Are they wired for the Web?
It wasn’t so long ago that Tina Brown and Bonnie Fuller were busy transforming entire magazine genres. They lived on opposite ends of the taste spectrum -- Brown edited Vanity Fair and the New Yorker; Fuller revamped Glamour, then reinvented the celebrity gossip concept at Us Weekly and later Star -- but the two had a similar formula: a willingness to throw out the old model, a feel for where the culture was heading and a forward-driving tenacity that became legendary in media circles.
Then old-media companies mostly stopped generating the large, ambitious projects Fuller and Brown had cut their teeth on, and both editors stepped away from magazines. Now this summer finds both embarked on -- what else? -- Web start-ups.
Fuller has started a Web company aimed at women ages 20 to 40, focusing on -- what else? -- celebrity news. Brown will run a news and culture site called the Daily Beast (after the fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, “Scoop”), which is funded by Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp and will launch in the fall.
Brown and Fuller arrive with hefty resumes in a space where success in other quarters has not always proved transferable.
What tends to hit on the Web is the home-grown, the grass-roots, the improvisational. Can either woman succeed on the Web, where all of their seeming advantages may turn out to be old-media baggage?
“Not everyone crosses over so easily,” said Kara Swisher, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and columnist who is now co-executive editor of the tech news and opinion site All Things Digital. “But you never know who’s going to do well.”
Others are even less optimistic.
Michael Wolff, the acerbic Vanity Fair columnist whose spectacular Internet start-up failure in the ‘90s was documented in his 1998 book, “Burn Rate,” is one who thinks the key to success on the Internet lies entirely in understanding and innovating with technology, an area where neither Fuller nor Brown has shown much leadership.
“I am very fond of Bonnie,” Wolff said. “There is no one in modern America who knows less about the Internet than Bonnie Fuller. Second to Bonnie Fuller is only Tina Brown.”
And last week, scolding new-media tycoon Nick Denton took some potshots at Brown’s new project on his media gossip blog Gawker, calling her “the notoriously profligate Tina Brown” and suggesting that her site would fail because she would not be able to help spending Diller’s money too freely.
But Brown and Fuller are used to being doubted (and criticized) in the media, and both have proved by now that they can’t be counted out lightly.
Building on her rep
If media pedigree did matter, the British-born Brown would have a nice head start. She jazzed up Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and, with studio chief Harvey Weinstein, started the short-lived, much-derided Talk. More recently, Brown hosted a semi-obscure cable TV-culture-chat show and wrote a bestselling biography of Princess Diana. She is almost finished writing a book about Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Exactly what kind of creature the Daily Beast will be, beyond falling into the category of “news aggregator” -- a site that links to other news sources on the Web -- has been the subject of much speculation. Brown was not available for comment, and a representative would say only that the site would target “curious, busy and besieged professionals” with some undetermined amount of original content and a focus on culture as well as news.
Fuller is still looking for partners, financing and advertiser support for her new company. The plan is to bring to the Web her brand of what she calls “addictive content,” her trademark mix of celebrity news and girlfriend-to-girlfriend advice on fashion, sex and relationships.
Wolff, whose latest venture is a news site of his own called Newser, is not afraid of throwing water on the passions of other media figures. But he is not alone in cautioning that the Web is so different from print publications as to make the vast majority of crossover dreams seem “preposterous. It’s like, ‘I’m a theater person and I’m going to go into the movie business,’ ” he said. “Only in the rarest of circumstances do those people succeed.”
One who did pull it off is Arianna Huffington, who went from syndicated political columnist to media mogul by starting the Huffington Post with just a handful of employees. Fuller and Brown, Swisher said, “have got to be looking at [Huffington] and saying, ‘I can do that.’ ”
Fuller, for her part, said she is fully aware of the importance of technology and intends to use it to her advantage: “Digital technology is key to a unique online experience,” she said, appropriately enough, by e-mail. “The voice I bring to this experience can be extended and ultimately deepened through technology.”
Huffington, too, was no technology expert and had not distinguished herself on the Web (pre-Post, she was a medium-wattage columnist, author and media commentator). For All Things Digital’s Swisher, it’s mainly about “using the Web well, the way people like.” So although the celebrity-gossip space Fuller is entering is crowded, it also seems able to accommodate variety. Eighteen separate gossip sites attracted more than a million unique visitors in June.
“We believe that there is always great room for celebrity coverage,” Fuller wrote in her e-mail. “I found that when we grew Us Weekly and then at Star . . . there was no shortage of a consumer appetite for celebrity coverage. When you do something well, with its own distinct point of view, you can always find an audience.”
Fuller has dipped her toe in the digital river by blogging for the Huffington Post. She has been averaging one or two posts a month -- an alarmingly relaxed pace for someone with Web ambitions -- on such trustworthy topics as 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy and Anne Hathaway’s boyfriend troubles. Ever canny, Fuller tries to mix a little politics in with the celebrity for the liberal Huffington Post audience, offering this optimistic post in April: “Hillary Clinton and Madonna: Both Unbowed and Uncowed -- They’re Virtually the Same, and They Will Rule!”
Point of view
Brown’s site is entering a more volatile area. Andrew Breitbart, who was a contributor to the Drudge Report and an early developer of the Huffington Post, noted that news aggregators are not a straightforward business.
“They [aggregators] need to figure out something else, a point of view,” he said.
The Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, two of the most popular aggregators, depend on their political slants -- Drudge to the right, Huffington Post to the left -- to define and capture their audiences. Brown’s site will not have a particular political orientation. Instead, the goal will be identifying stories that are interesting to a broad, upscale audience of culture consumers, and adapting to that audience’s patterns and preferences.
One certainty is that in the news aggregrator realm, technology plays a central role. Wolff’s Newser, for example, lets users slide a grid that customizes the page to show a particular number of stories at a time and to choose whether the stories are mainly “hard” -- “serious, important and immediate new” or “soft,” “cultural, lifestyle, and celebrity news.” (The Drudge Report may be the exception; some say a part of its appeal is its low-tech feel, a practically prehistoric-looking design with headlines crowded onto a plain white page with just a few straight-up photos.)
Even Drudge faces the encroachment of automated sites such as Yahoo news and the even more popular user-driven aggregrator sites like Digg, which rank stories by how many readers “vote” for them as they appear around the Web.
The Digg model has the advantage of being a direct product of the Web’s conversational, free-for-all spirit. Many Web seers predict Digg’s popularity-contest model will triumph over hand-edited, sensibility-driven sites like Brown’s.
But Huffington expressed a sentiment common to those who have taken the Web plunge: “One of the best things about the new media is that it’s not a zero-sum game. The more sites there are offering smart, compelling content, the more people will get their news, opinion and entertainment online.”
She had just one piece of advice for Web upstarts, as they leave behind the more human-scaled rhythms of the print world: “Be prepared to move quickly!”