Luke O’Brien, writing for the left-wing Politico, details at great length the story of how The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown blew through $100 million of other people’s money (Barry Diller’s and Sidney Harman’s) on what amounted to a Tina Brown vanity project: resurrecting the already-failed Newsweek. Brown was already overseeing the fairly new Daily Beast in 2010, when Diller, Harman, and Brown got together to make the fateful deal.
You’ll want to read the whole piece to make your own assessment, but using direct quotes from the story, here are the 13 moments that doomed Newsweek and would finally drive Tina out of the magazine business (for now).
1. Barry Diller tells Sidney Harman At The Beginning Of the Venture…
You have to let Tina be the editor she is, Diller told Harman. Making her into something she’s not simply won’t work.
2. Zombie Diana Cost Newsweek Its Reputation and Advertisers:
Under pressure to produce, Brown fell back on her old magazine tricks. In late June 2011, the deceased Princess Diana made a cover appearance in Brown’s redone Newsweek. But not just any Diana. Brown chose to reanimate the princess, wrinkle her face and depict her walking down a present-day street with Kate Middleton. “Zombie Diana,” the staff called it. …
Zombie Diana was more than just a publicity headache. Two business sources from Newsweek say that after the cover appeared, Apple wasn’t pleased to see its iPhone in the paws of a dead princess, and a major Apple ad buy, which one of the sources said amounted to close to $500,000, did not materialize.
3. The Staff Realizes Tina Can’t Cash the Check Written By Her Reputation:
“We all knew going in she had this reputation of being obnoxious and difficult to work with but that she’s brilliant like Steve Jobs,” says one former Newsweek editor. “What we realized is that she wasn’t brilliant. She was actually pretty bad. That was the shocking thing. There was really no hand on the tiller.”
4. Tina Uses a Gimmick-Cover To Attack Michele Bachman:
For a cover of Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, Brown chose a photo of the Tea Party queen that looked like a Charles Manson mug shot and that now appears on the first page of image results when one googles “crazy eyes.” Senior editors pushed back. Brown overruled them. In fact, she wanted to find a photo that made Bachmann look even crazier, according to several sources. It didn’t exist.
5. Tina Has Too Much Money and No Idea What She Wants:
Others came to think that Brown’s fickle management style–hardly unique among top editors–was leading to troubling inefficiencies at a publication that could barely afford to buy ink. Staffers would get roped into ad hoc meetings where Brown would say things like, “I feel like Chicago is really hot right now. What can we do about Chicago?”
6. Seriously, Tina Had No Idea What She Wanted:
“We would be so frustrated,” one young former staffer told me, “because she would literally spend half of our annual salaries on these pieces that would not run at all. It was very disheartening.”
7. I’m Not Kidding About Tina Having No Idea What She Wanted:
The magazine’s cover shoots also cost a pretty penny. Brown would dictate what she wanted–for example, a woman climbing a ladder in a power suit in heels with a pencil skirt–and if one detail nonplussed her, she would throw out everything. One cover shoot involved setting Charlie Sheen on fire and cost about $20,000–it never resulted in a cover.
8. One Thing Tina Did Want Was … It All:
But Brown was racking up other bills, too. She launched an ambitious TV effort, building a studio in the NewsBeast offices. She threw dozens of occasionally lavish book parties at her home. More than a few were treated as work expenses, according to several sources. She would jet off to events like the Jaipur Literature Festival with several assistants.
9. Tina’s Staffers Are Still Traumatized:
Her top editors were powerless to help right the magazine’s course, and stress levels among NewsBeast upper management spiked to a point that people–even now, three years removed–describe the experience with terms like “PTSD” and “out-of-body experience.” One person told me, “She made The Devil Wears Prada look sane.”
10. One Time When Tina Knew What She Wanted It Was So Retro and Stupid….
“It was shocking that someone who ran a website that was entirely built around this idea that she would capture the zeitgeist and thought she knew what was hot would put Regis Philbin and Jerry Seinfeld on the cover,” says another former Newsweek writer. “It was insane.”
11. …That the Result Was “Bloody Monday,” The Beginning Of the End:
When Brown heard about the uproar, she says, she called the office and laced into Weber for not giving Boyer a heads-up. “Tom, why the fuck didn’t you call Peter Boyer?” she shouted. But Weber had had enough. He had been telling Brown for weeks that he might not be the best fit for the direction the magazine was heading. Now he told her he was done. Over the weekend, Weber packed up his office. The next Monday–Bloody Monday–he met Brown for breakfast near the office to officially resign. The meeting was cordial, but Brown had to dash off. In what was perhaps an accidental moment of frugality, she stuck Weber with the bill.
12. The ‘Blow Job’ Cover:
…to a “food porn” cover shot for a piece about the world’s best restaurants. “I want a woman giving a blow job to pasta,” Brown told her art department at the time. The pasta later got switched out for a stock photo of asparagus.
Sometime during all of this, Sidney Harman died. His widow, Jane, said she fulfilled her husband’s wish to pour $40 million into Newsweek. She then turned off the money spigot. On the seat-back TV of an airplane, Tina learned that Diller was pulling the plug. Newsweek as a print magazine was done. Not long afterwards, Brown would resign from the Daily Beast.
Tina Brown spoke to Politico for their article. Which means…
….you get to read a quote from a left-wing Democrat who blames one of the biggest failures in publishing history in part on an “intractable union”:
“You know, you try it. You try taking over a magazine that was already dead, that was losing a fortune, that had an intractable union as well, so you were carrying 80 people who you couldn’t even replace, where you didn’t have any management left. At one point, I was having to be the editor, the managing editor and the executive editor. I mean, it was agony.”
If Tina Brown wasn’t real we would have to make her up.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC