When Brill’s Content moves out of the dowdy offices at 521 Fifth Avenue it’s been in since the magazine started last year and into new space this winter, there will be extra room for a new venture that’s tentatively being called Planet Content. It’s Steve Brill’s update on the Amazon.com idea, the thing that will make him, as one of his associates described him, “a happening dot-com guy”–instead of the publisher of a monthly media magazine of middling success and confused intent.
The Web site is expected to sell all kinds of content, from magazines to university monographs to possibly even movies, depending on whom Mr. Brill hooks as partners. Reached at his beach home in South Carolina, Mr. Brill said he expected to make an announcement “probably some time in September or October.” Meanwhile, he refused to describe what the site would do, saying only, “It’s something that’s very much in sync with the magazine’s brand positioning. But the magazine staff won’t be directly involved in it.”
According to the Network Solutions database, Brill Media Ventures has registered several site names, including: Hitcontent, Brillsbuy, Contentparadise and Planet Content, although Mr. Brill is said to favor the Planet Content name.
Associates said Mr. Brill has had discussions with book and magazine publishers as well as TV networks all over town about the deal. He told The Observer , “When you see how we do it, it won’t compete head to head with Amazon or Barnesandnoble.com or anything like that.” Members of the university press community have heard that he is interested in selling, among other things, monographs on line, a business pioneered by the Web site Netlibrary.com.
The new launch is not to be confused with Mr. Brill’s expansion of the Brill’s Content Web site, a bid to offer more daily media news, again capitalizing on the Brill’s Content brand name. Mr. Brill calls it a “drastic upgrading of what the magazine is doing on line,” and it includes hiring some people. He said the improved magazine Web site would “probably” be connected to the new e-commerce site.
He also said he expected that “the people who run the magazine, some of them will have a role in this. I hope.” He compared it to how people who worked for the American Lawyer shifted over to his next venture back then, Court TV.
Both Web ventures are apparently fueled by the $10 million investment by George Soros earlier this year–an investment that made Mr. Soros, the New York financier, a partner in Brill Media Ventures, the parent company of Content and the new site. Mr. Brill’s other investment partners are USA Network’s Barry Diller, real estate developer Howard Milstein and Lester Pollack, a partner at Lazard Frères & Company.
It’s common knowledge around Silicon Valley that a team who works for Mr. Soros is investing in Internet activities. But Mr. Brill said he won’t get any additional Soros money for the proposed site. “It’s all money that’s contributed into the partnership originally,” he said.
David Wassong, a member of the private equity group at Soros Fund Management, said, “Nothing is really going on. And beyond that, we don’t really comment on our portfolio deals.”
Mr. Brill is said to be interested in hooking up with one of the major broadcast networks about an investment or partnership to increase the new e-commerce site’s promotion potential. Some pointed to CBS, which has been making investments in Sportsline USA, Marketwatch.com Inc., Medscape Inc., among other Web sites, as a likely Brill mate. CBS also has a promotion-for-equity deal with Rx.com and is about to sign one with Hollywood.com. A spokesman for CBS said, “We don’t comment on rumor and speculation.”
But Mr. Brill has long been keen on such partnerships. It’s how he funded Court TV–and also how he got himself into hot water when Brill’s Content first launched. Remember the deal with Dateline NBC , where the two would share story ideas? A hard thing to do when you might have to cover Dateline , too. Eventually, Mr. Brill told the press, “The reporters asking the questions were really right and I was wrong. This is one of these instances where perception is as important as the reality.”
So how is he going to solve the problem this time? Mr. Brill said, “This is nothing like that.” He promised that he’d make the corporate structure available to reporters so it would be clear that “no media company that we cover–no media company, period–will have any management role or direction role with this company.”
Of course, that doesn’t stop sources both inside and outside Content from wondering how that could possibly be done in the same offices where “the independent voice of the information age,” as Content labels itself, is produced.
Also unclear is how the new site will make money. As one university press administrator put it, “We’re getting calls almost daily from people,” trying to set up competitors to Amazon. “I don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s a business that’s proliferating.”
And neither Amazon nor Barnesandnoble.com are making money right now. Although they’re both spending it. Fast.
So is this Mr. Brill’s bid for an I.P.O.? “None of us need the money that badly, and none of us want to do anything but build a real business,” he said of his partners. “Plus I want to own it. If I like it, I want to keep it.”
As for questions of whether it would work, Mr. Brill has confidence in his track record: “When we announce it, if it happens, nine-tenths of the people writing stories about it will write about how it’s going to fail. Just as they did with American Lawyer and with Court TV and with our magazine. And they’ll do it with this.”
–With Gabriel Snyder
Lisa DePaulo has become the second contributing editor at George to be excised from the masthead after talking to the press about their late boss, John F. Kennedy Jr. The magazine dropped Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley in the week after the accident, after he went on a pay-TV binge. Ms. DePaulo’s apparent sin was more subtle: She appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of New York magazine as part of an oral history of the late magazine publisher, even though George editor Rich Blow had asked her not to. In her quotes, Ms. DePaulo, who had been at George since the second issue and has written some of the best-regarded pieces to appear in the magazine–including ones on Ruth Shalit, Maureen Dowd and Dick Morris’ exile–mourned Kennedy. She talked about his being a good editor–”he had great instincts”–and a nice guy, who was sensitive to her when her mother was dying of cancer last summer. “I felt it was the right thing to do. I may have been wrong,” said Ms. DePaulo, who also contributes to New York and had been called for the quote by her editor, Maer Roshan. “As a result, I was disinvited to the memorial service. Although Rich says I wasn’t invited in the first place. Which is actually worse. I was their first writer, I’ve been there from the beginning.”
Asked if it were true that Ms. DePaulo was not invited because of her cooperation with the New York magazine story, Mr. Blow said, “Of course not. For space reasons, none of the contributing editors were invited to the first memorial service for John. And all of them, including Lisa, were invited to the second,” which took place at the New-York Historical Society. She didn’t go. She pointed out that columnist Paul Begala, who had been on TV talking about Kennedy, was at the first service. Mr. Blow said he was an old family friend, invited by the Kennedys, who controlled the list.
In the throes of all this, Ms. DePaulo nevertheless finished the last-minute September cover story, on Rob Lowe. It closed on Aug. 6. The following Monday, she said, Mr. Blow and her agent began talking about terminating her contract and agreed on terms by the end of the week. When asked about whether Mr. DePaulo’s relationship had ended with the magazine, Mr. Blow said, “That’s true,” but he would not comment on why. He did say, “Lisa’s a very talented writer and she has made great contributions to George and I have no doubt that she’ll do the same elsewhere.”
Ms. DePaulo was not happy about the way things turned out. “The bottom line,” she said, was that “I loved George . I always put it before anything else. It’s very sad for me, I’m very hurt. But if this is part of the grand plan to save George , I wish them the best of luck.”
For his part, Mr. Roshan said, “I appreciate that it was a very difficult time for Rich and the people at George . But I don’t think that journalists should be in the position of banning free speech.”
Among the innovations of The Village Voice ‘s redesign (set to debut Aug. 18) is a new page called the “Hot Spot.” It’s going to make it easier to find Dan Savage’s popular, syndicated Savage Love column, which is currently tucked right before the adult entertainment ads. And with it will be something for the ladies: a column called “Pucker Up,” by female anal sex advocate Tristan Taormino. She wrote a book called The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women . Her column is set to run every other week, possibly expanding to every week (premiere headline: “I Am Butt Girl, Hear My Ass Roar!”). Nobody ever said The Voice was all about the high road–they even planned to jump on the Web-porn bandwagon earlier this year with a site called “The Naked City” that has since fallen through. But why butt girl? Voice editor Don Forst said, “We wanted to get a female view of things. She came to mind. She’s a good writer. We said, hey, let’s try this.” Is this topic of special interest to his staff? “An interest in what? In anal sex? I haven’t taken a survey,” he said.
Talk has chewed up and spit out its first editor. George Hodgman, who quit his job as deputy editor of Vanity Fair back in February because he wanted to write more and edit less (O.K., and he’d just turned 40 and started thinking about these things) joined Talk in March. He was supposed to work in the office three days a week for the magazine and its synergistic book imprint. At the time, Talk ‘s executive editor David Kuhn told the New York Post that Mr. Hodgman was going to be in charge of acquiring and editing book excerpts for the magazine. A collegiate-sounding job–and not at all what he ended up doing once the frenzy of Talk ‘s startup began. “I was going to edit and write,” said Mr. Hodgman, calling from Fire Island, where he’s retreated (“and I’m not coming back until Labor Day,” he declared). He quit right after the first issue came out. “I did the 24-hour, seven-day thing at Vanity Fair , and I didn’t want to fall back to that,” he said. Instead of quietly culling book excerpts, he ended up knee deep in the muck of trying to get Lucinda Franks’ Hillary Clinton piece out, splitting the editing chores with perfectionist Tina Brown, and working on the “The Last Safari,” an account of the tourists in Africa who were captured by Hutu rebels early this year. ( Talk ‘s parent company, Miramax Films, announced on Aug. 17 a successful completion of a synergy for that piece, which has been optioned by–Miramax!)
Mr. Hodgman wrote a piece on Jerry Hall for Harper’s Bazaar in August and wants to write more, including for Talk , he said.
Although the future of Netbook , Jann Wenner’s proposed Internet-flavored magazine, is up in the air, progress continues at Wenner Media. Rolling Stone this month has hired two of the big-name editors who lost their jobs in the bloody masthead coups of the last few years. Bill Tonelli joins the masthead as an assistant managing editor. He spent eight years at Esquire before being bounced by David Granger two years ago in June, then was at Spin for a year and a half as editor-at-large before quitting when Michael Hirschorn was canned. He’s now tied for third place on Rolling Stone ‘s masthead after Mr. Wenner and managing editor Bob Love. “I’m going to be assigning non-showbiz features,” he said. He was hired after senior editor Danielle Mattoon left for Talk earlier this summer. The second hire was Craig Marks, Spin ‘s former executive editor, who left with Mr. Hirschorn. Mr. Marks said he has not been gainfully employed since. At Rolling Stone , he’s a contributing editor who’s been assigned to create a special year-end issue, which he described as “a 20th-century retrospective with a millennial twist!” Meanwhile, Mr. Wenner is back from a two-week safari, so employees have been instructed to clean up their desks.