If you’re a magazine journalist writing in English, Tina Brown’s session at THiNK is the one you were probably waiting for, to hear in these perilous times for print publications a note of optimism for our future. Brown, a polarising editor — iconoclastic, daring, flamboyant or a media luvvy, a compulsive vulgarizer adept at self-promotion — is also one who has shaped the vernacular of the contemporary magazine. But Brown, who recently left Newsweek in a cloud of recrimination and schadenfreude, hasn’t got a magazine project for the first time in decades and envisages a future in which verbal communication supersedes the written word. At least in the form of the long-form magazine narrative.
Brown’s signature is the low-high mix, using Hollywood and the beautiful people to seduce readers into an essay by, say, William Styron on depression. It’s how she revivedÂ Vanity Fair. In her version, the magazine had become self-serious and staid, “putting Philip Roth on the cover in black and white with his finger up his nose”. Brown had moved from London to New York, excited about the latter’s long faded glamour — she wanted to stay at the Algonquin because of Dorothy Parker, not realising it had become a place for “Iranian hookers” — and quickly, sweepingly transformed America’s magazine culture.
She hired Dominick Dunne, whose pieces on trials and scandalous murders became a sensation, “the closest thing”, Brown says, “at the time to Truman Capote”. Brown also made great use of photographers, Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton who she sent on assignments with Dunne to produce edgy, kinky, utterly individual photographs. Brown took her low-high aesthetic to theÂ New Yorker, a beloved institution however faded or, in Brown’s words, “sleepy and self-important”.
At theÂ New Yorker, Brown admits, though it is difficult imagine, to being a little overawed. She was “very careful”, her natural inclination towards “iconoclasm” muzzled by respect. But she did get over it, building an extraordinary stable of writers that survive at the magazine today under David Remnick (himself a Brown hire). While her time at the helm is the subject of some scorn in certain media circles, any editorship which includes the discoveries of Malcolm Gladwell, Lawrence Wright, Jane Mayer and the acerbic, brilliant film critic Anthony Lane can’t have been all or even mostly bad. Brown also introduced Richard Avedon to the New Yorker, part of its transition under her to a more stylish, less smug magazine.
TalkÂ magazine, Brown’s next venture, launched in 1999 with an infamously spectacular party on a boat — the party at which Salman Rushdie met Padma Lakshmi — was a failure, one she typically, combatively defends. It was on the verge of a breakthrough, while competing with the much better fundedÂ Vanity FairÂ andÂ New Yorker, when 9/11 happened and “the whole advertising market collapsed”. She bounced back with a web site, The Daily Beast (named after the newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’sÂ Scoop) until her recent fall from grace.
But Brown is not one to take a bruising without putting up a fight. She insists that the future is in conferences, THiNK-style if you like, and runs her own successful gatherings, salons. In an interview with theÂ Financial TimesÂ she described what she does now as creating “sexy brain food”. In a high-flying career, perhaps what she has always excelled at is putting the right people in the same room together.
If the magazine as Tina Brown knew and helped create is dying, and news, as she accurately if depressingly suggests, is being lost to commercial considerations to the point that it is hard to tell editorial from advertising, perhaps she’s getting out at the right time. It is, Tina says, “a very very pathetic moment in journalism”. But it’s also a self-serving suggestion. Tina Brown is out of magazines, so magazines are no longer worth reading. She remains controversial, self-involved, and always, always, good copy.