Four years ago, after the Internet business I ran collapsed, I became a columnist writing about life in the media world. A few weeks ago, Tina Brown, whose media life I have written about with great interest, started a post-defeat column of her own -- also about life in the media. Possibly she admired my style of finessing failure. Of course, there are other models she might have been following. Steve Brill, for instance, went to Newsweek to write a column after closing Brill's Content and exiting his other enterprises. Or there's Kurt Andersen, who, after his business, Inside.com, folded, started a columnlike show on public radio.
Conversely, there's Bob Greene at the Tribune, who fell from grace and lost his column (proving that we can all fall farther still).
What people do when confronted by failure is clearly a large question of the moment, especially for people of the boom -- do we struggle or do we retreat? What media people do in the throes of failure may well be of even greater magnitude and entertainment value -- because it involves getting back on the horse in public. It's a fight against obscurity. (There could be instances of media narcissists who become merely private people, but, of course, we wouldn't know that -- and, at any rate, it's unlikely.)
The most frequently asked question about Tina Brown in the months since her magazine folded has been: "What do you think she will do next?" I've been asked this question on a regular basis by media pros as well as by media passersby (my mother, for one, is very interested).
The assumption here is not only that Tina won't give up and that she will have a second (or third or fourth) act but that she will demonstrate some unique survival skills. She is an operator and will figure out the best way to operate -- so we should pay attention.
While I am as interested as anybody in success and failure strategies, what is most curious to me, as a media columnist, about the advent of these columns born of media failure is what it says about the business itself -- what insights can be gleaned from the power adjustments and career moves of the permanent media class.
It's like politics, perhaps, and where politicians go when they're thrown out of office and what this says about how power is held and transferred. Is a column the equivalent, say, of a perch in a law firm or investment bank? Or is it like a choice appointive position, one with tons of patronage? (The ability to bestow a kind word in a column is, after all, a kind of patronage.) Or is it a judicial move? (A column is something like a kangaroo-court judgeship.)
Of course, there is here a much larger, nearly existential question about the nature of media success and failure. In no business do we capitalize those words so emphatically as we do in the media business -- worshiping Success and demonizing Failure (Jerry Levin, for instance, late of AOL Time Warner, whom Tina has been particularly harsh toward in her column, has been telling people how unfair it is that his entire career is being judged on the basis of one deal). Success and Failure are our ultimate subjects (and nobody has made them more alpha and omega than Tina herself).
What's more, many of us, reaching a post-midlife stage -- Tina turns 50 this coming year, as do I -- and in the midst of what looks more and more like a long and fearful economic malaise, obviously find a heightened personal resonance in the Success and Failure themes. While there may be more than one act, there aren't endless acts. What we do now might be . . . well . . . We had better get it right.
Tina's new column, running weekly in the Times of London, is audacious. Brill's Newsweek column, on the other hand, is earnest. It has a quality of good works about it -- community service. Andersen's public-radio gig is -- public radio. It's nicely self-effacing (and only slightly smug).
But Tina, with determination, has launched herself back into the fray.
She's using her new column to flip from being a figure of the Zeitgeist -- and to some extent its victim -- to a definer of it (interestingly, she began as a Zeitgeist definer, realized there was more profit in being a Zeitgeist figure, and now has come back to being a definer again -- a much safer place).
Cattiness is her column's métier. She's stylish and crass (always her stock-in-trade).
She is Clare Boothe Luce -- a figure of café society as well as one of its representational painters. (Truman Capote once tried, and failed, to assume this role.)
Or, possibly, Tina is Dick Morris (who went on to write a column after he was ejected from the Clinton White House).
She is very much the insider who, with little left to lose, sees clear advantage in being willing to tell -- or seeming to tell -- all. The betrayals obviously please her -- she cackles.