Arianna vs. Tina?
As founders of influential news sites the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown seem like natural Darwinian enemies. But anyone hoping for a juicy media catfight will have to get their kicks elsewhere.
By Elisa Lipsky-Karasz
February 8, 2011
Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown, who have known each other since university, have always had their sights set on bigger things–and refuse to be divided and conquered. On the occasion of Brown’s relaunch of Newsweek as editor in chief and Huffington’s announcement of an AOL merger, the two sit down to talk to Bazaar.
Elisa Lipsky-Karasz : So tell us, how long have you known each other?
Arianna Huffington: Since Tina was at Oxford and I was at Cambridge.
Tina Brown: We probably met through a publisher named Lord Weidenfeld. He was Arianna’s publisher, and he used to give wonderful big parties where he would have all the young, frothing talent. That’s where everyone got mixed up.
ELK: What did you make of each other when you met?
AH: I already knew about Tina. She was writing plays at the time.
TB: Yes, but Arianna was the big star of the debating squad at Cambridge. I always thought Arianna was far more sophisticated and mondaine. I was merely an undergraduate, but Arianna was known beyond the campus. I was at the Weidenfeld party probably only because I knew my [future] husband, Harry Evans. But Arianna was there because she was a figura.
AH: Ah, no, that is definitely not the case. I mean, the thing for me was Tina’s voice. From the first time I read [her], I thought, Here is a distinct voice. Another thing: Harry bought [the serial rights] to my book on Maria Callas for the SundayTimes in London and got really involved.
TB: Harry was sure of Arianna from the very beginning. He loved her book on Callas. And at that time, to be on the front page of the Sunday Times, it was a big billboard.
AH: That is what changed the whole trajectory of my career, from basically doing a little biography for which I had gotten a £6,000 advance to a big book that started a bidding war. Harry ended up paying a ridiculous amount like £150,000.
TB: I remember that. He overpaid wildly out of enthusiasm.
AH: He overpaid, but I will be eternally grateful. And it ended up leading to a big deal in America.
ELK: Did you ever think you would both end up being media powerhouses?
AH: Oh, it was completely planned.
TB: I think it was as planned as Hillary marrying Bill Clinton. I think both of us saw ourselves as writers. I didn’t see myself as an editor. I wanted to be a playwright, in fact. And I was going to write articles on the side. I don’t know about you, Arianna, but I always thought you were more likely to be a political candidate. Which in fact you were for a minute.
AH: Yes, I was for five minutes. I always thought of myself first as a writer and a debater. I joke [now] that I planned it all, because the rise of the Internet and blogging was so not at all where journalism was back when we first met. And that is what the conversation has moved to.
TB: I think, for both of us, having been so engaged in media for so many years, [the move online] was almost an inevitable thing that we both saw early. I mean, Arianna did before I did because I was deep in my book [The Diana Chronicles] at the time when she was developing her site. But this was obviously the whole future of media. And we jumped in.
ELK: What do you think it means for the future of print, especially given that the new Newsweek will coexist with the Daily Beast Web site?
TB: Having done four magazines, I have always loved print. I never thought that print was obsolete. It’s the same way that radio and television coexist and movies and television coexist. It’s all media, and you can perform on many platforms. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters.
AH: When we first launched Huffington Post, I remember it was much more an either/or world. I’ve always said it was going to be a hybrid future.
Huffington with her daughters, Christina (left) and Isabella
TB: You actually have always said that. You have also seen that this old-style snobbery is just a waste of time. It’s really changing; there are only a few people now who don’t understand that a Web presence is terribly important for a writer.
ELK: You are so often pitted against each other. Is it because as women you attract more scrutiny?
AH: I don’t think there’s more scrutiny directed our way. I think that there are certain stereotypes that are activated when you have two women like Tina and me running things. Catfights–you never had that when it was Jon Meacham and Rick Stengel, right?
TB: There is such delicious lip smacking at the notion of any girl-on-girl action, if you know what I mean [laughs]. It’s very retro.
ELK: But do you feel a rivalry with each other because of the sites?
TB: Not at all! The Web is so interactive. We all pick up Huffington Post scoops, and Huffington Post picks up ours, because we all need the traffic. We can’t afford not to. At a different moment in media, if I were editing the New York Daily News and Arianna were editing the New York Post, maybe that kind of contest would be more of a smackdown, but I honestly don’t think that the new media world is about that. Everybody likes to crow when their own news organization gets a scoop, but it doesn’t feel we’re both racing to get an interview with Joe Biden or whomever. Does it, Arianna?
AH: No. It’s such a broad context that we are all covering–politics, culture. So much happens every day.
TB: I suppose I do feel like with my friendship [with Arianna], I wouldn’t go after her staff, for example. Not that I would turn down someone who’s leaving who has come to me. And I’m appreciative of the fact that Arianna hasn’t done that with me. It’s not a hands-off policy, but it’s just that I haven’t wanted to do that.
AH: Yes, absolutely.
TB: So in that sense, I think it’s a plus that we’re friends.
ELK: Do you think in this new media world, the cult of the editor and all that competition don’t exist anymore?
AH: Well, the linked economy is such a big part of what we’re doing, the way we link to each other. Increasingly, HuffPo is doing more original content, the Daily Beast is doing more original content, but we still live in a world of a lot of curated news, and that’s just the new reality. Even editors who had scoffed at that are now rethinking how they approach their sites because the truth is that people don’t go to thousands of sites. Research shows that they maybe go to at most 20 sites a day on average, so you want to be able to give them good content. That changes the nature of the competition.
TB: We live in an era when it’s almost like people are anxious not to get so cutthroat because you never know where you’re going to wind up in a partnership. As the economy is linked, you find you’re doing things together, and you may as well have good relationships [laughs].
ELK: You’ve both been subjected to bad press along the way. How have you handled it?
AH: I definitely consider it a barometer of my spiritual progress how I handle it. I don’t like the idea of a thick skin. I think we can be more childlike. Children get upset and they cry and it’s over; six seconds later, it’s like nothing happened. That is my aspiration.
TB: I much less care about it than I used to. I went through Talk magazine, and once you’ve been pilloried on the front page of the New YorkPost, you do go through a kind of liberation. I took a huge belly flop in a very public fashion. After that, it was like, “So what? It wasn’t so bad. I’m still here.” It was probably the happiest couple of years of my life after that, suddenly having permission to meet my daughter at school and go and see a friend in the hospital. When I did the Beast, it was really for fun, and I wasn’t sitting there worrying about it. [Bad press] can ruin an hour of your morning–but I haven’t had that experience for a while, actually. I don’t have a Google alert [for myself]; I don’t care enough [laughs].
AH: That’s probably the most important message that we can give to younger women. I constantly talk to my daughters about my failures. The other day, Christina was saying, Oh no, Mom, not again about your first book being rejected by 36 publishers. Because in the end, if you look at what makes people succeed, especially women, it’s about not giving up.
TB: You know, a friend of mine has a great saying: There’s nobody more boring than the undefeated [laughs]. Any big career will have bad times as well as good. I’m sure, Arianna, your blacker periods have really been a source of learning.
AH: Yes, incredible. It’s so key not to let that stop you.
ELK: Do you think that to become women on top, you have had to work harder than everyone else?
Brown with her husband, Sir Harold Evans
TB: I did a conference recently where we had a whole bunch of people from business and media, and I was absolutely aghast at how difficult it was to find women at the very top. I think it totally sucks. God knows, I know plenty of women who have just dropped away, stopped competing, and gone into a slightly part-time life, which I always thought was a great pity because there’s a lot of lost potential. But what is good about the new media is that a lot of women are looking out the window and there are a lot of entrepreneurial startups. Arianna is a very good case in point because she said, I’m just going to go start my own thing.
AH: Women do success differently [than men]. We learn to bring more balance into our lives–to unplug and recharge. We women really need to be the pioneers here. I was particularly cognizant of that after Richard Holbrooke died. The kind of stressful life men wear as a badge of honor … There are all these type-A women out there, and we need to live in a way that’s not so exhausting and stressful. How many men say, “I get only four hours’ sleep” or “I’m working around the clock”?
ELK: But isn’t that getting more difficult, especially with the 24-hour news cycle and the existence of Web sites like yours?
AH: I’m not saying it’s easy, and I am not saying I live by it, but I find more women are struggling for more balance at a younger age, and that often means starting something by themselves.
TB: I have to say I think Michelle Obama has been rather good at that. I admire the way she has been able to be serially obsessed with different things. And it’s been okay to say, “Look, I was a corporate executive. Now I’m going to the White House and not be a first lady who says, I also have to do a major job like Cherie Blair.” I’m not suggesting that any woman knock herself back if that’s what she wants to be doing, but you have to ask yourself how much fun could it have been [for Cherie] to have four children and have to get to her legal chambers?
ELK: Speaking of work, what should we expect from the new Newsweek?
TB: What we are doing is that the digital side will be driving the print side rather than the other way around. The energy and the ideas laboratory will be the Daily Beast, and out of that the magazine will form itself as the foil to that. Instead of thinking, How do we make a Web site that extends the magazine? it’s more about the energy coming from the Web site that will be developed in print.
AH: There is another thing about Newsweek and the Daily Beast: marketing strategy. When you have a very attractive brand like Newsweek, that is a great example to translate to the Web.
TB: It’s a huge challenge, a very exciting challenge.
ELK: So are we going to be seeing a HuffPoNewsBeast megasite soon?
AH andTB [laughing]: No.