Diller Newsweek deal promises to open a new chapter in Vanity publishing

October 8, 2010

When I heard that billionaire Sidney Harman had bought Newsweek for $1 (and $70m liabilities) I thought the old boy had lost his marbles. He’s entitled to. At 93, he’s old enough to be the weekly news magazine’s father (it’s 77 this year). How many times have we seen this kind of senile folie de grandeur before? Why next, he’ll be resurrecting the London Illustrated News, I thought.

It turns out the deal was a lot shrewder than it appears, if rumours are to be believed. These go back to late August, and the gist of them is that media mogul Barry Diller is planning to take a stake in Newsweek, combine its operations with online news aggregator the Daily Beast and put its content doyenne, Tina Brown, in charge of both.

Someone certainly needs to take charge of Newsweek, because it doesn’t seem to have any staff left. But what the “NewsBeast” plan is beats New York’s finest business minds. Two losses do not generally equal a profit. And make no mistake, the Daily Beast is – like Newsweek – a prodigious lossmaker. Diller is already supposed to have poured $20m into it, without visible effect.

Whatever the business plan, the rumours have now gained sufficient traction for The Guardian to give them an amusing new spin. What you might call Vanity publishing. It presents the maturing deal as a product of Brown’s manipulative charm and boundless ambition (not for nothing has she been compared to Becky Sharp). In her sights is the unbearable success of Oxbridge rival Arianna Huffington, née Stassinopolous, proprietor and editrix of the Huffington Post. Like Brown, La Huffington is an adroit social climber. Unlike Brown, who edited Tatler at 25, married former Sunday Times editor Harold now Lord Evans, then resurrected Vanity Fair, the New Yorker etc, Huffington is the media doyenne who rose without trace. Worse, she is number 12 in the Forbes business list of most influential women in America, whereas our Tina is “only” 25th. Most galling of all, the Huffington Post – built on a similar aggregator news model to the Daily Beast – is so far the more successful, with unique viewing figures of about 45 million a month and projected profitability this year. The Beast, admittedly launched later, seems to have nearly 3 million unique visitors.

If it were any industry other than media, such motivation would be inconceivable – even as a journalistic conceit. Let’s hope it’s not Diller (an apparently sprightly 68) who is losing his marbles.

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