It’s been a little more than seven years since Inside.com and Brill’s Content cratered — and there are still days when it feels as if the piece of journalism I’m best known for is the obit I posted on Inside a couple of hours after the news was announced. At the time, the scribbling class was worried about what the bursting of the dot com bubble would mean for our future job prospects. Who knew we should have been more concerned about collateralized debt obligations?
Indeed, what’s going on today feels much worse than the collective belt-tightening that went on in the months after 9/11. In June, The Palm Beach Post, the first daily newspaper I worked for, cut its newsroom staff in half. The New York Sun, the newspaper that hired me immediately after Brill’s/Inside folded, shut its doors a little more than a month ago. Newsweek, where I landed next, has gone from hiring freezes to buyouts to staff cuts. And last week, Men’s Vogue, Mrs. FTM’s employer, announced that it was folding. (I know: technically it’ll still be publishing twice a year. But in reality it’s finished: every single employee save for the editor-in-chief was laid off.) I’m not sure if I should be thankful or terrified about the fact that I’m functionally self-employed…
But I digress. I’ve gotten several requests for the aforementioned obit…so here it is, in all of its nostalgic glory.
Inside.com and Brill’s Content to Close — This Time We Really Mean It
Awkward marriage between polar opposites on the hipness spectrum ends, as relationship between Steven Brill and Primedia unravels. 38 lose their jobs.
by Seth Mnookin
Monday, October 15, 2001
Brill’s Content and Inside.com, the church lady and swinging single of the myopic media world who got hitched in April, have been closed, victims of terrible publishing and Web economies and a strained relationship between Steven Brill and his major backer, Primedia.
The moves come as part of an announcement that Brill Media Holdings and Primedia, which owns 49 percent of the former, were unwinding their complicated relationship. Brill’s Content will cease publication immediately. Inside.com, which Brill Media Holdings has sold to Primedia, will live on in name only, becoming a portal for the Media Central publications like Folio:, Cable World and Inside Book Publishing Report. And the management of those Media Central titles will revert to Primedia, which ran them before its deal last January with Brill.
Thirty-eight people, including the author of this story, lost their jobs. And Steven Brill, the CEO of both Media Central and chairman and CEO of Brill Media Holdings, will leave after a three-month transition.
Both Brill and Primedia chairman Tom Rogers said in statements that the performance of the publications was not the cause of the closure. Neither man would comment to Inside.com on their relationship, but reportedly tensions between Brill and Primedia had grown; press reports in recent weeks have speculated that the once-close relationship between Brill and Rogers had soured to the point where it made working together impossible.
“To say you’re surprised at any media business finding it hard to remain in existence at this point would be silly,” says Inside co-founder Kurt Andersen, who along with Michael Hirschorn and Deanna Brown formed the media and entertainment news company in 1999 and sold it to Brill in April 2001. “If sheer quality were a guarantor of survivorship, there would be a lot of publications and Web sites around that are not.”
The announcement, which had been rumored and speculated about in print for weeks, finally came at 10:48 a.m. Monday in the form of an e-mail announcement from Brill. “I would like to meet with people who work primarily on Brill’s Content and Inside at 11 in the big conference room,” Brill wrote, in a message that everyone knew meant the end. An attached memo explained the minutiae of the divorce of what was already an almost comically complicated arrangement.
Andersen, who in a much-ridiculed statement bragged during the go-go year of the New Economy (June 1999 to May 2000, for those keeping score at home) that raising money was as easy as “getting laid in 1969,” said he didn’t know of anything that could have done differently. “There wasn’t some big mistake that Brill made or that we made,” he said.
While Inside will likely be remembered as a white-hot outfit, that, for a brief, shining moment early last year, seemed to be the center of an over-oxygenated media world, Brill’s Content will go down as an occasionally preachy, often confusing, but sometimes fascinating publication that never quite found its niche. It aimed to be a consumer title about the press in the same way that Sports Illustrated aimed to be a consumer title about sports, an ambitious plan done in, perhaps, by the fact that people don’t tend to gather at stadiums to root on their favorite media outlet.
The magazine came onto the scene with Steve Brill’s voluminous and damning portrayal of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s manipulation of the press through well-timed leaks. But the magazine went through editors and writers faster than a sugar-starved 10-year old goes through candy bars. Michael Kramer and Eric Effron both served as top editors under Brill; when David Kuhn took over as editor in chief in February 2000, Effron stayed on as his No. 2.
Kuhn, who had spent most of his career working with Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Talk, immediately juiced up the book. Under his watch, Abigail Pogrebin’s piece on Richard Blow’s confidentiality agreement with JFK, Jr. was largely responsible for squelching Blow’s book deal — which was recently resurrected, however. Pieces on writers Lynn Hirschberg and Alex Kuczynski were hipper and more knowing than the magazine had been known for, and the book’s political coverage was bulked up.
But the publication floundered this spring. At first, Inside’s print magazine and Brill’s Content were going to be joined to create Inside Content; that plan was scrapped several months later, and Brill’s Content was relaunched as a quarterly. While the fall issue of Brill’s was, by many accounts, the strongest issue produced, the notion of an academic-looking quarterly about the media world proved a hard sell.
As Michael Gartner, the magazine’s ombudsman, wrote in a column that will now never run: “Perhaps there’s something more irrelevant, somewhere, than an ombudsman’s column in a publication that just went quarterly in a world that just went hourly. Perhaps there is something more meaningless than worrying about the suddenly silly stories in a publication that zigged and zagged in the direction of Vanity Fair at precisely the time the world careered and careened in the direction of Jane’s Defense Weekly. … Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps. But I doubt it.”
Inside had a more consistent, and more consistently lauded, history. Andersen and Hirschorn, by dint of their reputations, personalities, and a now comical belief in the transformative powers of the Internet, attracted a top-notch staff, many of whom were hired as much for their rock-solid connections as for their journalistic bona fides. For example, David Carr, the disheveled, gruff and immensely popular media reporter, came up from Washington, D.C., where he had been editing City Paper to cover magazines and newspapers, while Kyle Pope was drawn from The Wall Street Journal to be the TV editor. (Both left soon after the merger with Brill.)
And Inside broke news. P.J. Mark’s piece on a book about a mysterious invention that was supposed to revolutionize travel and more, took on a life of its own. Other scoops included: Stephen Battaglio’s piece about Jeff Zucker getting the presidency of NBC Entertainment and Carr and Lorne Manly’s story on the closing of George magazine.
But the hoped-for mix of ad and circulation revenue never materialized. The Internet market collapsed, and people’s aversion to paying for content on the Web was hard to overcome.
“Of course it was fun,” Andersen said. “It’s always fun to create something that not only hasn’t existed before, but to create something that by almost every account was good from the get-go. I think we raised the bar, both in terms of speed, and knowingness and intelligence.”