'We Tried an Idea and It Didn't Work'

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NEW YORK ( -- When two of the highest profile media-on-media publishing ventures imploded Oct. 15, the dissolution of Brill Media Holdings and Primedia's partnership spelled doom for the magazine Brill's Content and the current iteration of

The deal leaves entirely in the hands of Primedia, which is expected to use the site as a sort of promotional front-page for its Media Central stable of about 170 trade magazines and newsletters. There is a financial component to the deal, said Steve Brill, CEO of Brill Media Holdings, though he would not disclose what it was.

Media empire
The move marks the end of Mr. Brill's most heartfelt ambitions to build a media empire, having been particularly fascinated with the media world long before the 1998 launch of Brill's Content, which was initially simply called Content.

"It's tough to swallow," Mr. Brill told

Mr. Brill joined forces with Primedia January and then in

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April in two complex deals. In January, Mr. Brill became CEO of Media Central, swapping 49% of his Brill Media Holdings for an undisclosed smaller stake in Media Central. His April deal for was billed as a merger, in which the investors and equity holders in Powerful Media,'s original parent company, received an unspecified stake in Brill Media Holdings.

Though his notion to create a glossy monthly media-watchdog magazine was greeted with substantial skepticism by the media world prior to its launch, Mr. Brill nonetheless had an impressive track record in convincing high-powered executives to back him, among them USA Networks Chairman-CEO Barry Diller and financier George Soros -- and more recently, Mr. Rogers of Primedia.

Muckraking start
Mr. Brill made his bones penning a muckraking tome about the teamsters while in his 20s and then successfully created a trade empire from his American Lawyer and Court TV start-ups. As he transitioned to a bigger stage with Brill's Content, he never shed his reputation for being prickly and peremptory that's legendary among his legions of current and former employees (which include this reporter).

"Brill's Content as a consumer magazine was a very tough issue," he said. "We did not prove you could get 5, 6, 700,000 circulation in a cost-effective way."

"We were unable to identify for advertisers," Mr. Brill continued, "that we were reaching a particular group of people who were identifiable and had something in common. That's Publishing 101."

Mr. Brill never had Publishers Information Bureau audit his title's ad pages, which virtually every other high-profile publication has done.

'It didn't work'
Yet in defeat Mr. Brill was straightforward. "The decline of a quality magazine is not because American civilization sucks, or that the business world is awful," Mr. Brill said. "It's because you tried an idea and it didn't work.

Some of Mr. Brill's tartest criticism came from, which in its original form set a new standard for media reporting and analysis but failed to translate that vision into anything resembling a business plan. (According to executives familiar with the financials, in 2000's parent, Powerful Media, took in between $1 million and $2 million in revenues but lost about $18 million. It had about $10 million in cash at the time of its deal with Mr. Brill.)

In an article headlined " and Brill's Content To Close -- This Time We Really Mean It," Seth Mnookin memorably observed: "[Brill's Content] aimed to be a consumer title about the press in the same way that Sports Illustrated aimed to be a consumer title about sports, an ambitious plan done in, perhaps, by the fact that people don't tend to gather at stadiums to root on their favorite media outlet." (See correction below)

Mr. Brill will remain CEO of Media Central through the end of the year to assist in the transition back to Primedia ownership. Brill Media Holdings will remain as an entity only as long as it takes to pay its bills and take care of other existing obligations.

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Because of an error in the editing process, in an earlier version of this article this excerpt from Mr. Mnookin's piece was wrongly attributed to Mr. Brill.

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