all, is print media’s greatest showman. The daughter of a film producer and a publicist, she packages her magazines like movies and promotes them like a flack. Her formula: She overpays star writers, gives them top billing, and relies on striking covers to attract readers. As the 25-year-old editor of the Tatler, Brown transformed a stodgy British society magazine into a sassy, nasty, attention-getting one. Brown’s critics say she revived Vanity Fair simply by publishing slobbering celebrity stories. That’s not fair to her: Everyone published slobbering celebrity stories in the ‘80s: Brown’s genius was to combine them with superb investigative, political, and feature writing, then wrap it all in a salacious cover that you just had to open.
She brought that gift for spectacle to The New Yorker in 1992. Her re-creation of the magazine is a familiar tale: She inherited from Mr. Shawn–by way of Robert Gottlieb–a tired, unread weekly. (Requisite example of dreariness: the multipart series on grains.) In no time flat, she turned it into the most talked about magazine in America. She supplemented the already prodigiously talented staff with her own snazzy hires. Her magazine pandered to celebrities and petted moguls, but it also ran the best-written, best-edited features in the industry. Topicality reigned: In the old days, you couldn’t tell what year an issue of The New Yorker was published; now you could tell what day it was published. The magazine, which had been self-effacing to the point of reclusiveness, suddenly was brilliantly packaged and promoted. The chattering classes began chattering about it and haven’t stopped since.
What is the price of Brown’s methods? A civil, slow-moving magazine became a chaotic, ill-tempered one. Brown is capricious. She charms the editors, writers, and advertisers she needs but frosts underlings. Her buzz production is endless. There are three full-time PR staffers at The New Yorker, as well as several full-time event planners. The magazine relies on parties, conferences, and stunts–Roseanne as guest editor–to generate heat. It’s not that Brown’s uninterested in beautiful or ambitious writing–she publishes plenty of it–but she cares most about attention-getting.
The old New Yorker was whimsical, often fatally so: Writers were expected to indulge their own peculiar interest and damn public opinion. Brown’s New Yorker seems poll-tested. If you are writing about what’s hot, then you are writing about what everyone is writing about. Brown’s magazine is predictable and getting more so the longer she is there: Of course it devoted “Talk of the Town” to Sinatra when he died. Of course it wrote a suck-up about Michael Jordan during the NBA playoffs, a suck-up about Robert Redford for the release of The Horse Whisperer, a suck-up about Warren Beatty for Bulworth. (Click for another reason Brown favors celebrity.) A magazine that was once entirely, and bizarrely, different from other magazines–often to its detriment–is now much the same as them. (Click for another important way in which sameness has affected The New Yorker.)
Despite her current woes, no one really expects Brown to leave The New Yorker. Newhouse can’t afford not to renew her contract. To dump Brown now, amid all the bad financial news, would be an acknowledgment that he picked wrong in 1992.
Nor is Brown likely to quit. She was reportedly offered a job producing a weeknight version of 60 Minutes, but there are no signs that she’s interested. She has too much pride to surrender in the middle of the battle. As an old friend of hers puts it, “She would only quit if she could quit in triumph, with everyone acknowledging that it is the best magazine in the world and that she is the best editor and with the magazine in the black.”
“In the black”–that is the real key to understanding what’s going on at Brown’s magazine. The New Yorker that Newhouse bought in 1985 was profitable. But having shelled out $168 million for the magazine, Newhouse was not satisfied with the measly $5 million a year it was earning. He set out to impose the Condé Nast model on The New Yorker: expand circulation and raise ad rates.
The move to Condé Nastify the magazine worked, sort of. The New Yorker began offering. Brown did her job: producing buzz to fuel circulation. The number of subscribers soared from about 450,000 in the mid-’80s to around 800,000. The magazine hiked ad rates accordingly, pricing quirky advertisers out of the magazine in favor of big national ones. Ad revenue increased but not enough to cover enormous new costs: Recruiting new subscribers by direct mail, printing more magazines, and mailing more magazines are tremendously expensive operations.
Brown and Newhouse’s New Yorker is squeezed between newsweeklies and glossy monthlies. The market for general-interest weekly magazines has long since dried up: Look and the Saturday Evening Post are dead. Brown has tried to remake The New Yorker as an upscale newsweekly, but its 800,000 paying readers can’t match the 4 million that Time offers its advertisers. The magazine can’t compete with monthlies either. Vanity Fair and its advertisements have a full 30 days to be seen by readers. The New Yorker has a seven day window.
The New Yorker has fought back with special issues–massive tomes about race or Hollywood or the future. In 1997, its six double issues and three other special issues accounted for 35 percent of the magazine’s advertising pages, according to Advertising Age. The double issues save The New Yorker postage and printing costs, and their advertisements have 14 days to reach readers.
But the magazine is still losing money, and Brown seems trapped. She has staked her career on profitability. The New Yorker could probably make money as a bimonthly or monthly (ideas that have reportedly been floated within Condé Nast). But Brown and Newhouse probably would not accept that tarnish on their reputations: They don’t want to be the cretins who killed America’s last great weekly. The magazine could also break even by raising subscription prices and shrinking the number of subscribers. That too would look terrible on Brown’s CV.
Brown has always had an outsized ambition, and now she is imprisoned by it. She and Newhouse have traded a small, weird, profitable magazine for a big, flashy, unprofitable one. And now they don’t seem to know what to do with it.