Tina Brown: farewell sexy beast, it’s time to move on
She is one of the great magazine editors, even if The Daily Beast failed, writes Nigel Horne
THE NEWS that Tina Brown is stepping down as editor of the New York current affairs website The Daily Beast marks a rare failure on the Brown CV, though not the first.
As Ed Pilkington said yesterday, writing of Tina's demise for The Guardian, "Many of the chapters in Brown's storied career begin with a blaze but end in bitterness, dispute or ignominy".
True - hubris stalks Tina Brown. She launched Talk magazine in 1999 with an extravagant party for 1,400 on Liberty Island and with a huge ambition to produce magazine articles strong enough to turn into movies. Her backers, the Weinstein brothers, lost a fortune and it lasted just three years.
As for The Daily Beast, bankrolled by the television tycoon Barry Diller, it looks great but it has never "gained traction" as Rem Reider, media editor at USA Today, puts it. She oversaw a merger with Newsweek that proved another expensive failure. Diller finally sold the Newsweek title last month and, as was confirmed this week, Tina's contract to edit the Beast will not be renewed when it runs out in January.
But Tina Brown does not deserve to be remembered for her failures: she was perhaps the most successful print magazine editor of her generation. She knew how to make a magazine smart and sexy, a pleasure to flick through and never a duty to read.
It all began at the ridiculously young age of 25 when she was made editor of Tatler, then a colourless society rag with a circulation of 10,000. Within four years it was selling 50,000 and everyone wanted in.
Vanity Fair, her first job in America, where she has stayed ever since, was similarly successful. Hiring big-name writers and the starriest photographers, she drove circulation from below 200,000 when she joined in 1984 to above 800,000 in the early 90s and helped create a new hey-day for magazine contributors.
In 1992, she moved to the New Yorker and made instant enemies, especially among older contributors, many of them novelists, who could no longer count on the venerable mag for a couple of big-bucks articles a year. (One of them, George Trow, flounced out accusing Brown of "kissing the ass of celebrity".)
The fact is, she brought the magazine into the modern age, made it more readable, and appointed some brilliant writers - among them Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik, David Remnick (her successor) and Anthony Lane (the best film critic on the planet) - who are still there today. No mean feat.
All editors have favourite articles they've commissioned down the years. Tina will have many to choose from. Among mine is one by the late, great Martin Harris who, when I was editing the Telegraph Magazine, I sent to New York in 1991 to interview Tina. The occasion was the launch in London of a UK edition of Vanity Fair.
In search of some tart comments about his subject, who was hugely famous in New York media circles after seven years editing Vanity Fair, Martin met a brick wall. "The best editor I ever worked for," one person told him. "Smart, tough, funny, sexy, brilliant," said another. "Getting a job with Tina was like dying and waking up in hack heaven," said a third.
Martin's best hope of building a profile that wouldn't be hagiography was that sparks would fly when he actually met Tina. She didn't disappoint.
He asked if it was true that she had a personal trainer on call.
Tina: "Yes, it's true. He comes around at 6.30 and looks like Superman. Another line for your status-sneer paragraph."
Ouch! Later they were whisked by limousine to lunch at the Four Seasons where a "gushy woman" came over to their table.
Gushy woman: "Tina! We simply havetohave lunch, honey."
Tina: "Well... Maybe breakfast."
Gushy woman: "Breakfast! Honey, I'm a breakfast person."
Which made Martin snigger - which in turn made Tina very cross. She is a serious person, she wanted Martin to know. She hoped his article was not going to be all about her clothes and New York lifestyle.
And it wasn't. Martin Harris wrote a wonderful portrait of a devastatingly assured woman in the prime of her career.
It's a shame she couldn't have made more of a success of The Daily Beast. But, hell, her talents are to match great writers to great stories, to persuade photographers to deliver the impossible, to write slick headlines - ‘Deeper, crisper and breaking even' was what she put on the cover of her second Christmas issue of Tatler - and to tweak and shimmy and make the finished product a perfect joy.
Achieving the numbers to make a modern news website profitable, in the age of search engine optimisation and user interaction analytics, requires a different skill set. Time to move on. ·