With the recent acquisition of Powerful Media by Brill Media Holdings, two of the most prominent chroniclers of the goings-on in Medialand are now under the same roof. Powerful Media, launched by Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn last year with tremendous fanfare and $35 million in capital, has agreed to allow the staffs of their Inside magazine and Web site to be combined with that of the much dowdier Brill’s Content. The good news for Steven Brill is that there’s probably not much overlap in the subscription bases of Inside and Brill’s Content: While the two magazines share a subject matter, they could not be more different in the attitude they take toward it. This, in turn, leads to the bad news: It’s difficult to imagine a way to reconcile the two magazines’ approaches. And it’s almost impossible to figure out a way that either of them can make money.
Let’s start with the editorial differences between the magazines. The ideal reader for Brill’s Content seems to be a person living far from New York and Los Angeles, who has no idea how newspapers, magazines, radio, and television are produced. Brill’s Content’s tone is often that of one shocked (shocked!) to find gambling in Casablanca: One recent scoop consisted of the fact that NBC’s news affiliates seem to be devoting a disproportionate amount of time to covering the XFL, which is part-owned by NBC. To anyone who has, oh, say, watched television anytime in the last 10 years, the notion that a network would use its affiliates’ local newscasts as promotional platforms can hardly be considered a surprise, but Brill’s Content patiently builds a case for the breathtakingly obvious (“WNBC’s newscasts aired 19 XFL-related segments …”).
By contrast, Inside’s ideal reader would appear to be Kurt Andersen. Inside is produced with the assumption that its readers know all about the gambling going on in Casablanca; indeed, it seems to assume that its readers know all the croupiers’ names. “Tina Brown Sighting at the Conde Nast Cafeteria,” read one headline last year. For anyone in the magazine industry, this is news; for anyone outside of it, it’s gibberish. (One imagines Brill’s Content’s ideal reader–still getting over the shock of those XFL revelations–trying to parse the newsworthiness of one person’s lunch.) Tellingly, both Brill’s Content and Inside recently ran stories on GQ’s “Man of the Year” awards. Brill’s huffed and puffed over its discovery that GQ fiddles with the results of the voting on the awards, since some award-winners apparently decline to participate in the magazine’s coverage. Inside, meanwhile, ran a scathing assessment of the issue by Simon Dumenco, who noted, for instance, that Giorgio Armani was named fashion designer of the year. “Armani, it happens, is also the sole advertiser within the Men of the Year package–he’s taken out a whopping 12 pages–so it’s certainly a lucky thing that he won the award, too,” Dumenco wrote. Brill’s assumes that its readers would be shocked to learn that GQ would tamper with something as sacrosanct as its “Man of the Year” honors; Inside assumes that its readers would be shocked if GQ didn’t.
As a journalist, I’m closer to Inside’s ideal reader than Brill’s Content’s. But I’m not sure I understand how either of them can make money. Neither is profitable–and while profits are hardly to be expected in such new entities, their numbers are not particularly promising. Inside’s story on the acquisition noted that Brill’s featured a scant 33 pages of ads in its February issue and calculated that it has a low sell-through of 20 percent on the newsstand; it further added that “subscribers were hard to come by” for Inside.com’s Web offerings. While it’s not impossible, the odds wouldn’t seem to favor two money-losing publications yielding one moneymaker. Brill reportedly hopes to convert Inside.com into a subscription-based portal for his partner Primedia’s trade publications like Folio and Cable World, under the banner of Media Central. (Incredibly, the New York Observer has reported that this news has been met with scorn from Inside staffers. “Trade,” one of them told the Observer, “was the word we weren’t supposed to use from the beginning.” This raises the question: Does Inside’s crew really believe that anyone outside the trade cares about where Tina Brown has lunch?) Given that Inside had trouble cajoling readers to pony up subscription fees for its Web site, it seems fair to wonder whether it will do any better when coupled with Media Central.
As for Brill’s Content, it will incorporate some of the staff of Inside.com and Inside’s print magazine and be relaunched as Inside Content, a business magazine for media professionals. If the magazine’s editors can somehow reconcile Brill’s squareness with Inside’s hipster feel, they’ll deserve a medal. But even that feat might not be enough to make Inside Content turn a profit. Because here may be the biggest problem facing Steven Brill these days: Perhaps there simply isn’t a market large enough to support a glossy magazine devoted to the media. In retrospect, this isn’t a particularly surprising conclusion: Nobody thinks that, say, the automotive industry can support anything more than a handful of trade papers and magazines. It’s difficult to imagine anyone sinking $30 million into a Web site where an intrepid team of reporters ferrets out news on the daily schedules of Ford’s and Chrysler’s mid-level executives. But, in all the coverage of the launch of Inside, few journalists pressed the founders on this point. We simply assumed that the details of our daily lives were worth that level of scrutiny. The somewhat humbling lesson of Inside.com may just be that we’re not really all that interesting to anyone but ourselves.
Tim Carvell is a senior editor at eCompany Now. In the interests of Brillian full disclosure, it should be noted that his magazine competes with the Industry Standard, which was a partner on the launch of Inside’s print magazine. And Slate, like Inside.com, is a money-losing Web site.