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The Insiders

Two clever old-media guys just launched Inside.com, which has everybody in the business asking, "Does this change everything?" While they wonder, will they pay?

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So I organized this conference about old media and new media, and Kurt Andersen didn't show up. Arthur Sulzberger, Norm Pearlstine, and CNBC.com's Pamela Thomas-Graham were on the stage at the Museum of Modern Art, where the conference was held, but Kurt's chair was empty. For a second, I found myself envying his timing -- he would, I was sure, make a perfectly charming and apologetic entrance. Then I began to get worried when he really didn't show.

"Have we heard anything?" I asked with concern as soon as I got off the stage.

"We've heard he won't cross the picket line," said a stage manager with a walkie-talkie. There were a few pickets outside, assistant curators and clerical staff having a wage dispute with the museum.

"Kurt?" It was a startling idea: Kurt Andersen, the working man's friend.

It can't be true, said editors at this magazine, which he edited for two years; he must have overslept. There was, suddenly, speculation about the health of his new business, Inside.com. Maybe his just-announced $23 million second round of financing had fallen through. Others figured it for a publicity ploy -- his absence would get more attention than his presence.

I got angrier throughout the day that he hadn't said a word about this when I'd seen him the day before and that he'd give some greater deference to people he didn't know (in a dispute that had no relation to the conference he was supposed to attend) than to a friend (me). When I got home and found the e-mail he'd sent at 9:40 that morning (obviously knowing I wouldn't see it before the conference), I shot off a fuck you e-mail to him, which he returned immediately professing innocence, with me responding that this was a personal betrayal, then his saying he didn't realize it meant so much to me and apologizing profusely, until, shortly, we were (mostly) friends again.

All this I tell you in the spirit of media insiderism (not just out of residual irritation). Indeed, numerous media insiders, and various reporters who report on media insiders, have called me for these inside details on Kurt's snub.

"Without the prospective climax of an IPO, Inside.com looks a lot like the old publishing business -- much to the horror of Inside.com's VC investors."

So? What is this information worth? Is it of passing interest or consuming interest? Will knowing the above help you do your job better? Will it help you get richer? Will you pay (or will your boss pay) for more such inside dope? These would seem to be questions central to the mission and the business prospects of Inside.com, which opened its doors a few days ago.

Kurt and his partners Michael Hirschorn and Deanna Brown might argue that my example is unfair, too inside-baseball, self-serving even -- though self-servingness seems inevitable when media insiders cover media insiders for other media insiders. And, of course, it's possible that, with a staff of 72, Inside.com will be able to offer juicier insider tales. But you know where I'm going.

One of the reasons, I think, media insiders are so fixated on the prospects of Inside.com ("What do you think of the chances for Kurt's thing?" media insiders ask with lowered voices) is that if it is a success, many of us will be kicking ourselves. Such a success would mean that we missed the commercial significance of what was right in front of our noses -- that we missed the commercial significance of our own lives!

Kurt's idea (in the spirit of insiderism, I understand it was really Michael's idea, which he brought to Kurt, who in turn took it to his Harvard chum Jim Cramer -- founder of TheStreet.com and the model for one of the central characters in Kurt's novel about the media, Turn of the Century -- who pitched it to Flatiron Partners, TheStreet.com's VC backers, who, together with Cramer, put up the first round of dough) is an idea that has been kicking around in various forms for some time. In the early nineties, Adam Moss, now the editor of The New York Times Magazine, gave serious thought to starting such a media insider's magazine, called The Industry, but was unable to get it off the ground. There's Mediaweek, an anemic Adweek offshoot, and Media Industry Newsletter, a three-person shop, and there was, briefly, Inside Media, which tanked a few years ago. And then there is Brill's -- such an idea for a big-circulation magazine about the media was an obviously cockamamie notion to everyone but writers who wrote about the media, and Brill himself.

Kurt, however, is not publishing a magazine, which makes his (or Michael's) idea much more appealing. At the same time, another of the reasons Inside.com has attracted so much interest on the part of media insiders is that, while it is not a magazine, it is really a magazine. That is, though you could not do this as a paper magazine, you could raise $30 million to do an Internet version of something very similar to what you might have done in print. Hence, lots of old-media types believe that if Inside.com succeeds, there will be all sorts of new opportunities for old-media folk and old-media ideas on the Internet.

Many people suspect, of course, that what Kurt and Michael and Deanna had in mind, like other late-nineties entrepreneurs, was to launch Inside.com as an Internet concept, raise money quickly, and, with Kurt as the titular head, build brand overnight -- Kurt, in other words, as Dr. Koop -- and then make their profits on an IPO.

Kurt has been widely quoted as saying (I'm sure he regrets saying it now) that it was as easy to raise money in this era as it was to get laid in 1969 (when, as it happens, Kurt was 14).

Of course, the fact that the moment of such easy money seems to have passed, and that the chances of doing a lollapalooza IPO are significantly more remote, says nothing about whether this will be a good business or a bad business. That Kurt is here on the curve (not yet having spent the money he's raised) rather than where Dr. Koop is on the curve (having spent it) is, actually, good news.


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