Brill’s folly

What if you launched a Web site and nobody came?


It may be early to pronounce Contentville, Steven Brill’s megasite for readers — “the Web’s first store run for and by people who love content” — a nonstarter. But the shocking lack of press generated by its arrival on July 5 certainly seems to be a bad sign.

Timing is everything, and in the wake of some well-publicized layoffs at content sites (including this one) media watchers may simply be too overcome with skepticism to sample Contentville’s wares. A pure content site in this day and age? their silence says. You must be dreaming. Oh, and you’re going to charge people for it? (More silence, rolling of eyes.)

“Skepticism is a virtue,” declares the cover of Brill’s Content, but as with most virtues, a little of it goes a long way.

To be sure, the knives have been out for Contentville ever since Brill announced his intention to join with such heavy hitters as CBS, the Ingram Book Group and the New York Times. Since its launch two years ago, Content, the magazine, has presented itself as the voice of morality in media, calling newspapers, networks, magazines and Web sites on their perceived shortcomings. (Fact-checking is a particular bjte noire of Mr. Brill’s.) And the magazine has continuously viewed merger mania in the media world with alarm, proscribing the control of information by the few.

But the cavils of Brill’s critics seem naive to me. First off, the very existence of entities like AOL Time Warner have made the urge to partner almost a self-preservation instinct. (Have Feed and Suck, which announced this week they were forming something called Automatic Media, sold out? And am I the only one who thinks they should call their new site “Fuck” rather than “Seed”?)

Second, Brill is not hampered by personal relationships. As a former Content staffer told me, “Steve will go after his friends.” In the inaugural issue, chairman and CEO Brill lambasted the press for its coverage of the Kenneth Starr investigation; Brill’s broad brush tainted many whom he calls friends. It’s not likely he’s going to cut the New York Times slack in his magazine because it’s supplying archived stories to Contentville.

For despite the confusion of names (and Contentville — which comes to you from the branding minds of Olgilvy and Mather — is one of the cooler Web site names I’ve heard in a while), the sites have damned little to do with each other. Yes, Contentville will borrow from Brill’s Content when appropriate, but by and large they are separate entities.

The magazine is perking up as new editor David Kuhn breathes some life into its rather humorless bones. (Now it’s time for my full disclosure close-up: I have talked to Kuhn and company about writing something for the magazine.) As staff writers were redirected to the Brill’s Content site, many chose to brave the New York magazine market instead.

Kuhn’s emphasis on more freelance writers (and, so far at least, less “gotcha” stories than the old BC) certainly flies in the face of the original blueprint. From its inception, Content boasted that all food was prepared on the premises. Its staff writers were supposed to be like Eliot Ness’ Untouchables: incorruptible, because they served only one master. (Writers were discouraged, and sometimes forbidden, from writing for other publications.)

All of which is interesting, in an academic kind of way, but has little to do with Contentville. The site stands on its own, ready to supply all manner of, well, content to a hungry readership — at a price.

And there, as the fellow said, is the rub.

According to Brill’s publicist, Cindy Rosenthal, last week’s launch of Contentville was a “soft launch,” as they say in the business. This always seemed to me to be cheating, an attempt to have it both ways with critics, especially when the site’s proposed launch has already been delayed several times. But the work-in-progress nature of Web sites is one of the distinct advantages of this medium: What you don’t like today may look different tomorrow.

So let’s look at Contentville today. A legend atop the front page trumpets: “Where honest expert advice and the Cross Content Search combine to bring you the best stuff — magazines, books, article archives, speeches, screenplays, doctoral dissertations, legal documents, TV transcripts, rare books and e-books — on any subject, at great prices. Readers rejoice.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read that list of “stuff,” I think of that old Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others …” Or more than one, in this case. Because of its niche nature, there may be more of a market for doctoral dissertations (for example) than you would think. (The site boasts that you can search over 1.5 million, published since 1871.)

But books and magazines are pretty well represented online. The best-known book sites are having their own much-publicized problems right now. And though Contentville says of its magazine subscriptions, “Subscribe now and we’ll rush you your first copy within 24 hours,” how many people need a copy of Dog World (one of the titles offered), or any magazine, within 24 hours?

Contentville has received good press for banding together independent booksellers (many of whom serve as on-site experts in various disciplines) to sell their books online (more wagon circling). The site’s Chapter One feature (which presents the first chapters of current titles) is winning. But can Contentville compete with established sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble? What force, save bankruptcy, would sway millions from going with what they know?

Searching screenplays, I found none by Alan Smithee (the fictional name some writers put on scripts they don’t want credit for) — but none by Michael Tolkin (“The Player,” “The Rapture,” etc.) either. A search for “Quentin Tarantino” yielded only the Miramax book of the “Pulp Fiction” script, $8.96 ($8.37 for members) — $1 less than Amazon. But it’s the only Tarantino title here, compared with Amazon’s six (two scripts and four books about the auteur, God forbid — and those are just the ones on hand).

In New York and Los Angeles, you can buy scripts on the street (literally), sold by vendors downtown, right beside the incense and sunglasses. And on the Web you can find them at sites like the Daily Script, for free, no less. (OK, they link to slow-loading pages in all kinds of formats, but they’re free.)

In my experience, the Web is haunted by a hungry pack of bargain shoppers. They want convenience, yeah, but they also want value, and when you can download music, pictures and games (you know, fun stuff) for free the wisdom of charging for Nixon’s Checkers speech, or William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” crowd-pleaser seems specious. With a little patience I found both online. For free, of course.

Not that I don’t wish Contentville well. It did my heart good to find two dissertations on a book that I had not heard word of in decades (Tom Kromer’s “Waiting for Nothing”), and I’m pleased to think young people still turn to forgotten writers of the Great Depression for a dose of nihilism. Though not pleased enough to spend $29.95 to find out what they think about it.

A final word of caution: A colleague wrote me to complain that he had thrown away the card on his last subscription copy of Content thinking the subscription would lapse, and that he wouldn’t receive the magazine anymore. Much to his surprise, he kept receiving Brill’s Content — and the bills. Sure enough, I received my “last” copy of Content with a cover card that says (in not particularly conspicuous type), “I don’t want to lose Brill’s Content. Please renew my subscription, and continue it each year, unless I tell you otherwise” (emphasis mine).

Nowhere on this card is a box marked NO that you can check and return; neither is there an 800 number listed, where a reader might call and cancel his subscription. Most magazines assume no reply means you don’t want the magazine, and in fact will bug you mercilessly, like some scorned suitor. (“Was it something we said?”) Though there is nothing illegal about such chicanery, and magazines play all kinds of games with their circulation numbers (Content claims a circulation of 325,000, but after two years has still not registered with the Audit Bureau of Circulations), the practice smells.

Thank God there are no blow-in cards on the Web.

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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