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George, the last big national magazine launch, set out to prove that a publication about politics with a frisson of gloss could find an audience. It ended up claiming half a million readers, partly by putting Pamela Anderson on the cover wearing only her hair and a well-placed American flag. John-John did a naked thing inside as well.
The only thing less interesting than politicians are the hapless schmucks who cover them. Yet Steven Brill has decided that covering the coverers is a can’t-miss magazine for the masses. Seems like a stretch, but then maybe Diane Sawyer can grow her hair out. (For the record, I have no interest in seeing Brill nude, especially with that ever-present cigar.)
If it were anyone besides Brill doing the pitching, the idea would be hysterical. But the nonpracticing graduate of Yale Law School has conquered both niche and mass audiences in the course of reinventing legal journalism at American Lawyer, a chain of legal journals, and Court TV. He eventually sold out to Time Warner for more than $20 million. When Brill launches Content next week, he says he will have 225,000 readers and a commodity that every glossy craves: ad pages from airlines and purveyors of top-shelf booze. And there’s no better way to drum up media interest than to write about the media.
Brill’s editorial challenge is certainly manageable Whether he can tag the media big time carries as much suspense as whether the movie monster will catch the large-chested blond with the conflicted sexual history. The drama in Content’s story line comes from the business side: Will the public gobble up a Columbia Journalism Review on steroids?
Brill will need civilians. From a marketing perspective, the core demographic of newsies is only slightly more desirable than that of federal prison inmates. What kind of man reads Content? The kind of man who has been wearing the same sports coat since junior year of high school, a man who buys GQ for the articles, a man with a median income of $37,500, a 6-year-old computer, and a thoroughly used minivan. But Brill is confident he can wriggle out of the media pigeonhole and into the public consciousness.
“Vanity Fair sells a million copies…[and] it’s an upscale niche product,” Brill says.
Vanity Fair does its share of important journalism, but it also comes packaged with tarty shots of whoever is the Leonardo DiCaprio of the month. All Brill has to work with is the smile on the likes of Tom Brokaw, and if his editorial execution stays true to form, the anchorman will soon be missing a few teeth. Brill isn’t fretting about scorching the beat beyond recognition.
“First of all, we’re not going to do this simple diet of 100 percent negative stories, and people aren’t going to know what we’re doing in the first phone call. And second, I always found that with the American Lawyer, if you have impact, if you’re important, if people are reading you, people ultimately think that they should talk to you, especially if you treat them fairly,” he says.
And just in case journalistic rigor doesn’t do the job, he’s got a (fully clothed) George Clooney doing a column in the first issue. (“He wrote a damn good column,” Brill says.) The whacks Clooney and others dish out will undoubtably raise questions about who appointed Brill Supreme God of Journalistic Rectitude.
“My answer is going to be that I hardly consider my appointment to be a monopoly,” Brill says. “I wish a lot of other people would do it. We think we’re going to be pretty good at it, but I make mistakes.”
Brill purchased his pulpit with the $27 million he earned from the sale of his legal-media empire and funds from investors like Barry Diller. Content’s investors are banking not on a business plan, but on Brill himself. By maintaining high standards at his publications, Brill has earned the right to attack other organizations on ethics and practices. In the employee manual for Content, the rules of engagement are laid out very clearly:
NEVER USE SOURCES SAID. The words “sources say,” or “a source said” mean nothing to a reader and should never appear in our journalism. Always tell the reader how many sources, precisely. And to the extent possible, tell what kind of sources: Your doorman? Or a top editor at the paper?
Brill himself has three unnamed sources in a 30-some-page story about unnamed sources in the Lewinsky scramble, although he says they are described in enough detail to make their biases evident. He believes that blind sourcing has a place, albeit a very circumscribed one, in journalism: “They are a last resort, but sometimes necessary.”
It’s ironic, then, that Brill copped a Content promo blurb from Bob Woodward of the Post, one of the most recognizable purveyors of nameless journalism. “Steve Brill is the foremost serious journalistic entrepreneur of our time. With Content he could provide the quality check and road map through the information age we all desperately need,” Woodward says.
Brill admits that he’s had his share of arguments with Woodward over sourcing.
“When Bob does it, it allows a lot of other people who are less honest to do the same thing,” Brill says.
Content ad teasers herald features on “the 10 laziest reporters” at the White House and “five financial columnists who never get it right”just the sort of gotcha journalism that has the public tuning out in bunches. And the persistent numerologya Brill hallmark from the day he began American Lawyermakes it seem all the more pat.
“There’s a chance of that, but I think when you read the first issue, you’ll see we haven’t done that….When you look at it at the end of the day, you will say, ‘All right, that’s legitimate.’ For example, we were going to do the 10 laziest White House reporters, but we had trouble picking the top 10…and the reason that story is not in the first issue is that we really couldn’t get enough comfort to do it. You have to wait and see if we do it well.”
It won’t be for a lack of will. A person who has spent a lot of time in Content’s office in New York describes a Kafka-esque kingdom where editors throw lightning bolts and reporters scurry to respond. “It’s top-downism in the extreme,” sayssorry about this, Steve”a source.”
Stuart Taylor of the National Journal worked directly with Brill for many years and says that while the stories about Brill’s bumpy bedside manner may be dead-on, it’s not the whole truth.
“There are a zillion stories out there, and not all of them are apocryphal. But over the long term, he has managed to keep good people because he treats them right,” Taylor says.
Regardless of how it is executed, Brill’s vision of a forewarned group of media consumers seems redundant when the words of even major news organizations are met with abject mistrust.
“It’s one thing to tell you that 30 percent of what Matt Drudge does is wrong. It’s another thing to tell you which 30 percent,” he argues.
Many more sacred cows will be coming up for
filleting, including the obtuse Washington Post letters page, which will be the subject of Brill’s first column. While there is widespread skepticism about the publishing model for Brill’s Content, his track record has folks expecting an editorial juggernaut.
James Warren, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune, was a freelancer of long standing at American Lawyer and had serious talks with Brill about working on Content.
“In a journalism world of single and double hitters, this guy swings for the fences, and, unequivocally, the premise that the media does an awful job of covering itself is very sound,” Warren says.
There has been plenty of anticipatory grumbling about the tyranny of Brill-defined factism. A journalist in D.C. got a call from a reporter at Content asking for help in finding more information about a fact in one of his stories. It sounded like a friendly call, so the journalist obliged and told her which government agency had the source documentation. He received a later call requesting additional assistance, which he did not return. That message was followed by a progression of voice mails that made it clear that the Content reporter was actually fact-checking his story. The journalist reiterated that he had source documents in hand, that he had re-checked the math, and that he stood by both the story and the facts. He hasn’t heard from Content since. “It was all very odd.”
Warren says that if Content is what it purports to be, then recalcitrant reporters will have no choice but to take their calls.
“It all depends on the quality of it. If it is just kicking people in the groin, that’s one thing,” Warren says. “But if they are pointing out real outrages that are justified, I think it will gain legitimacy. It will rise or fall on the fairness of the reporting.” Just like every other publication I can think of, with or without Brill.
Watching the Detectives This week, Content almost lost one of its main competitorsand potential contributorson the news about the news: Post media critic Howard Kurtz. Kurtz reportedly had decided to edit the Post’s Sunday Style section last week, but by the time I called him Monday, he had taken himself out of the running. Kurtz is known to be tired of his job in the media chair and to pine for an office from which Big Decisions emanate. It’s not a new imperative: He worked on the national desk for a time and contended unsuccessfully for the Outlook section editing job, but was apparently convinced by Post editors to bide his time and forgo the Sunday Style slot.
“He has a really good writing billet, but Howard is clearly antsy,” says someone who has worked with him. “It’s clear to me that this isn’t something that he wants to do for the rest of his life. And because Howie is a brand name, he is marketable. If Howie wants to do some editing, then they better goddamn well figure out a way to accommodate the guy.”
Kurtz will not discuss his motives for seeking the job and his subsequent decision to remain on the media beat. An editor in town marvels at Kurtz’s ability to flee his own fame. “I can’t believe we are watching another edition of Kurtz’s chronicle to get away from what he’s good at,” he says.
Kurtz acknowledges that both he and the Post have a lot tied up in his beat: “It’s not like going out and hiring another Pentagon reporter.”
Post editors were reportedly interested in Kurtz because they want to rein in Sunday Style, which has displayed a bias toward occasionally quirky, highly readable features under former editor Gene Weingarten and now Richard Leiby. We can’t have that, now, can we?
Aftershocks The Sunday Style job isn’t the only plum currently dangling. National editor Karen DeYoung is leaving several beats unfilled, and people who work with her say she is clearly looking to make a move. Business editor David Ignatius, meanwhile, has already announced his plans to put down the red pen. He says he will take a six-month leave to finish his fifth novel and then will be showing up on the Op-Ed page with a column on business in all its cultural manifestations. Style editor David Von Drehle was reportedly itching to get back to reporting, but says he will be editing Style until at least the year 2000. All three were considered contenders for the managing editor job that Steve Coll came out of nowhere to seize, so their consideration of other options is not unexpected. The departures, whenever they occur, will give Coll an opportunity to install his own crew of loyalists.
A number of impressive hires will usher in the new order. Hanna Rosin, senior editor of the New Republic and a political columnist for New York magazine, will be covering religion for the highly agnostic Post. David Jackson, former Chicago Tribune projects reporter, will now be doing the same thing for the Post. (Full disclosure: Both Rosin and Jackson are friends.) And Michael Grundwald of the Boston Globe will be coming on board to cover the Justice Department. Coll declined to speak about any changes in editors but was more than happy to talk about the new writers.
“These are three really exciting hires who represent a lot of what I am looking to emphasize,” says Coll. “They are strong writers who think in provocative ways, and they represent a good chunk of the young talent in the business right now.”
Precision Newspapering On June 3, Post ace David Vise reported on a meeting between Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett and officials from the city’s bureau of parking enforcement. The upshot? A Page One gem revealing what parking scofflaws had long suspected: D.C.’s meter maids operate under a quota90 pink slips per day, to be exact. The Post reveled in its exclusive access to a meeting that the public would never have otherwise glimpsed.
The story failed to acknowledge that Barnett was taking aim at the one bastion of District efficiency, that the key quote was from a suburbanite who couldn’t be bothered with putting quarters in meters, and that there was no proof that undeserved tickets were being written. The Post and Barnett, fellow pander bears, might want to turn their big guns on something more substantial, like why quarters are the only thing we ever get from the suburbanites who work here.
Glass Repair Russ Smith of the New York Press has hired his share of perpetrators since starting the paper 10 years ago, and now he’s making a play for former New Republic fiction stylist Stephen Glass.
“I e-mailed him and called him, asking him to get in contact with me. I said I think you have been railroaded and I’d like to chat about the possibility of writing for the New York Press. He didn’t respond, and I don’t know if it’s going to come to anything, but when you have idiots like [the Post’s] Richard Cohen consigning Glass to flipping burgers for the rest of his life, my guess is that there is probably some talent there that is worth salvaging,” Smith said by phone.
Smith isn’t worried about keeping Glass’ sources and reporting transparent: “We have a good fact-checking department, unlike the New Republic, and unlike, apparently, George. Those New Republic stories wouldn’t have gotten through our people.” In all fairness to Smith, the Press specializes in more ornate embroideries that appear difficult to pat down. “Well, yeah, those first-person pieces about getting a blowjob aren’t checkable, but our people work very hard.”
“I’d just like to meet with him and talk to him and decide if he should work with us. Of course, everybody is looking for the big confessional piece from himthat’s the cum shotbut I would like him to write on other topics as well,” Smith says.
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs Matt Drudge, speaking at the National Press Club on his launch of a story about Newsweek’s decision to hold its Monica Lewinsky story: “I barricaded myself in the apartment. I was terrified, because from my Hollywood apartment a story of this magnitude was being born. I remember I teared up when I hit the enter button on that one that night, because I said, ‘My life won’t be the same after this.’ And it turned out to be right.” I guess the crocodile tears go well with the fedora.
Déjà Screw When I read the Sunday Metro piece in the New York Times at the end of May about the Queens library branch that was bustling with immigrants, it was as if I had already been there. And I had. A month before, Blaine Harden of the Post’s New York bureau had gone into the Times’ back yard and come up with a nicely rendered mosaic describing how the Queens library has become an intellectual Ellis Island for new Americans.
Those Were Different Times The Washington Times has been relentless in its pursuit of the Chinese influence-buying scheme involving the Clinton White House. All of the Times big hitters have swung in suggesting that political donations influenced Clinton’s decision to export satellite technology to China. It’s a meaty story with global implications, the kind of broad-based foreign intrusion into American affairs that we haven’t seen since…Koreagate. Remember that? A number of Koreans were charged with bribing U.S. officials in return for favorable treatment of Korean business interests. Prominent among them was Pak Bo Hi, a lieutenant of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, now owner of the Washington Times.
One-Paper Town The local Society of Professional Journalists awards banquet this week lacked two important components: suspense and the Post. The Post declined to enter contest submissions for the first time this year, presumably because it doesn’t even want to be mentioned in the same breath with the Times. Asked about the decision some time ago, Post editor Len Downie would only say, “We enter a lot of contests. I’m not quite sure why we didn’t enter this year.” The lack of competition didn’t stop Times staffers from going crazy at the banquet last Tuesday night every time the paper’s name was mentioned. They were No. 1, at least for one night.
Ginsburg’s Final Howl After William Ginsburg was dropped by Lewinsky, the reporters who had been busily sucking up to him with unlimited air time paused about three seconds before tearing off his arms and legs now that he was of no practical use. The Post’s Peter Baker, who had used Ginsburg to the fullest back when he was in full throat, seemed to take particular joy in throwing the first shovel of dirt on top of the suddenly portfolioless medical malpractice lawyer. “The decision to replace Ginsburg drew near-universal praise in the Washington legal community, where the mercurial Californian was viewed as a publicity-hungry amateur,” Baker sniped. David Carr
Research assistance provided by Eve Tushnet and Frappa Stout.
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