What can the failure of Tina Brown and The Daily Beast tell us about the future of media?

Tina Brown, the legendary former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, is stepping down from her latest attempt at reinventing magazines: she announced on Wednesday that she is leaving as editor of The Daily Beast, the online media outlet that she started in 2008 with the backing of media mogul Barry Diller and later tried unsuccessfully to merge with Newsweek. Diller is now considering a sale of The Beast, according to some reports — although it remains to be seen whether anyone will actually want to buy it.

Can we learn something about what is happening to media in the web era from Brown’s failure at the Beast? Michael Wolff — an author and former entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about online failures himself — argues in a piece for The Guardian that Brown shouldn’t have to shoulder all the blame for the (almost) demise of the site, saying she is “a representative figure of the struggles of modern media life, rather than the person who should be blamed for it.”

“Magazines – knowing, insidery, cruel, fawning, beautiful, upscale (remember that word?) magazines – died, leaving her without a profession… and then, without warning, she had to learn the methods and sensibility of the new digital publishing world, which must have seemed like another country to her.”

The good old days of print are over

Tina Brown, The Daily Beast

Wolff and others have noted that Brown’s approach to the Beast — and to Newsweek as well when it was still part of the operation — was very much taken from the good old days of print magazines, when advertising revenue was still flowing like a mighty river, and no one had to worry about aggregators or competition from upstart online publications like BuzzFeed or Perez Hilton. Brown used all the tricks she had learned (and taught others) and yet they failed to work their magic. As Wolff puts it:

“She shortly recreated… an ever-expanding publishing operation in the old style. In a digital world of strained circumstances, she hired editors, paid writers, killed pieces, rethought and revamped and redesigned… and generally conducted herself as much as she possibly could as though the world was still recognizable, even comfortable.”

Obviously revenue (or the lack of it) was a big part of the Beast story, just as it has been for many other magazines and publishers trying to make a living online: despite her protests that things were getting better, the Daily Beast’s traffic numbers were terrible, and the site is expected to lose as much as $12 million this year. That’s an expensive hobby, even for Barry Diller. And even the Beast/Newsweek’s attempt to troll readers with salacious “cover” stories didn’t seem to work.

In part, that’s because there are plenty of other sites already doing this, such as BuzzFeed and Gawker and dozens of others. If anything, the web is drowning in that kind of content — the ability to put together a catchy headline and a controversial photo with some snarky commentary is no longer the exclusive preserve of a handful of printed magazines like Vanity Fair or Esquire. Try as she might, Brown could never seem to grasp that, or adapt to it.

The Beast never really seemed to get it

There are magazines making it online, although the list is fairly short: some continue to pursue the iPhone app or paywalled approach, but the ones who are really succeeding (depending on your definition of success) are titles like Forbes and The Atlantic. They have completely reinvented themselves for the web, by taking advantage of the speed and breadth of what online publishing offers — and also the potential advantages of user-generated content and innovative advertising approaches like sponsored content or native advertising, although not everyone agrees that the result is beneficial.

More than anything, Brown’s failure seems to stem from a lack of understanding about how the publishing game has changed, not just in terms of revenue, but in the fundamental ways in which content and the marketplace intersect. The old model, where an editor like Brown could be the queen of a tiny magazine empire and shape the coverage and impact of stories almost single-handedly, has given way to a future driven by readers — a demand model rather than a supply model, to put it in economic terms.

It’s not just algorithms: what people want to read becomes the guiding principle, not what editors decide they need. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the media industry, or for society as a whole? That’s a question for another post, but that fundamental shift is what Brown failed to navigate, and it not only eviscerated Newsweek but seems to have killed the Beast as well.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Denise Chan