This Just in: All the Meta-News That's Fit to Post

Can Two Media Legends Win Over Readers and Marketers by Making Yet More Media About Media?

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When I heard this spring that Barry Diller's InterActive Corp. was backing Tina Brown's bid to launch a new news-aggregation site, I thought, "This is gonna be fun." After all, Tina's old archnemesis, Michael Wolff -- the Vanity Fair media columnist who famously bashed Tina repeatedly in his old New York Magazine column -- was already in the news-aggregation business with his Newser site.

Tina Brown Michael Wolff
Photo credit: Nancy Kaszerman (l.), Mark Schafer
BFFS: Brown and Wolff did not meet at Oxford.
Now, my interest in Tina and Michael going head-to-head is complicated, rather deliciously, by my connections to the various players in this drama. (Those connections, in fact, illuminate just how ridiculously incestuous and intertwined the Manhattan media crowd is -- and how post-journalistic it's become. Just what we needed: media people whose favorite subject is themselves creating more media about ... media!) So, full (tedious) disclosure: I'm friendly with Michael Wolff; I was his longtime editor at New York -- and, in fact, edited his legendarily (almost comically) harsh columns about Tina (particularly in her post-New Yorker days, when she edited her own short-lived glossy start-up, Talk). Another thing: I'm vaguely friendly with Tina, too (she's graciously never held my connection to domestic terrorist Michael Wolff against me) -- I've been to a couple dinner parties at her house over the years, including one she and her legendary British journalist husband, Harry Evans, held to promote The Week magazine, which is a rather excellent news aggregator on paper. The Week's owner, notoriously ribald magazine publisher Felix Dennis, has Harry on The Week's payroll as editor at large. In other words, if Tina was getting into the news-aggregation game, she was competing not only with Michael Wolff but her own husband.

Tina's site launched last week, of course. It's called The Daily Beast, and Tina insists it's not a mere news aggregator. "The Daily Beast doesn't aggregate," she offered in an introductory Q&A with herself on the Beast. "It sifts, sorts and curates." Got that? So never mind all the aggregator-esque packaging on the site -- the Cheat Sheet ("must reads from all over") and Buzz Board and Big Fat Story -- OK? (As for the Beast's tagline, "Read this, skip that," you can bet Men's Health Editor Dave Zinczenko is, um, amused? He's spun best-selling books, a weekly e-mail newsletter and even a nutritional database for mobile phones from the Eat This, Not That column in his magazine.)

And what does Newser do? According to its on-site Q&A: "Our editors distill articles and opinion pieces into lively and efficient summaries, telling you what you need to know, what you want to know, and where to go for the best coverage."

Actually, though, Tina's right. She's not running a real news aggregator. She's running, effectively, a magazine on the internet. Some observers have suggested it's a sort of ersatz Huffington Post, or wannabe HuffPo. (Personally, I think it's more of a wannabe Radar Online.) Tina herself acknowledged the Arianna factor in her Q&A: "She is a very old friend, going back to when she was at Cambridge and I was at Oxford. I love what she has achieved at HuffPo." (Days later, obnoxiously enough, Arianna told David Carr at The New York Times, "I have known Tina since she was at Oxford, and I was at Cambridge, and I think she has a wonderful eye," blah-de-blah.) And both Tina and Arianna, of course, are shameless starfuckers. Like Arianna's blog, Tina's site is studded with soundbites and recommendations from her famous friends.

But while bloggorheiac HuffPo and the high-metabolism Newser -- which few people seem to realize is run, on a day-to-day basis, not by Michael Wolff but by former New York Magazine Editor in Chief Caroline Miller (who was not only Michael's boss back in the day, but mine too, and for a while tried in vain to get me to work on Newser) -- The Daily Beast seems ... sleepy. Like, last Wednesday, the day after the second presidential debate, The Beast's Cheat Sheet kept a single story in the No. 1 spot virtually all day: "Obama Bores His Way to Victory." Speaking of boredom ...

Newser's backed by Pat Spain, a gray-haired, Chicago-based internet entrepreneur most famous for helping to found Hoover's, the business-information database, which sold to Dun & Bradstreet in 2003 for $119 million. Crusty Midwesterner that he is, he's kept Newser on a relative shoestring (Caroline Miller runs Newser on a MacBook in her kitchen and directs her staff of freelance editors, based in cities around the world, by IM). The Daily Beast, in contrast, is living large, Barry Diller-style. An IAC insider (I've consulted for IAC in the past, though I had absolutely nothing to do with The Daily Beast) tells me that it was budgeted, at least initially, to burn through $18 million in three years, with (wildly optimistic) hopes for advertising revenue of at least $10 million in that same time. More than half of Tina's 20 or so full-time staffers were budgeted to earn $100,000 or more a year.

Last week, competitive little bitch that he is, Michael Wolff had Newser's publicist attempt to steal a bit of Tina Brown's thunder by grinding out a press release titled, "Michael Wolff's Passes 1 Million Users."

Not that anyone noticed.

Meanwhile, over at the Beast, on the Buzz Board, singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow revealed that she is fond of -- I shit you not -- The Week, which she calls "a necessity for me in keeping up with what is going on in the world of politics."

Yep. This is gonna be fun.
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