Inside the 'Content' Factory

Richer Than Ever, Brill Prepares to Launch E-Commerce Site

Steve Brill is on a hiring spree. After commissioning Luke Hayman of Ogilvy & Mather to redesign the print version of 'Brill's Content,' Brill signed Hayman to give a unified look to his advertising, print, and Internet ventures. Another new hire is executive editor Ramsey Flynn. And this spring, Brill says, he's going to hire '30 people in editorial,' as he ramps up to launch his new e-commerce venture and online magazine.

Thanks to the redesign and a $1 million ad campaign, people are definitely talking about the February issue. But is Brill paying too much attention to packaging Content and not enough to the people who create it? In November, the mag lost senior editors Lorne Manly and Nicholas Varchaver. Two more writers, Michael Colton and Matthew Heimer, left last week. Varchaver went to Fortune and Manly to Powerful Media; Heimer will be writing for SmartMoney, while Colton is launching an online humor mag. The exodus of Content providers looked like a coincidence until last Friday, when staff writer Ted Rose quit to freelance, turning it into a certifiable trend.

Of course, Brill's accomplishments are impressive. A brilliant editor and entrepreneur, he has singlehandedly launched a revolution in media reporting—and he is said to have used his stock in Time Warner to make millions on the AOL deal. But no one has ever called him a nice guy, and his company's top-down management style continues to demoralize some employees.

The latest round of complaints came last fall, after Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, a senior writer with good story ideas and the moxie to stand up to Brill, was named executive editor. Stevens reorganized editing assignments, in hopes of giving editors more ownership of their sections. But Varchaver, whose job included feature editing, got upset when Stevens proposed keeping features to herself and one other editor. By the time the plan was revised, Varchaver had lined up another job. Brill says Varchaver never gave up feature editing. Varchaver declined to comment.

The next victim: Howard Witt, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune's Web site, who was hired to edit Brillscontent.com. After starting in September, Witt inherited a small staff, and was told he would be in charge of an autonomous operation, with the resources to hire about a dozen more. (The Web site had not evolved much since 1998, when The Industry Standard called it a "low-quality bulletin board.")

Then in November, Brill hired David Kuhn, formerly of Talk, to be editorial director of e-commerce. Sometime thereafter, Brill put the online mag on hold. Witt's budget was shifted into e-commerce, and he commenced work on that project. Insiders say that Brill broke his promise to Witt. "Basically," says one source, "he was screwed." Another source says that as of January, the online mag was "abandoned." (Only one new story was posted this month.)

Witt declined to comment. Brill attributes the "confusion" in this account to a delay, while the online mag is redesigned by the people who are building the e-commerce site. "More responsibility has shifted to the editorial side," he says, "so if anything, since Howard was hired, that budget will be larger." In a month or so, Brill plans to make an announcement about both the online mag and e-commerce site, including details about financing—which remain a secret, even to his own staff.

Meanwhile, Brill has been courting talent, but not everyone is jumping. The Daily News reported that he offered New York Times scribe Alex Kuczynski $210,000 to join the staff and host a TV show in the future. (She declined.) Also this winter, Brill discussed a job with New York Post reporter Keith Kelly, and Content offered a job to Renée Kaplan, an editor at Gear magazine. Kaplan jumped to The New York Observer instead. Brill deflects hiring questions. Of Kaplan, he says, "I don't recognize the name." Kaplan declined to comment. Kelly and Kuczynski are "happy" where they are.

As Brill wheels and deals, some Content staffers are feeling neglected. The complaints may sound minor; for example, when Brill took top business and edit people on a retreat last August, many staffers didn't hear about it until the bosses were gone. Some were disturbed by the circumstances under which a mail room worker was allegedly fired just before Christmas. Others feel that a company that defines its mission as integrity in journalism should be more transparent about its own management style. (For example, are any media companies backing the Internet venture?)

Brill brushes away complaints from the edit side, attributing departures to the fact that "the marketplace has a real hunger for ambitious, talented people." But editor Eric Effron sounds more tuned in. While promoting the February issue as "more readable and accessible" than ever, he points out, "We're trying to make a magazine that's unlike any other magazine, that's about media, but not for media. It's hard, and not everybody is going to work out or have fun."

The writers who quit declined to comment on matters inside the magazine.

Another 'Saturday Night'

** Barely a year ago my friend Paul Tough, a former Harper's editor, became editor of the Canadian magazine Saturday Night. So why is Tough stepping down, and the monthly going to a weekly format?

The decision was that of Conrad Black, whose company bought Saturday Night in 1987 and launched the National Post, a Toronto daily, in '98. The magazine has never made him any money. But now the Post is competing with the Globe and Mail, and Black hopes to outsell the Globe on weekends by folding the magazine into the Saturday edition of the Post.

Tough was asked to stay on. But, he says, he has learned so much from running a monthly that the weekly "didn't feel like the best thing" to do next. He denies the change had anything to do with his content (see www.saturdaynight.ca). But the rumor is that Black's wife and business partner, Barbara Amiel, doesn't like Tough's sensibility and told him so to his face. That view is shared by Naomi Klein, the left-wing journalist Tough hired as an editor and writer last year.

Klein says the Blacks don't support Saturday Night because it's "not ideological anymore," whereas under previous editor Ken Whyte, the publication served their agenda. "If Paul were a right-wing ideologue," she says, "the magazine probably would have survived longer. Instead, he made it a wonderful literary magazine."

Whyte, now editor of the National Post, praises Tough's editing and integrity. "If he had been fired because he had failed to fall in line with a particular political agenda," says Whyte, "I can't imagine" him staying around.

Tough plans to stay until June, to help new editor Dianna Symonds with the redesign. He hasn't decided what he'll do next.

ccotts@villagevoice.com

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