Tina Brown’s NewsBeast has suffered some very high-profile departures in the past week — the publisher, the managing editor, the executive editor. And now John Koblin of Women’s Wear Daily draws back the curtain, via a coterie of leaking, disgruntled staffers detailing the organizational problems that brought about those departures and questioning the direction of the magazine. If that sounds familiar, it’s because similar questions were raised about Newsweek under its last editor, Jon Meacham. The difference is the editors’ sensibility: Meacham was criticized for being out of touch with contemporary culture, whereas reports of improvisational decision-making and endless last-minute changes are the same things people have been saying about Tina Brown for 30 years.
Still, Koblin has some good anecdotes. There’s an all-caps memo, authored in part by departing managing editor Tom Weber, that futilely attempted to corral Brown’s wayward assigning ways. And there’s a great redesign meeting in which Barry Diller drops in unexpectedly to offer some disruptive, game-changing thinking:
“Tina, I was looking for you and your assistant said that you were on the ninth floor,” Diller said.
He decided to take a seat and listen in. Staffers looked to one another: What was he doing there? There goes that. Any chance to spitball freely suddenly went out the window.
Then Diller chimed in.
“Why even have a front of the book?” he said. “Why not just start with the well? And why even have a table of contents?”
Brown politely moved the topic along, and it was an awkward moment for the staff: She loved the table of contents. She is known for spending hours obsessing over it. The meeting wrapped up in the next few minutes. It continued the next day, but it became known in the office as largely a waste of time.
Brown, who apparently has her husband, Sir Harry Evans, fill in for her on weeks when she’s otherwise engaged, is optimistic about the magazine’s prospects, despite the present turbulence. “In six months, we can all get our lives back to normal,” she told her staff in a meeting. Maybe, maybe not. The reality is that the magazine has been in free fall for a few years now — check out Choire Sicha’s charts over at the Awl, which show what a small uptick the 2.6 percent increase in subscriptions and 6 percent rise in newsstand sales under Brown represent — and the task of merging the print edition with a website that had a totally different editorial sensibility and structure was always going to be a Herculean one. Just as it’s unsurprising that Brown is behaving this way at Newsweek, it’s also unsurprising that the magazine — in both circulation numbers and internal editorial squabbles — is performing this way so far.