Tina Brown, former editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, says Newsweek needs to be both “seductive and serious.”The debut of Tina Brown’s Newsweek will, in fact, look nothing like the opening of her last magazine, Talk in 1999, an extravagant exercise in self-promotion and impossibly high expectations that came back to haunt her when that magazine closed after barely two years.
“We’re sort of done with that,” Ms. Brown said in an interview from Newsweek’s spare, sterile new office space near Wall Street, insisting that the kind of A-list soirée that helped define her tenures as editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and then Talk would have no place at her current home, where humility and frugality are the rule.
Tina Brown, with Stephen Colvin, chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company, is keeping her magazine redesign top secret.
“I think the most important thing is to prove that a year from now we’re thriving and still here,” she said. “Maybe we’ll have a little Christmas party,” she added in a sober tone that betrayed none of her usual sardonic wit. “We have a lot of work to do.”
It is easy to see why Ms. Brown, 57, is eager to avoid any hoopla or hype surrounding her plan to turn Newsweek around. She has not even revealed the date when her fully redesigned magazine will appear on newsstands, though one person briefed on the closely guarded and evolving plan said March 7 was the current target date.
The charge before her — breathing life into a magazine that much of the publishing world left for dead — is as difficult as any she has faced in a 35-year career that brought her recognition as one of the world’s most famous and accomplished editors.
Newsweek has been starved for advertising revenue in the last year as it has languished like a ghost ship — first without a buyer after The Washington Post Company put it up for sale in May, and then without an editor as its new owner, the 92-year-old stereo mogul Sidney Harman, struggled to fill the job. The number of ad pages in the magazine through Monday was down 59 percent compared with a year earlier, a greater drop than that for any other weekly or biweekly magazine tracked by the Media Industry Newsletter.
And there is the much larger question of whether a weekly magazine is still a viable format for delivering the news.
Publishing veterans are not focused on whether Ms. Brown can sustain Newsweek as readers have come to know it during the last 78 years. What she needs to do, they say, is create a whole new magazine from scratch.
“Whether it can be saved is irrelevant,” said Ron Galotti, the former Vanity Fair publisher, who worked with Ms. Brown at Condé Nast and left the company with her to help start Talk. “What is to be created is the task.”
The Newsweek job is not one Ms. Brown initially wanted. When merger talks between her Daily Beast Web site and Mr. Harman collapsed in the fall, Ms. Brown told her employees she felt unburdened. She framed the magazine’s troubles as worthy of Greek mythology, telling some of them that editing the magazine would have been like “rolling a boulder up a hill,” according to one person who spoke of Ms. Brown’s remarks anonymously for fear of offending her by recounting a private conversation.
Ask some of the biggest names in publishing whether Newsweek can be saved and after a long pause, they all say that if anyone can pull it off, it is Ms. Brown.
“Tina’s track record is indisputable and her talents and energies immense,” said David Remnick, who succeeded Ms. Brown as editor of The New Yorker in 1998. “The riddle of what a newsweekly should be has been in the air for many years and long preceded the incredible acceleration and obliteration of news cycles in the world of the Internet, so it will be fascinating to see where she takes Newsweek.”
Ms. Brown won acceptance to Oxford at 16. As a young writer, she caught the eye and heart of Harold Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times of London and now her husband of nearly 30 years.
At 25, she took over the Tatler of London and quickly quadrupled its circulation. At 30, she was in New York running Vanity Fair. She supercharged the magazine with her signature high-low sensibility, which created a template for the magazine that defines it to this day. It was Ms. Brown who hired Annie Leibovitz, often at exorbitant cost, to shoot indelible images, like a naked, pregnant Demi Moore for the cover in August 1991, an issue that also featured heavier fare like an article on Saddam Hussein’s grip on power in Iraq.
Her success in reviving Vanity Fair impressed Condé Nast’s chairman, S. I. Newhouse Jr., so much, he asked her to take over his cherished New Yorker in 1992. She challenged conventions there as well, stripping the magazine of much of its stodgy feel and de-emphasizing fiction writing for long reported pieces on current events and breezy feature articles. Circulation and newsstand sales soared.
She left to start Talk in 1998, and after it folded, she hosted a show on CNBC and wrote a book about Princess Diana. She also showed an appetite for getting back into magazine editing. When Time was looking for a new managing editor in 2006, she approached people there about the job. The magazine’s leadership chose Richard Stengel, a Time veteran.
Before taking the reins at Newsweek, Ms. Brown had been editing The Daily Beast, an online media partnership she began with Barry Diller in 2008.
With the Newsweek-Daily Beast merger complete — the companies agreed to combine in November, and they officially closed on the deal late last month — she has quickly thrown herself into overhauling the magazine. She has adapted her famous, at times infamous, ways of running a staff to suit the technological and economic realities of 2011. But there is still plenty of vintage Tina Brown to go around.
Gone are the faxes that would stream from her office at all hours; she conducts much of her written correspondence on her BlackBerry these days, eliminating the need for drivers to shuttle drafts of articles to her weekend house. It is not uncommon for her senior editors to find themselves barraged with e-mail from her predawn or on weekends.
“Her energy and her capacities are stunning to me, and she is at it all the time,” Mr. Harman said in an interview. “I pull myself out of the sack in the morning and there she is talking to me on ‘Morning Joe.’ ”
Known for wanting only stories that were, in her vernacular, “hot” — she would scrawl “hot” or “v. hot” on drafts of articles she deemed the proper temperature needed to generate the buzz she sought — she now speaks of Newsweek as needing to be both “seductive and serious.”
Ms. Brown would not reveal anything about the contents of the redesigned magazine or its debut. “We’re only going to do it when we’re ready, let’s put it that way,” she said in the interview. Between answering questions, she clicked through her BlackBerry, scanning e-mail.
“I think that big, sort of theatrical relaunches tend to set you up for failure and hype,” she added. “And you know we — I — went through that at Talk magazine, and it was a mistake.”
People outside the magazine who have seen the current prototype described it as recognizable as Newsweek in name only. The paper is thicker and glossier. There are more photographs and a greater use of white space. It incorporates The Daily Beast brand in a new section called NewsBeast. Advertisers have been told the back page will be a column written by a different notable figure each week discussing a professional blunder. Joe Scarborough wrote the one in the prototype being circulated now, which Newsweek executives never let out of their hands.
“From what I saw, it’s night and day,” said George Janson, an executive with the ad buyer GroupM. “Its look, its energy is much more stylish.”
As familiar as the process of magazine reinvention is to Ms. Brown, there are notable differences this time. Financially, she has less flexibility. When Mr. Harman has spoken of his financial plan for the magazine, he has told people privately that he is giving the magazine three years to succeed and can afford to lose about $40 million in that time, several people who have spoken with him said. Anything exceeding that amount, he has said, would affect what he is able to leave to his heirs.
By contrast, Newsweek’s expenses last year ran $40 million in the third quarter alone. The operation is considerably smaller now because of buyouts, layoffs and resignations. More buyouts were offered last week, and Mr. Harman said the staff of the combined Daily Beast/Newsweek would soon be smaller than the about 350 people that Newsweek had when he bought it.
Ms. Brown also acknowledged that readers’ appetites had changed since she last edited a magazine. “You have to basically make the assumption that they have absolutely no interest in you whatsoever,” she said. “There is so little attention to spare, you have to make sure that where their window of attention is open, you’re in.”
In her previous jobs, Ms. Brown was famous for scooping up prominent writers and putting them on expensive contracts that would require only a few articles a year while preventing them from writing for competitors. She said that practice would be nonexistent at Newsweek, where she has been looking to hire more writers paid by the article.
“What we cannot have is what the old-style magazines had, where people are supported to do not a ton of pieces,” she said.
Ms. Brown has a salary in the $700,000 range, according to one person briefed on her negotiations with Mr. Harman. Mr. Harman declined to comment. That amount is not wildly high for an editor with as high a profile as Ms. Brown’s.
Holding costs down is one thing. Turning a profit is another. And Ms. Brown’s magazines have generally proven better at spending money than earning it.
The New Yorker broke into the black in 2002, four years after she left but also for the first time since Condé Nast bought it in 1985. Ms. Brown points out that the magazine’s losses had slowed significantly by the time she left.
At Vanity Fair, Ms. Brown had a reputation for spending lavishly on writers and photographers, expenses that put the magazine deeply in debt. But in her final years as editor, it began to turn a profit, though not every year, according to one person with knowledge of Vanity Fair’s business. This person spoke only on the condition of anonymity because Condé Nast is private and does not release specific financial information.
Whether The Daily Beast has been the success that Ms. Brown had hoped it would be is a matter of some debate. It initially lost about $10 million a year, but executives said that advertising had picked up in the last year and that they expected profitability “in the next few years,” according to Stephen Colvin, chief executive of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company. Unique visitors to the site have leveled off in the range of two million to three million a month over the last year, according to comScore, the Internet traffic research firm.
The task of taking two money-losing operations and combining them to try to become one profitable enterprise has struck many in the media business as fanciful. This is not lost on Mr. Harman.
“What I wanted to know was whether there was a shot at this thing breaking even,” Mr. Harman said, reflecting on his thoughts after he bought the magazine. “But I’m looking at this thing and saying to myself: ‘Son of a gun. I think we got a business here.’ My expectation is it will surely break even.”