Editor of Note, Perched Online
By DAVID CARR
A new Web site had its debut this week, thedailybeast.com. But with more than 180 million of the things now online by some estimates, a new one would seem like just another digital drop in an ocean of zeroes and ones. Yawn.
Unless it’s Tina Brown doing the dropping. On Monday The Daily Beast used Ms. Brown’s gilded e-Rolodex — hey, look, her pal President Clinton is recommending books on the economic meltdown! And her chum Christopher Buckley’s cracking wise! — to stick its head above the fray.
The Daily Beast, backed by Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp, is an aggregation of the trivial and the momentous, the original and the borrowed. With a slogan splashed across its home page promising rigorous editing of the culture for complicated times — “Read This Skip That” — the Beast is aiming to be a smaller, less chaotic version of the World Wide Web itself.
This being a Tina Brown enterprise, there is, of course, something called The Buzz Board. And the design, with its grids of links, articles and videos, brings to mind the look of the front of a glossy magazine. Some of the features are tricky, or nicely tricked up, depending on your view of technology, including moving headlines that chase the reader’s eyes down the page. News features sit beside the digital catnip of “charticles.” Opinions abound.
In greeting readers on Monday, Ms. Brown used the site to ask and answer an obvious question at a time of towering informational clutter: “Why should I visit you when there’s already Slate/Drudge/Huffington Post/TPM/Google News and every other magazine and newspaper?”
Her answer: “Sensibility, darling.”
Ah, yes, Darling: sensibility is Ms. Brown’s game. The Daily Beast — named after the newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s Fleet Street satire, “Scoop” — is relying heavily on Ms. Brown’s range of interests (from high to low, from powerful to incredibly powerful) to remain relevant enough to merit daily, even hourly, clicking. Given Ms. Brown’s reputation for frantically changing everything in the final hours of closing every magazine she has edited, perhaps a medium that absorbs — indeed, requires — constant reiteration will suit her.
Even in the anarchic environs of the Web, Ms. Brown’s efforts merit notice, partly because she has landed with a flurry of impact in all her endeavors (give or take a ratings-deprived talk show on CNBC). She first came to attention in 1979 as editor of Tatler, a British magazine, and came to America in 1983 to become the editor of Vanity Fair. In 1992 she was named editor of The New Yorker, where her mixing of high and low, earnest and frothy became a serial hit, altering the landscape of serious magazines and bringing celebrity into broad swaths of the culture.
She followed up those successes by leaving The New Yorker to found Talk, a much-discussed general-interest magazine that lasted three years and was eventually closed in the advertising recession after the attacks of Sept. 11. The magazine’s every wiggle and wobble was drenched in hype, which may explain why The Daily Beast appeared on Monday with a minimum of it. The site still hit the radar, though.
“The design is lively,” said Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media. But, he added, citing Google’s home page, among others, “it has to be simpler to work.”
Mr. Denton said that graphic clutter or not, he would be among the people looking in. “I’ll definitely read The Daily Beast,” he said, continuing, “but I don’t think there are that many of me.”
Ms. Brown would beg to differ. “We have heard from a lot of people who love what we came up with, but we are tweaking and refining even as we speak,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday, sounding relieved to be free of interminable print deadlines. “That’s the nice part about doing something on the Web.”
Recalling her days in the crosshairs at Talk, she added, “the trouble with starting monthly magazines is that you have to go around trying to gather advertising, and the only thing you have to sell is the editor.”
Edward Felsenthal, a former Wall Street Journal editor and The Daily Beast’s editor in chief, said that for the time being, there would be no ads. “We are working on getting the tone and content right, and then we will worry about selling ads,” he said. “This is a soft launch.”
If it is, it resembles something of the tone Ms. Brown’s friend Arianna Huffington set when she began huffingtonpost.com in 2005: a digital salon for all her show business friends. But The Huffington Post has since morphed — and found remarkable success — by tacking to the left and relying on a legion of unpaid bloggers to kick up political content during the most interesting election in years.
Some have suggested that Ms. Brown is merely going down a path of electronic publishing pioneered by Ms. Huffington, but neither woman buys it.
“I have known Tina since she was at Oxford, and I was at Cambridge, and I think she has a wonderful eye with a very clear point of view that will make for a very interesting, highly curated site,” Ms. Huffington said. “The great thing about new media is that it is not a zero-sum game. The more compelling content there is on the Web, the more people will be habituated to going there.”
Ms. Brown noted that Ms. Huffington had already contributed to The Daily Beast — a Tuesday recommendation to see “War Inc.” with John Cusack — and said that talk of that kind of competition was rubbish.
“That is such a binary way of looking at media, and we don’t see it that way,” she said.
Postbinary or not, Ms. Brown does not appear to have lost her touch for creating a stir. On Tuesday, the site’s second day of existence, Ms. Brown published an interview with Jennifer Lopez by Kevin Sessums, a longtime celebrity profiler — an article killed by an unnamed women’s fashion magazine, in which he asks her about Scientology, breast feeding, a nervous breakdown and selling pictures of her twins. Those old magazine connections can come in mighty handy.
Within hours gawker.com was speculating about which magazine had spiked the piece; New York magazine’s site, nymag.com, had teased apart Ms. Lopez’s “breakdown”; and popsugar.com was drooling over the interview’s naughtier bits. After a long time on the sidelines, Ms. Brown was back in the middle of the game, or at least the conversation.