Friday, February 13, 2009

Tina Brown and the fight to save journalism

If you're a writer, get out of your comfort zone. 

If you're an editor, surround yourself with writers.

And if you're starting an online publication, do so with conviction. It will work.

Eventually.

Sage words from celebrated editor Tina Brown (Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Talk, and now The Daily Beast) last night at Columbia Journalism School's Delacorte Magazine Lecture, a weekly public lecture by notables in the publishing world put on by Victor Navasky of The Nation.

Brown's Daily Beast -- for which at least one friend of mine writes -- has been in the spotlight since its launch last fall. A new media venture by an old-media person, if you will.  An online pubication brave enough to not accept (interns aside) free work. A digital venture (questionably) backed by IAC's Barry Diller. 

But Brown revealed last night that the venture is very much her vehicle for figuring out how publishing can survive in a "free," online-only environment. Correction: not just survive, but thrive. And in this current state of media flux, it's exciting to me to know that someone is pursuing something with conviction, and not floundering about trying to stay afloat.

Highlights which I'd like to pass along to you, readers:
  • Deploying narrative journalism on the web successfully is Brown's greatest challenge.
  • The Daily Beast continues Brown's tradition of high/low coverage (or "class and trash," as I like to call it.)
  • Some of her best writers didn't start as writers at all. Some of her best writers were passionate about topics they weren't writing about for a living. It was Brown's challenge -- and naturally, to her benefit -- to correct this. Example: Dominick Dunne, whom she told to keep a diary; Jeffrey Toobin, whom she simply gave enough time to develop his own (less-than-legalese) voice.
  • Editors must "make their world writers," and surround themselves with them. They are immensely creative people, she said, and you must know their strengths and weaknesses and, of course, always have talent on hand.
  • A big area for development is in-depth, feature-length business journalism. Not closing-bell coverage, but CEO profiles and such things. "Capture characters," she said. 
  • The Daily Beast is doing what newsweeklies should be doing -- analysis and less breaking news coverage -- in the smart and intellectual way that Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report are struggling to transition to at the moment. But, with the added benefit of linking off to the best of the web's stories.
  • The advantage of analysis: "People are gadflies, but they're also obsessives." So while hopping on the breaking news train is fine, people are still drawn to long-form, in-depth analysis telling them something they didn't already know.
  • "A good editor (at least, one in the vein of Tina Brown -- Ed.) likes a strong staff around them." Strong as in personality: "I have a terrible weakness for irritants."
  • Working online is actually less stressful/anxiety-ridden than print, because there are much fewer moments when someone's piece is cut because of limited space. "It's more physically grueling, but it's not as stressful in terms of disappointing people."
  • "It's so fashionable to trash the press all the time."
  • On the theory behind paying writers and investing in them: "You have to invest in people." Unlike her big-budget Conde Nast days, Brown can't hire writers on contract anymore, so the web environment makes it harder to develop people and give them a financial safety net at the same time. On the other hand, limitless space is helpful in that regard.
  • 2009 is the year of the freelancer. "The Gig Economy," she called it.
  • The Daily Beast has started to solicit advertisers, which will be its main revenue stream. Ads will appear in the spring.
  • On outsourcing journalism: "I think it's preposterous." 
Before attending, I knew little of Brown. I knew she and Arianna Huffington (The Huffington Post) were often cited as brash new editors-in-chief/publishers in the new media/online journalism world. I knew Brown had a fantastic pedigree. I knew she was British. 

But that's about it, honestly. So I was surprised when I heard these wise words come from someone who has been in the magazine business so long -- and who seemingly got into online publishing by necessity.

Brown spoke honestly and thoughtfully -- she wasn't there to publicize The Daily Beast, and didn't really reference it unless it was referred to in a question she was asked.

In listening to her opinions and advice, I came to respect her for this reason: she had a clear view of what she wanted and where she wanted it. An entrepreneur, she was pursuing publishing online, she wanted talented writers, she didn't want to cut corners nor spend funds happily. 

Personally, I don't like everything about The Daily Beast. (For one, I think its design, while adventurous, is a little hard to digest.). But I do now understand why things are the way they are on the site, and the thinking behind those decisions.

An old professor of mine likes to use the phrase, "Acts of commission, rather than acts of omission," when referencing online work. I can see that in operation at The Daily Beast.

Brown's vision may not be an ironclad business model, but it was her conviction that struck me. At a time when so many journalists -- newspapermen and women, freelance writers, editors, publishers, etc. -- are running to the next thing (blogs! Facebook! Twitter!) or just simply lamenting their own downfall (layoffs! cut pages! no ads!), I found it refreshing -- exciting, really -- to hear such a clear voice at such a cloudy time in journalism.

4 comments:

Courtney Reimer said...

Dammit, I meant to go to this! So bless you, Editorialiste, for this writeup, which makes me feel like I was actually there.

It's so amazing -- and, unfortunately, amazingly rare -- to hear some of Tina Brown's caliber espousing the need for good writers. Too many editors are obsessed instead with sexy, breaking news, gossipy garbage (see: my current gig -- there's that word! -- at an unnamed blog) and not at all invested in storytelling that actually enriches the public dialogue about matters of the day.

And I don't blame her for including the "trash" in her publication; we all need a little sugar to help the medicine go down.

Sheila Scarborough said...

Thanks for this post; Daily Beast almost immediately became one of my "check first" sites each morning because of its interesting mix of topics, links and original content (next up is usually Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com.)

Those who still think that bloggers are some sort of random weirdos living in Mom's basement should sit up and take notice that mainstream media's Brown launched a Web site. As Clay Shirky has said, the problem isn't so much info overload as bad filters for the type of info we have today. Brown's filtering/focus works well for me.

Carla Murphy said...

Thanks for reporting this talk for me. I wasn't there but still feel like I learned something.

SJB said...

Thanks for writing this up. In enjoyed the talk as well, though I felt a pang when she ended her remarks with the rallying cry--go out there and "reinvent the wheel."