As The Daily Beast marks its first anniversary, co-founder and editor-in-chief Tina Brown talks about the year's surprises, obsessive commenters, print's premature obit, Sarah Palin, Sexy Beast…and what's next for the site.
So how was your first year at The Daily Beast?
Excellent! I’ve finally found a medium commensurate to my peculiar metabolism. I revel in the immediacy, the responsiveness, the real-time-ness. I used to be the impatient type. Now I’m the serene type. Because how can you be impatient when everything happens right now, instantly? No more waiting around for factories to print magazines on dead trees and fueling up trucks to deliver them. This isn’t just faster, it’s greener. Plus I’m working with a brilliant young staff and a superb executive editor, Edward Felsenthal, who runs the show.
How’s traffic these days?
Beyond our wildest hopes when we started last October. We closed September at 3.9 million monthly unique readers and 35 million page views, which is up 70 percent and 220 percent, respectively, since our first month. It took me eight years to build Vanity Fair to less than half that number. And the readers are loyal: 60 percent of them come back again within 24 hours. Of course, keeping ‘em satisfied is a 24/7 task. I know what the tireless blogger Andrew Sullivan means when he told me last summer that he sometimes feels like Fay Wray dancing in front of King Kong.
Do you read the comments?
I’m obsessed with them. I love the smart, engaged audience arguing with us and one another. We have well over 1,000 commenters who have each commented over 1,000 times! There’s one called Spass who often weighs in with a contrary view on American politics. Earlier this year I was introduced to a Bulgarian telecommunications executive who was visiting New York, and he told me he liked The Daily Beast. Yeah right, I thought, until he suddenly blurted out “I am Spass!”
I log onto The Daily Beast and find photo galleries of surgically enhanced celebrities alongside Matthew Yglesias’ column on Afghanistan. What’s the big idea?
That’s the big idea. Celebrity buildups, troop drawdowns—it doesn’t matter, as long as both are covered with a sharp, original, Beastly take.
What’s with you babbling on TV all the time?
What’s with you watching me babble all the time? I do have a ball as one of the sidekicks on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. There is such a loose, spontaneous atmosphere on that set. It’s almost worth staggering out of bed at 4:45 a.m. for hair and makeup.
Any new developments?
It’s been nothing but new developments round here. Last week we announced our foray into book publishing, a new imprint called Beast Books that we are launching with Perseus Books Group. It gives our writers the chance to develop ideas that have already exploded on the site for a fast, short book that will be published first electronically and then as an elegant paperback. I’ve always wanted to do it. Books are the new magazines.
On the site itself we’ve rolled out four new verticals: Book Beast, Art Beast, Hungry Beast, and most recently Sexy Beast, our new entertainment and style section edited by Gabe Doppelt, formerly West Coast bureau chief of W. The gorgeous photography and photo galleries on The Daily Beast, by the way, have been one of the unexpected pleasures. It’s incredibly gratifying to see that readers love clicking through art exhibits and images of Iranian protests almost as much as they do the celebrity eye candy.
Where’s the advertising?
Hey, don’t be so impatient! We were lucky in a way to start in the deepest recession since 1929. Our business plan required us to focus on traffic first, then in the second half of the year on advertisers—which was a good thing because there weren’t any. Now we have started to reel ‘em in, led by our general manager and digital guru Caroline Marks. We have had glorious insertions from the luxury retail house Bottega Veneta, David Yurman, Ligne Roset, Le Tourment Vert, entertainment companies such as Fox and HBO, and blue chips like British Airways and Olympus. There’s lots more in the 2010 pipeline. Barry Diller, our owner, co-originator and one of the sharper minds in business, has challenged us to think beyond the troubled banner ad, and we are well on our way.
What has been your top moment and one you’d like to forget?
One I’ll never forget was the high of two weeks after our launch when Christopher Buckley’s endorsement of Barack Obama landed in our inboxes, unannounced. We took off like a runaway bronco. I kept looking over the shoulder of our homepage editor to see the traffic spiking like a cardiogram on speed.
And we’ve had many great highs since. Lucinda Franks’s newsmaking coverage of l’affaire Madoff. Gerald Posner, our chief investigative reporter, sorting through the recriminations after Michael Jackson’s death. The Kevin Sessums interview with J-Lo in our first week, and his outrageous conversation with Rupert Everett last summer. Meghan McCain stirring the pot as the GOP reconstructs itself out of the ashes. Stephen Carter on the Obamas and Martha’s Vineyard. Smart opinion from the likes of Mark McKinnon, Paul Begala, Les Gelb, Tony Blair, Bruce Reidel, Reihan Salam, John Avlon, and Charlie Gasparino. Brilliant profiles, interviews and reporting by so many writers expected and unexpected. Some terrific regulars have been Lloyd Grove, Kim Masters, Max Blumenthal, Allan Dodds Frank, Katie Kingsbury and our stellar young staffers Ben Crair and Benjy Sarlin. Our daily mash of newsworthy, hilarious and otherwise riveting video. Of course, I always get an extra ego jolt when something I’ve written sets off a secondary explosion or two, like the one begging Hillary to take off her burqa, or the one about the advent of the “gig economy.” Doldrums? Hmm, not many. Except when a friend like Dominic Dunne dies and you are as close to the grief of the readers who comment as you are to the throb of political excitement when it catches.
Are you and Arianna still on friendly terms?
You betcha. We hung out together at the Fortune Women’s conference a few weeks ago.
I heard you have a London bureau? What’s next, Dubai?
No London bureau yet, thanks. The whole notion of bureaus is so 20th century. Get me a smart blogger with a laptop and an iPhone in Tehran or Caracas and The Daily Beast is in business. I realized how fast good foreign journalists will find you during the Mumbai terrorist attack last November, soon after we launched. We had a constant stream of great pieces on the crisis from terrific Indian journalists who were on the ground.
Are you still writing print’s obit?
It’s such a phony war, print versus the Internet. So much of print has one foot in on the Web these days—New Yorker writers blog, Times reporters shoot digital video. And the so-called old lions are turning out wonderful journalism—see our Cheat Sheet, which is agnostic about print or online journalism, on a daily, hourly basis.
How often do you come into the office?
When don’t I come into the office? My digital office travels everywhere.
Which story are you more obsessed with, Bernie Madoff or Sarah Palin?
I am sick of both of them. But it’s safe to say that Palin’s got more potential for a second act.
Who’s more dangerous to the republic?
Neither, if The Daily Beast has anything to say about it.
I want to thank our hard working staff, IAC for its support, our gifted web producers Code and Theory and our wonderful readers for your enthusiasm, repeat visits, commenting obsessions, video addictions—and a fabulous first year. You too, Spass.