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Tina Brown, pro and conBY: Dan Rottenberg 02.22.2011
Tina Brown, who recently took charge of the moribund Newsweek magazine, has been acclaimed as one of the world’s most successful magazine editors. But that depends on how you define success.
Tina Brown and the limits of hypeDAN ROTTENBERG
Tina Brown, who recently took charge of the moribund Newsweek magazine, has long cultivated a reputation for pumping fresh air into sleepy or struggling publications— first the Tatler of London, where she quadrupled circulation within five years; then Vanity Fair, which she stamped with her signature mixture of highbrow and lowbrow sensitivity; and then The New Yorker, where she substituted breezy reporting and eye-catching photography for the magazine’s previous diet of heavy reportage, literary criticism and fiction.
Her formula at all three magazines— as well as at Talk, which Brown launched in 1999 and folded barely two years later— was essentially the same: Use celebrities— any celebrities— to boost circulation. Stress wit over substance. Relentlessly pursue what’s hot to the neglect of what’s relevant.
Brown loved the idea of magazines per se but seemed to have no interest in any other ideas, causes or principles. On all topics she was a seeker of buzz, not truth.
Smoke and mirrors
Much of Brown’s alleged success was a matter of smoke and mirrors: When she took over The New Yorker in 1992, for example, its issues immediately grew heftier— not because they had more pages, but because Brown insisted on a heavier stock of paper. In any case, her fizzy formula fizzled after 9/11, when substance became the order of the day.
Although Tina Brown is routinely acclaimed as “one of the world’s most famous and accomplished editors” (as the New York Times put it on Monday), these plaudits always skirt what strikes me as a critical point: As far as I can tell, no magazine edited by Tina Brown has ever turned a profit, even for a single year. As the longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown observed in 2002, Tina Brown has lost money for every company she’s worked for.
To be sure, money is only one way to measure success. Tina Brown deserves credit for her willingness over the years to plunge into risky and troubled ventures. Still, is it too much to ask, before pronouncing an editor one of the world’s great success stories, that at some point in her career she demonstrate an ability to make as much money as she spends?
Nevertheless, throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s Brown played an important role that I suspect even she didn’t fully didn’t comprehend: In a pictorial age dominated by television, she almost single-handedly revived excitement in the printed word.
As writers as diverse as John Lukacs and Erica Jong have observed, letters are abstract objects that the brain must form into words. Consequently, the act of reading— even reading buzz— requires certain brain processes that don’t take place when one looks at pictures.
Two generations of Americans raised on TV largely lost the ability to think analytically because they were deprived of this exercise. The Internet has largely solved that problem. But Brown was addressing it, with surprising success, well before blogs and Twitter and Facebook came along.
I personally have no use for Tina Brown’s all-salt-no-food approach to editing. And I suspect her effort to save Newsweek will go up in flames. But for her willingness to jump into the cauldron on behalf of the printed word, she wins my deepest admiration.♦
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