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.
But it must be hard work all of a sudden. Without the prospective climax of an IPO, Inside.com looks a lot like the regular old publishing business (much to the horror, I’m sure, of Inside.com’s VC investors).
Inside.com, which is charging $199 a year for a subscription, appears to be a trade-magazine or newsletter type of business – or, possibly, it’s the database business, an even lower rung on the information totem pole.
The publishing business traditionally (and hierarchically) divides between consumer publications, which are written by relative insiders (opinion-makers) for relative outsiders (people looking for an opinion), and trade magazines, which are written by relative outsiders (often people who could not get a job at non-trade publications) for insiders (the people who actually work in the industry being written about). Trade publications tend to become subservient to the industries they are covering. Given relatively limited audiences and advertising bases, they have to be pretty accommodating. Functionally, when you work for a trade, you work for the industries you’re writing about. You’re in the service business.
I can’t think of two guys less culturally and temperamentally suited to trade publishing than Kurt and Michael.
I suppose you can argue that the verticality and the narrowcast dimensions of the Internet mean that we’ll all become trade or specialty writers and publishers and that Kurt, as usual, is just ahead of the pack.
At the same time, I think what Kurt and Michael have in mind is to do the job of a trade publication by being sort of an anti-trade publication. Kurt and Michael believe they can do a better job than Variety or Billboard or Ad Age or Publishers Weekly. I am sure this is true – although I’m not sure that quality in this context is that much of a trump card. In addition, they believe they have certain content skills that will allow them to transfer the sex appeal of a consumer publication to the heretofore unsexy trade world. (Michael has, in fact, suggested that users will be able to “roll around” in Inside.com’s data.)
They believe, too (somewhat late to the party, perhaps), that there is inherent sexiness in the Internet, that a trade magazine is transformed, Cinderella-like, by all the new ways its information is going to be accessible to us: palm, cell, direct-to-cortex route. Indeed, they have a multiplatform mini-empire vision: conferences, push applications, personalized databases, even reverse engineering back to actual paper magazines.
Certainly it makes it sexy if Kurt and Michael are perceived as getting rich off their new business – less sexy, though, if they’re just perceived to be managing people inputting database fields.
As for getting rich, the problem would seem to be that Kurt and Michael are using someone else’s $30 million. They’ve sold themselves to the VCs, who, typically, get at least five times their money back before anybody else gets anything at all. This imbalance worked all right in the easy-money Internet age when a start-up company could get a stock valuation of 20 or 30 times projected revenues. But it’s a whole other story if you find yourself worth only what a trade magazine is worth (say twelve or thirteen times actual profits, which is something like a billion-dollar comedown).
Many media insiders I know say, So what’s the big deal? Kurt and Michael may not get rich, but they have a job. Which just goes to show, and may explain why Kurt snubbed my panel, that most media insiders are closer to labor than to capital.
But trust me: Capital gets resentful when it finds itself doing nothing but supporting other people (at the New York Magazine-Industry Standard conference, Fortune editor John Huey implied that Jim Cramer had invested in Inside.com only because of his friendship with Kurt; Cramer said maybe you’d invest $100,000 out of friendship but not $3 million – which is the point).
But assume the vc’s turn patient, the Internet-stock market revs up again, and Kurt continues to generate far more publicity than his rivals in the insider-media-information business. Still, the question persists: How interested are people in whether Kurt showed up for my panel? How repeatedly do we want the media to reflect itself? Does the production and dissemination of larger and larger amounts of gossipy information make it more or less titillating, more or less valuable?
The sneak preview of Inside.com seems ably assembled – but I’d prefer not to know most of what I’m reading here (and, in fact, much of it I’ve already read somewhere else).
The more important question, though, might be: How interested are Kurt and Michael in this stuff?
Kurt’s novel, Turn of the Century, is filled with minutiae and background details about the media business, of who said what to whom and who crossed whom how. So maybe it seemed logical to turn this fascination into a business. But I’d guess that there is a big difference between being interested in the mechanics of the media business and being interested in the comedy of manners that is the media business – which, do not doubt, is Kurt’s essential interest. Kurt is, remember, a co-founder of Spy magazine.
Kurt’s novel is an extended joke; Inside.com is a literal and earnest enterprise.
Kurt is a charmingly snobbish writer with an advanced ironic sensibility. The Web is a pretty irony-resistant environment; it’s a leveling experience. A snob’s purgatory.
But it could, I suppose, be a great place for a hack’s trade magazine. It would be something if Inside.com turned Kurt Andersen into an outsider.