The Tina Brown Turnaround

newsweek 0 The Tina Brown TurnaroundTina Brown was in a state. It was Tuesday morning, Nov. 9, and the Daily Beast editor was in Barry Diller’s office at IAC headquarters on the West Side. Talks with Sidney Harman about merging the site with his recently acquired Newsweek were back on–big time–and to Ms. Brown, they teetered on the brink of inevitability. “Oh my God,” she thought. “This is really going to happen.”

“We don’t want to do this!” Ms. Brown and Beast president Stephen Colvin told Mr. Diller. The IAC chairman, who wanted a deal, asked them to reconsider. Go off and sit in a room together, he said. Think about it. No pressure. Then come back in an hour.

Off Ms. Brown and Mr. Colvin went. They talked. They paced. They called Sir Harold Evans, Ms. Brown’s husband. She downed a tuna sandwich and a Sprite Zero.

Finally, they began to come around, Ms. Brown recalled in an interview with The Observer. “Let’s take overwork out of it,” she said to Mr. Colvin. “Let’s take a late night out of it.” She felt the two-year strain of starting a Web site from scratch, and knew what their fatigue would be if they took on rescuing Newsweek, too. If they could put all that aside, did a deal with an ailing 77-year-old magazine make any sense?

‘We don’t want to do this!’ Ms. Brown and Beast president Stephen Colvin told Mr. Diller. The IAC chairman, who wanted a deal, asked them to reconsider.

The thing was … it did. The print-ad market was coming back. Newsweek‘s name would add credibility as the Beast grew. And the world of magazine pages, Ms. Brown’s old stomping ground, beckoned. She was the first to give in–on the condition that Mr. Colvin, the former CEO of Dennis Publishing in the United States, had to be in as well. Soon their hour was up.

“Are we on or are we not?” she asked.

Editor and executive looked at each other. Then they shook hands.

Back in his office, Mr. Diller showed none of the emotion that presumably accompanies the imminent commingling of two money-hemorrhaging institutions. “Good,” he said. “We’ll see Sidney at 4 o’clock.”

MR. HARMAN CAME to them that afternoon, the type of old-school gesture the Beast trio had come to expect from the 92-year-old throwback. But Mr. Harman also had no choice.

Since Newsweek was put on the block in May, it had lost its editor, the editor of its international editions, the editor-at-large, the senior Washington correspondent, the diplomatic correspondent, the executive editor, the creative director, two editorial directors, two deputy editors, the economics editor, the economics correspondent, two lead investigative reporters, the White House reporter, an international editor and a spokesman; plus the Web site’s editor, general manager, managing editor and three articles editors; and other staffers. (Disclosure: I am one of the departed. I worked at Newsweek until Oct. 29. For this piece, I relied on public information and reporting done after that date.) The CEO left last week, and the Washington bureau chief and two interim co-editors will depart at year’s end. It has been a near-total bloodletting.

To save the magazine, Mr. Harman needed a star editor in chief–and during a long search process, none of the A-, B- or C-list candidates he and his small circle of advisers considered had the same voltage as Ms. Brown, the legendary editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Talk. When talks with the Daily Beast broke down for the first time in October and he appeared to have no backup plan, Mr. Harman took a beating in the press, memorably forgetting the word “dinosaur” in a New York profile. “This kind of glare is rare. I’m not quite used to it,” Mr. Harman told the Newsweek staff on Friday, at a meeting announcing that the deal had gone through after all. (The Observer broke the news of the merger Thursday night.) In the end, the audio-gear magnate-turned-philanthropist got whom he wanted.

He’ll have his hands full. At the same Newsweek meeting, Ms. Brown took the floor from Mr. Harman to address her new staff for the first time. When she noted that she was the first woman editor of the newsmagazine, everyone applauded. Mr. Harman reached out a hand and touched her shoulder; Ms. Brown, no stranger to the clutching of rich, older men who want her to edit their magazines, ever so skillfully reached up and plucked Mr. Harman’s hand away.

So how will the whirlwind that is Ms. Brown fit into the culture of Newsweek? In the Daily Beast’s short life, the staff has grown accustomed to her tics. For about 21 hours of every day, someone is on call to answer her late-night/early-morning email blasts on random topics (1:21 a.m., Jan. 22, to 30 or so people: “Can u tell me where exactly Bhutan is?”). In April 2009, 11 people were enlisted to help prepare Ms. Brown for a quartet of TV appearances. It is not a coincidence that her assistant, Lena Jensen, was a contestant on TV’s The Amazing Race: To meet Tina Brown’s every beck and call, it apparently helps to have experience sprinting across the globe, performing impossible tasks.

As hard as she drives her staff, there is the occasional grace note, too, like this message to the newsroom on the Beast’s first birthday: “From raining London Happy Happy Anniversary to all Beasties. You have worked so hard and with such wonderful gusto all year. Every day you do things that surprise and thrill me. … So full of raw beastly life and clever animal cunning!”

If Newsweek‘s staff finds her arrival jarring, the feeling will be mutual. The IAC building Ms. Brown works in today was designed by Frank Gehry and offers gorgeous Hudson River views, video installations in the lobby, and a nap room. On Monday, she, Mr. Colvin and others toured the Financial District property where the Beast will soon join Newsweek, and found a dark, dingy fifth-floor space with few offices and cheap cubicles. Not a single member of the Beast entourage was smiling.

MS. BROWN’S BEAST reportedly loses $10 million a year, and in 2009 Newsweek lost $28 million. The premise that together the two will somehow make money has struck more than a few people as insane–but the bleeding may be more stoppable than people realize. Ms. Brown’s name brings in print-ad dollars all by itself. Newsweek‘s move from pricey West Village digs to the dodgy space at 7 Hanover Square will save $6.3 million in rent and operating costs alone. And there will be layoffs as the two staffs merge. (The incentive is to make those cuts from the Newsweek side of things, as the Washington Post Co. has agreed to cover some of those costs for up to one year.)

As the exchange with Mr. Diller shows, Ms. Brown opposed the merger as late as last Tuesday morning. Three weeks prior, she appeared visibly relieved in the Beast newsroom when negotiations broke down, even reaching a level of Zen when it was clear she would not have to deal with the daunting logistics of a merger.

Now she does. And she already works around the clock. The Observer asked: Where will she get the extra time?

“Well, my kids are grown up,” Ms. Brown said softly. “And I’ve this theory that as you get older, you work harder.” The absence of children creates a hole best filled by work, she said–”otherwise you’ll just feel mournful.”

Ms. Brown, who gets tripped up a bit talking about the future of Newsweek.com, speaks calmly and clearly about her plans for the print magazine. She wants to be carefully organized and not rush into hiring. There will be no gaudy “first Tina” issue. Things will improve gradually. “One is ready when one is ready,” she said. “I know what it takes; I know what I’m able to do.” To speak with her about what to do with a magazine, even one so battered as Newsweek, is to believe in the magic of dead trees and ink.

Oh my God. This is really going to happen.

nsummers@observer.com | @nicksumm