Steven Brill is keeping his hands off the content of Brill’s Content

The cover of the July-August issue of Brill’s Content made a good point about the two-year old media magazine: It has become neither–Brill’s nor content.

The cover–the third issue under editor in chief David Kuhn, a former editor at Talk and Vanity Fair –goes to Ilya Anopolsky, 13. The corresponding piece, “The Rise of a Teen Guru,” is a good sociological feature by contributing editor Austin Bunn about how computer-savvy teenagers’ authority over the family PC can disrupt parental authority over them.

And it suggests how far Brill’s Content has moved from its conception. “The Rise of a Teen Guru” does not represent in any form the definition of “content” given in the first issue by the magazine’s founder, Steven Brill, as “all that purports to be nonfiction.” It is, instead, an interesting story in a new magazine.

What’s happened to the self-appointed watchdog of all media? Mr. Brill, founder of Court TV and The American Lawyer –who himself once wrote, “We believe that journalists should hold themselves as accountable as they hold those they report about”–declined to come to the telephone to talk about his publication. And his editor in chief, Mr. Kuhn, declined to talk about the magazine as well, deciding, according to sources, he’d let the three issues he’s edited speak for themselves.

That seemed fair, if not necessarily something the old Brill’s would stand for. The magazine that speaks for itself is a very different from the one that showed up in July 1998 at the peak of the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr scandals. Since Mr. Kuhn took over, the tough, hard-news, journalism-ethics tone that Mr. Brill set then has been mixed with something else, like cough medicine with strawberry syrup. And even though the prosecutorial media analysis of the first months of Brill’s –remember the bus ads promising that the media’s free ride was ending?–was sometimes self-righteous, it did create a strong identity for the magazine.

Initially, Brill’s Content took the tough tone of Mr. Brill’s earlier, memorable creation, The American Lawyer –whose strong standards launched some of the best journalists of the 80’s, from James Stewart to Jill Abramson. Brill’s first incarnation suggested the special independent counsel of media journalism: It assumed the general seaminess of an arrogant, powerful profession, depended heavily on the public’s mistrust of journalists and rummaged through many trivial media crimes looking for felonious lapses of journalistic ethics.

Mr. Kuhn’s Content is much more readable, although he has sculpted Brill’s into a magazine that takes the media as its launching point in the way Premiere takes the movies and Wired takes technology.

“The whole point of having David is to broaden the audience of the magazine,” said Mr. Bunn . While his Ilya Anopolsky story is billed in Mr. Kuhn’s editor’s note as charting the “reinvention of … modern media,” it consists of mainly profiles of teenagers like Mr. Anopolsky and the ways they interact with their families. This, Mr. Bunn said, was Mr. Kuhn’s idea. “David gave the O.K. to make it a story about personalities.”

Mr. Bunn argued that Mr. Kuhn’s efforts have made the magazine more approachable. “The only evidence I have is my mom,” he said. “I’ve written for the Village Voice , Salon and Wired and this is the first place I’ve written where she can read me.”

Mr. Brill doesn’t have much to do with hands-on editing of Brill’s Content anymore. According to insiders, since Mr. Kuhn took over, Mr. Brill has agreed not to speak to any editors and writers at the magazine about editorial matters. Rather, he can–and frequently does–consult directly with Mr. Kuhn and editor Eric Effron. While Mr. Brill may still take a keen interest in the editorial affairs of the magazine, at one time every draft was submitted by writers directly to Mr. Brill, often to be returned with extensive notes.

“Eric and David are his team,” one writer said of Mr. Effron and Mr. Kuhn’s relationship with Mr. Brill. “They work very closely together, but,” the writer said, Mr. Brill has “the Contentville thing that requires a lot of time.” Mr. Brill’s Contentville.com venture, which is due to launch on July 5, plans to sell books, reprints of magazine articles, television show transcripts among other offerings. Mr. Brill stepped down as editor in chief of his magazine and appointed Mr. Kuhn to the position after Mr. Brill announced partnerships on Feb. 2 between Contentville and CBS, NBC, Primedia and other media companies. The deals attracted criticism that those partnerships represented a conflict of interest for a magazine that covered the media.

The result has been that Mr. Kuhn has been left to run the magazine practically on his own. “That actually seems to be a relief to David,” the writer said.

Almost as soon as Mr. Kuhn took over, he defined the term “content” much more broadly than Mr. Brill had in the first issue of the magazine. Mr. Kuhn, it appears, has been including more of the fiction- and style-producing media in his magazine, sprinkling in articles about movies, fashion photography and technology into the mix.

The cover story for the issue on the stands when Mr. Kuhn was appointed was a look at the NBC television series The West Wing , packaged with a difficult-to-swallow argument that the producers and writers of that fictional drama had done a better job of covering the presidency than the Washington press corps.

At the time, Mr. Kuhn told Off the Record, “The piece was acknowledging that it’s a television show and that’s media, and this is a magazine that covers media. And it is a television show about Washington and politics and the interface between politics and the presentation of politics which has to do with the press … So it may be a story that wouldn’t have been there eight months ago, but when you think about, it’s sort of like, duh, that’s a good Content story.”

Mr. Kuhn’s writers have been listening. “The mandate has expanded to include information in all its varied forms,” said senior writer Seth Mnookin, who is covering the presidential campaign for Brill’s . “Certainly the central component of that remains the press, but I think David Kuhn has an expanded view of what else that includes.”

Asked who he thinks of as a Brill’s Content reader, Mr. Mnookin gave an answer common among the nine current and recently departed staffers interviewed: “People who don’t live in New York or D.C. or some other hypersaturated media capital. People who don’t read Jim Romenesko first thing every morning,” Mr. Mnookin said, referring to the Medianews.org Web site that compiles media news and gossip.

Mr. Kuhn has hired members of his own staff, and while he hasn’t fired anyone to date, many hired earlier by Mr. Brill left. Turnover at the magazine was high even before Mr. Kuhn arrived. Just 12 names from the masthead in the premier August 1998 issue are on the masthead in the July-August 2000 issue. However, of those 12, two of those original staffers have since departed, including managing editor Anick Pleven, who has taken a job at The New York Times Magazine and senior writer Katherine Rosman, whom Mr. Brill has threatened to sue for breach of contract if she takes another job in the next five months. Also in that 12 are Calvin Trillin, a contributing editor, and Bill Kovach, whose non-renewable term as ombudsman expired with the current issue. That leaves eight people who have stuck it out since the start.

Several staff members who left recently said that staff hired before Mr. Kuhn began to feel marginalized by their new editor. One member of the staff who predated Mr. Kuhn said that a staff consensus that the magazine is getting better has been “complicated” for Mr. Brill, who isn’t used to giving up control. But if the soufflé version of Brill’s works better than the brussel sprouts version, he may have to live with it. “When Content does what it think it should be doing,” one writer said, “that’s when it’s at its worst.

“To say the magazine is better under David, [Mr. Brill] had to say there was something wrong with the way he did it,” the staff member said. “It’s weird for it to take a turn for the positive because it involves shitting on his tenure.”

One writer laid the blame for the more uncommercial aspects of Brill’s Content solely on its founder. “Steve would say, ‘Let’s look at Consumer Reports and no matter what we find, we’ll run it,” a writer said, referring to a 5,500-word feature in the September 1999 issue which examined whether Consumer Reports ‘ product testing was fair and free of any conflicts of interest. “That’s a good intention but you can’t make a magazine out of that,” the staff member said. “If we did find something it wasn’t really a story and if we did find something we had to scream and make a big deal out of something. Ultimately, we were going after things people didn’t care about.”

So far the transition of Mr. Brill out of the editor’s role has been bumpy. He has violated the agreement to not talk to anyone other than Mssrs. Kuhn and Effron about editorial matters on occasion, insiders say, requiring that boundaries be restated every so often.

In the current issue, Bill Kovach, the ombudsman at Brill’s Content –the Nieman Foundation head, former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times and editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who fields and rules on Brill’s reader complaints–weighed in on whether Mr. Brill’s Contentville deals with NBC, CBS, Primedia, and others threaten the integrity of Brill’s Content . Mr. Kovach concluded, “I believe … that it would best serve the interests of the journalism of Brill’s Content if [Mr. Brill] were to separate himself completely from direct involvement in assigning, selecting, and editing articles.”

Mr. Brill has said that he takes the ombudsman role very seriously at Brill’s Content . The ombudsman, Mr. Brill wrote recently, represents “structured accountability” that keeps Brill’s Content free of corruption.

But, in his reply to Mr. Kovach, Mr. Brill sternly rejected the thought of letting go of the editorial reins, suggesting that the editorial affairs of the magazine are still dear to his own heart. “Were I to separate myself completely,” Mr. Brill wrote, “from editorial decisions related to the magazine (which I have no intention of doing because the most important part of our business is our editorial quality, to which I think I can and should contribute and, more important, because I believe deeply in the mission of this magazine)…”

Brill’s Content is still a start-up magazine with many issues to work out. The most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations statement for the magazine, covering the six months ending December 31, 1999 (before Mr. Kuhn took over) gives a circulation of 225,116. Mr. Brill’s stated circulation goal was half a million. Of that, newsstand sales account for 18,421 of issues sold. Advertising is another issue. The current issue has 24 ad pages in it. The July-August issue last year had 37.

There is also the issue of lead time in a very fast business. To date, Brill’s Content has been a news peg-driven magazine. Though the July issue appeared to have closed in early June, most of the media events written about–including the Elián raid, the dispute between Time Warner and Disney over carrying ABC on Time Warner Cable, and the folding of Mirabella –all occurred in April and early May. These are difficult hurdles in a news-driven magazine.

But that’s not anything Mr. Kuhn didn’t think about before he dropped into the editor’s chair of the magazine that has its founder’s name in its logo and which is, apparently, determined to speak for itself.

Time Inc. had the reputation as a raucous place in Henry Luce’s early days, when liquor carts were pushed through the halls during closing nights and Fortune writer James Agee, late author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , pounded out his stories into the morning, fueled by bourbon and loud 78 rpm records.

Today, though, 1271 Avenue of the Americas is a pretty staid place, where nice, smart Ivy Leaguers put out nice magazines and live nice, well-perked lives. When editors and writers from Time and Fortune headed off to Hawaii for a retreat earlier this year, they spent lots of time in early morning meetings addressing their magazines’ future.

So it was a relief to hear that the editorial staff of Entertainment Weekly , which just got back from an four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Puerto Rico, managed to live up to their Time Inc. forebears. The trip was a special treat in honor of the magazine’s 10th anniversary.

“It was the best morale booster,” spokesman Sandy Drayton said of the trip. “There was good clean fun had every day.”

Put up in the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club, EW staffers begged off from organized activities like an outing to the rainforest and shopping in Old San Juan in favor of laying by the pool, drinking (their bar tabs were covered, thank you), and losing money (their own, not Time Inc.’s) at blackjack tables in a nearby casino.

And in the spirit of the good time had by all, several staffers–from an editorial assistant to managing editor Jim Seymore–spent some quality time in a hotel hot tub during the junket’s last night.

“He was calling for more bourbon,” one writer said of Mr. Seymore.

According to another writer who took part in the fun in the hot tub, “When I was on my way in, I saw another member of the staff with his head looking skyward … and shots were being poured down his throat.” The writer said he “wasn’t allowed” to enter the hot tub “unless I had five drinks with me.”

Given the free supply of alcohol and hotel rooms, one might speculate that some EW employees may have, ahem, developed a closer working relationship with one, or more, colleagues.

“That was probably a sort of disappointment,” said a staffer. “There wasn’t a whole lot of rampant swinging … but it was a big place, so who knows?”

We think a young Mr. Luce would be proud.

At first glance, Newsweek’s July 3 cover on childhood obesity seems to be trauma-inducing, sure to be a contributor to future therapist bills. A boy on the heavy side, who looks to be in or approaching the troubled junior high school period, stands holding a melting, chocolate-dipped, rainbow-sprinkled ice cream cone, with the cover line asking, “Fat For Life?”

Why would anybody pose for such a picture?

Money!

According to a Newsweek spokesman, the youngster got paid to be on the cover. “It was a standard modeling job, like any other back-of-the-book cover,” the spokesman said. Did the cover boy know how the photo would be used? “His parents attended the shoot and knew what it was for,” he said.

So how much does Newsweek pay to label a pre-teen “fat for life” on every newsstand in the nation? Newsweek isn’t telling.