Tina Brown in Aspen: Will the print world survive?
Editor’s note: An error appeared in the original story. It has been edited to reflect the correction.
ASPEN – Her career defined by propping up struggling publications with biting irreverence, social commentary and poignant journalism, renowned magazine editor Tina Brown isn’t ready to write the print industry’s obituary just yet.
In a conversation Friday night with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson at Paepcke Auditorium, Brown, 59, told a full house that newspapers and magazines remain relevant in a world infatuated with the Internet.
“I sometimes wonder if there will be newsstands,” she said. “But people thought when TV came along that radio” would disappear.
Brown, editor in chief of The Daily Beast website and Newsweek magazine, said she stays keenly aware of how people read. It’s indisputable that tablets and laptops have won over a number of readers, she said.
“When I look around an airplane cabin, it’s staggering to see everyone reading screens,” she said. “We all recognize that’s the direction where it’s heading.”
Even so, “print brings a different rhythm to the way one reads.”
The print industry’s setbacks have been compounded by the recession and the explosion of the Internet, where much of the content on news websites is free to readers.
It was Isaacson, in a 2009 cover story for Time magazine, who proposed so-called micropayments for online news stories, as one way to help publications bolster revenue. An increasing number of publications are adding paywalls to their websites, and Isaacson asked Brown if that’s in the future for The Daily Beast, an online news magazine that’s updated daily and launched in October 2008.
For the time being it’s not, she said.
“We’re watching the paywall thing intensely like everyone,” Brown said, “but we’re not doing that right now. The Beast has to grow its audience first.”
The Beast averages 14 million unique visitors a month and saw 74 percent growth in the last year, she said.
Brown’s decorated career – Isaacson gushed several times about her reputation as the “the best magazine editor in the world” – began to take off in 1979, when, at the age of 25, she took over a floundering British society magazine called Tatler.
On a paltry editorial budget of $10,000, Brown worked with such writers as Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, and she penned a sassy column taking aim at London bachelors under the pseudonym Rosie Boot.
“We became the go-to shop for everything,” she said. “Lady Diana Spencer was to Tatler what O.J. was to CNN.”
Edgy stories and columns, and a focus on buzz-worthy topics, sucked in readers, Brown said.
“If you don’t have a budget, get yourself a point of view,” she said, prompting Isaacson to deem her comment “Tweetable.”
The approach worked at the Tatler, and Brown’s next stop was to resurrect Vanity Fair magazine in 1983. At the time it had 12 pages of advertisements and a circulation of 250,000. Her mission, Brown said, was to offer the “seduction of great photography and the crackle of witty prose.”
Her ace writer was investigative journalist Dominick Dunne, and photographer Annie Leibovitz’s image of a pregnant and naked Demi Moore, which appeared on the cover of the August 1991 edition of Vanity Fair, is a classic.
“We had no idea it was going to become a runaway sensation … years later it still gets reproduced. Stars now have to do pregnant covers,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience
Brown was lured away to the New Yorker in 1992, becoming the first female at the helm of a magazine that had just three previous editors in its then 73-year history.
Brown’s appearance was part of the ongoing McCloskey Speaker Series, held in conjunction with The Aspen Institute.
The series continues Wednesday with A Conversation with Republican Governors, which will include Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.
Tickets are on sale at http://www.aspenshowtix.com.
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