Brill’s Contempt

The Media Watchdog Has No Teeth

This past November, Steven Brill predicted that Brill's Content, his media magazine for consumers, would break even this year. "I don't want to promise anything . . . but it's looking good," he told the Daily News, and went on to claim 400,000 readers. At least one of Brill's employees believed him and would open the magazine every month expecting a spike in ad pages.

But things were not looking good. Last year, Brill's sold only about 20 percent of the issues he hoped to sell on the newsstands. His Web site, Contentville.com, failed to catch fire. Across the industry, ad pages remained flat.

Then on April 2, the cocky CEO told the world that his company had merged with Powerful Media. To hear Brill spin it, the merger is yet another victory—year-old Inside.com will continue to produce edgy reporting on entertainment, media, and technology, and three-year-old Brill's Content will be reintroduced this summer as Inside Content, a concept that has been widely described as a business magazine.

The reality is that Brill's tenure as media watchdog was a commercial flop, but he won't admit it. Appearing last weekend on Reliable Sources, Brill repeatedly dodged the question of whether he had failed at his original mission, going so far as to claim that his mag was never really intended to be a watchdog at all. His refusal to come to terms did not surprise his staffers, one of whom said, "Steve would change [the magazine] into Maxim before he would admit defeat."

While Brill's employees seem to understand his decision, they're the ones who bore the brunt of it—he laid off an estimated half of them as a result. Management has "handled this thing horrendously," said one victim last week.

The first alarms rang on March 29, when reporters from The Industry Standard began calling staffers to discuss rumors of a possible merger and layoffs. Later that day, when the same rumors surfaced on the Web, a Brill employee popped the question to editor Eric Effron, who reportedly said, "That's news to me."

On the morning of April 2, Brill invited media reporters to an impromptu press conference at the New York Palace Hotel, but he left his employees on the 16th floor of 1230 Sixth Avenue in the dark. Then the mail-room guys dropped off a bunch of packing boxes on the 16th floor, inspiring someone to warn, "Look, we're all getting fired today." Around the same time, a source at Inside told a staffer about the press conference, and someone e-mailed media maven Jim Romenesko to ask, "Do you know when the press conference is?"

Ever intrepid, one staffer snuck into the press conference, where he heard Brill tell a reporter there could be layoffs, "but we haven't worked out the details." Soon after, Brill's assistant walked around the office handing out the press release, and Effron followed, summoning eight people to meet in the conference room. The eight had already assembled when their bosses arrived: Brill, Effron, editor in chief David Kuhn, and the head of human resources.

The meeting has since been described as a "throat slitting" and "group gassing," with Kuhn his "usually incoherent self at big moments." One source e-mailed Romenesko that Kuhn "supposedly got a tear in his eye," while Effron "held his head in his hands." But Brill blithely took off for the Yankees opener that afternoon, and by day's end, six more staffers had been canned. Employees of less than a year got two weeks of severance pay; veterans got another week for each year they had worked.

The layoffs included writers Elizabeth Angell, Jim Edwards, Eve Gerber, Gay Jervey, and Kaja Perina; and editors Susan Ellingwood, Paul Schnee, and Eric and Ellen Umansky. Writers Mark Boal and Austin Bunn were told their existing contracts would not be renewed. The laid-off were asked to work until Friday, but when managers realized they needed more time and editors to close the final issue, they asked Ellen Umansky to stay another week. Her refusal left them frantically recruiting writers and assistants to function as editors. "It was like giving the cooks the guns after the front lines have been broken," said one source.

Office conversations quickly degenerated into "gossip and backbiting." A favorite topic was the June issue of Brill's Content, which will contain several pieces scavenged from Inside, a magazine that had been written in a racy style and was not fact-checked. One day, Kuhn was overheard talking to the editor in chief of Inside, saying, "I really like that feature by David Carr. I think we'll be able to use it as a sidebar."

Another subject of speculation involved not who got laid off, but why. The victims were told the decision was not about talent, and they were prone to agree. Said one, "It's clear that Steve protected some people [such as Abigail Pogrebin], but David didn't have that power." (Boal and Bunn were Kuhn favorites.) Throughout the week, the managers seemed to avoid eye contact with those who had been laid off, and no one bothered to take the soon-to-be desaparecidos out to lunch or tell them goodbye.

Given that six women got laid off, two staffers detected further evidence of allegedly preexisting male chauvinism. "It's most certainly a place where men have thrived over women," said one. A male staffer added that it's a "sign of the culture" that the place is dominated by "big-swinging dick types," that is, swaggering men who are highly confident of their talent.

Inevitably, talk turned to the fate of the bosses. Said one staffer, "There's an unofficial pool on when [Effron] and [Kuhn] will leave." It's widely believed that Kuhn, who knows how to package a narrative but is no expert on media business, will bail. "Here's a guy who wanted to take Brill's from being too insidery and turn it into a cultural vehicle," says one source. Says another, "Now he finds himself at essentially a trade magazine, which is not really David's style."

Office gossips have two theories about Effron. One has it that "there's a bullet with his name on it," because he now has four bosses; the other holds that he will be protected, because he's been loyal to Brill.

Finally, no one tires of discussing the big man's psychology. "Brill's Content was never cool," says one staffer, and now Brill would rather be the "popular kid" than the "class bully." According to this source, "Steve wanted not only to do 'gotcha' [journalism], but wanted people to care."

Of course, Brill's desire to be liked may not extend to ex-staffers. "I respect him," says one, "but I don't know that I want to work for him again. I don't think you can count on not having the rug pulled out from under you."

Another departing staffer scorns Brill for abandoning the role of press critic, when the boss had long maintained that the magazine was operating on a five-year plan. "The truth is that he was hypocritical!" says this source. "He made it sound like it was a real jihad on his part."

Brill declined to comment.


ccotts@villagevoice.com

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