Now Is Winter of Brill’s Content : Founder Wrestles With Primedia

When Steve Brill swooped down last April and swept up the flashy, struggling media-biz Web site Inside.com-with the assistance of Primedia, the publisher of New York magazine-the gesture looked gallant, improbable. Here was Mr. Brill, the demanding, explosive journalism crusader whose eponymous magazine, Brill’s Content , portrayed itself as the growling watchdog of the media, seizing control of a jazzy newsroom founded by culture seismologists Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn. And he was taking over with backing of the bottom-line corporation that owned New York , and also cranked out pasty trade titles like Folio and Cable World .

Today, this strange marriage appears to be in deep trouble.

Barely six months into their relationship, Mr. Brill and Inside seem about as compatible as Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley. Primedia is in the dumps:

The stock price is at $2.02, and still-optimistic company C.E.O. Tom Rogers is under pressure to sell assets. Now speculation rages as to whether Mr. Brill will seek to extricate himself from his complicated deal with Primedia and assume full control himself—or whether Primedia will buy Mr. Brill out and take over the mess themselves.

And it’s a fine mess. Inside/Brill Media is an angry shop, full of frustrated staffers who worry that their efforts are goingtowaste-and that their jobs may soon follow. Every rumor about alleged discussions between Mr. Brill and Mr. Rogers causes more panic. At the same time, Brill’s Content editor in chief David Kuhn is at work closing an issue that, because of the current upheaval, many staffers believe will never see a newsstand. “None of us think the magazine’s going to come out,” said one Inside/Brill source. “Editors are telling us, ‘Don’t spend too much time on the magazine stuff, because there might not be one.’”

What makes the Inside/Brill Media situation especially bizarre is that Inside.com reporters have been aggressively chronicling Primedia’s and Inside/Brill Media’s own problems. It was Inside.com that reported that according to unnamed bankers, Primedia had put its regional magazines, Chicago and New York , on the block. Last week, Inside.com broke the story of Primedia’s attempted sale of its gun titles. Inside’s Mark Miller also wrote about the capsizing of Mr. Brill’s online venture, Contentville.

But despite their efforts to report on their own future-or demise-staffers mostly feel lost, in the dark.

“I mean, everyone knows we’re on the ropes,” said one Brill employee. “If someone-anyone-would just call a staff meeting and say something like, ‘It’s a tough time, we’re doing the best we can, we’ll let you know what the situation is as soon as we learn more,’ I think everyone would be  more inclined to keep on going. Instead, you have the top brass treating everyone like assholes, acting like there’s nothing wrong. It’s patronizing, and it makes people work less.”

Neither Mr. Brill nor Mr. Kuhn returned Off the Record’s calls for this story. Brill’s   Content editor Eric Effron declined to comment. Primedia’s Tom Rogers also declined comment through a company spokesperson.

But Inside/Brill sources said that any break between Mr. Brill and Primedia would be complicated because of the tangled nature of last spring’s deal. Primedia owns 49 percent of Brill Media Holdings, and Mr. Brill is the managing partner of Media Central-the company’s hodgepodge of media trade magazines. At the time of the deal, it was reported that Mr. Brill would receive a payment in cash, stock or both if he could boost the fortunes of those properties.

According to sources, Mr. Brill and Mr. Rogers have been actively conversing in meetings and on the telephone, trying to figure out a deal. On Tuesday, Oct. 9, sources said, Mr. Brill met with partners from his own company, Brill’s Media Holdings. That evening, he was due to meet again with Mr. Rogers.

As Mr. Brill met with his financial heavyweights, some of his employees held out hope that the financially strapped Primedia would come up with the cash to buy Mr. Brill out. If this happened, sources speculated, the company would likely close Brill’s Content, while keeping Inside open as a way of further building the Media Central brands.

Said one source: “Even from a common-sense standpoint, it’s crazy to think they’d sell him Media Central. It’s a profitable component.”

But others warned that Mr. Brill would have difficulty walking away from another one of his media children.

“Brill seems to have an emotional stake in this,” said another source.

Then there’s Primedia’s own problems. The company has what one analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity politely called a “liquidity issue,” more specifically “the need to borrow money in order to make its bills by the end of the year.” Having spent more than $1 billion for the About.com Web sites and the Emap magazine titles combined, Primedia has pledged to cut $250 million in assets, and soon. On Tuesday, the New York Post reported that it had put the public-relations giant Bacon’s Information unit up for sale, hoping to get $125 million.

“The larger issue is Primedia’s debt,” said Reed Phillips, with the media investment bank of DeSilva & Phillips. “They’re in an awkward position. The properties that will get the best price also have the highest cash flow.”

But given the company’s need to raise money, sources said, it might just be willing to sell its share of Brill Media Holdings, as well as Media Central, to Mr. Brill.

“If I had to bet,” said one Brill source, “I’d bet on Brill, given his commitment to this and his backers. But I wouldn’t bet that much.”

More certain, it seems, is the fate of Brill’s Content . Most sources agree that while Inside.com may make it, Brill’s Content will not. One Brill source put it this way: “Whoever ends up with the entity is definitely going to close the magazine. Even if it’s him.”

As one publishing executive who knows Mr. Brill put it: “He’s clearly stumbled very badly here. Very, very badly. But Steve Brill’s never finished.”

Meanwhile, the troops soldier on at both Inside and beleaguered Brill’s Content , in the face of what has become a thoroughly confusing storm.

On Tuesday morning, a mass e-mail was sent to employees of Media Central under the heading “News.” When people opened it up, they found an intro saying that it was meant to be the “first” in a series of updates about the happenings at Media Central, Inside and Brill’s Content . What followed was a sunny birth announcement and news of a Cable World employee attending his 10-year reunion. There was a note about Folio’s redesign, but no news about whether, in the next week, people would keep their jobs or not. “This is getting really tiresome,” said one staffer. “I’d just like to know.”