Dear Kurt: Perils of ubiquity stalk the founder of Inside.com

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Kurt Andersen

Co-Chairman, Powerful Media

dba Inside.com, New York

April 24, 2000

Dear kurt:

Go home.

During the past few days, it's been impossible to turn a corner without confronting your name, your face, your company or some combination of the three. On Sunday, it was a full-page interview, replete with casual-hip photo, in The New York Times Magazine-space that must have cost casually unhip Classic Sofa, the advertiser adjacent to your freebie, at least $50K. Not bad for an enterprise (yours) whose only product so far is two home pages that don't even click through to anywhere.

That same Sunday there was a piece in Publishers Weekly that referred to the future launch of your dot-com-which intends to be a combination of PW, Ad Age, Variety and Electronic Media-as "much anticipated." Another coup: the first, much-anticipated launch of a trade publication in history!

The clippings followed a swath of notices for conferences, all of which featured you-Tom Brokaw's "Summit in Silicon Valley" in February; the "Yahoo! Internet Life Online Film Festival," the forthcoming "Austin 360.com National Writers Workshop" and the Industry Standard-New York Magazine "First Annual Media Summit." I've received no less than three invitations to "The 2000 Mal/Content Conference" sponsored by Jay Chiat's Screaming Media, whose No. 2-listed headliner is-you guessed it-you.

Kurt, I hate to break it to you but you are in danger of becoming a type you once ridiculed in Spy magazine: a person who just won't stay home. You skewered Carl Bernstein in that one. You don't want to be another Carl Bernstein, do you?

Worse, in a media industry grown almost entirely self-referential-a subject you yourself satirized in your novel "Turn of the Century"-you risk becoming a living, breathing solipsism. Not only does that open an opportunity for some colleague to write a future roman a clef about you (hint: make sure they've all signed NDAs), but events of the past week have shown Solipsism Alley is a dangerous place to be.

Let me hasten to add I'm not questioning your business model or even your business. There are people who want a super-trade publication encompassing the communications megalith-even some who will (as you hope) pay for parts of it. It's as good an idea now as it was 10 years ago, when Adam Moss (latterly the editor who gave you your full-page promotion in the Times Magazine) was pushing it as a print vehicle called The Industry. I'd even go so far as to say that it's an even better idea now-although, if I'm not mistaken, the business model is not dissimilar to that of your backer James Cramer's floundering financial news site, TheStreet.com.

No matter. You've got great partners-former Spin Editor Michael Hirschorn and former Conde Nast Publisher and Brill's Content President Deanna Brown. They're some of the best in the business. Hirschorn used to beat me (often) at poker-a skill as important in the Internet economy as his many editorial talents. Deanna's so good I'd hoped to get into business with her. I've even promised her an uncritical encomium in this column, an offer that still stands. In short, I know you, like you, respect you, and I'll plug you.

Of course, that's the problem. In this two-degrees-of-separation world we inhabit, everyone knows, likes and respects you. Not including the people who detest you (because of the things you put in Spy) and those who fear you (because of the things you can put in The New Yorker). More to the point, they all believe you may be in position to give them a job. So you have been getting a free ride in the media-that-write-about-the-media-which, these days, is all media. Even the designated trashing points-Michael Wolff's New York Magazine column and Chris Byron's diatribes in The New York Observer-have remained clean when it comes to you.

Under normal circumstances, such uncritical attention would be good. Not today. The last thing you want now-at least if you're a content-based dot-com, with VC backers who are undoubtedly casting a wary eye on the once-forgiving Nasdaq and investors whose own dot-coms are in the hole-is to call attention to yourself.

Kurt, take my advice: Lay low.

After all, someday I may need you to give me a job.

Regards, R2

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at rothenberg_randall@strategy-business.com

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