Media man

With his new Web venture, magazine veteran Kurt Andersen promises a must-go news and information site that's as witty as the Wall Street Journal.


Susan Lehman
December 13, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Media writers have been buzzing about it for months, but last week Spy co-founder and editor Kurt Andersen formally announced his latest venture -- Powerful Media, a Web-based entertainment/media news and information service. The site will chronicle what Andersen, in his recent novel, "Turn of the Century," calls the "Infotainment Zone," the colliding worlds of records, movies, music, journalism and new media.

Andersen has teamed up with former Spin editor Michael Hirschorn and the erstwhile president of Brill's Content, Deanna Brown -- with money from TheStreet.com founder James Cramer, Spy publisher Tom Phillips, Flatiron Investors, preeminent Internet venture capitalists and other investors -- and is gearing up for a spring launch in new offices in Manhattan's hip West Chelsea neighborhood.

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Hand-scrawled posters in Powerful Media's vast office space -- which is currently occupied by a dozen new hires, lots of iMacs and long, unfinished-plywood work tables called, in new-media parlance, "pods"-- suggest the site (which may or may not be called Insidedope.com) will include bits of music, movies, TV and other multimedia displays as well as more traditional reporting, analysis and commentary.

In a recent hiring spree, Andersen and Co. signed up editors and writers from a range of glossy magazines, daily papers and trade publications: Kyle Pope from the Wall Street Journal; Craig Marks, former Spin executive editor; Lorne Manly, a senior editor at Brill's Content; Chris Petrikin from Variety; Suck founding editor Ana Marie Cox; and author and editor Fred Goodman.

Andersen, 45, was the editor of New York magazine from 1994 until 1996, when he was fired after Henry Kravis, a partner in New York's parent company, reportedly had had enough of the magazine's aggressive business coverage. He resurfaced as a New Yorker contributor. Andersen co-wrote a satiric stage review, has written television pilots for NBC and ABC and, before founding Spy, was Time's architecture critic; next year he hosts an hour-long Public Radio show, "Studio 360," about art and culture. Andersen is, of course, the ultimate media insider, and so is nicely poised to deliver genuine inside dope.

But who, exactly, wants this stuff? Can Andersen and Co. make money? What do they know about Web publishing? What exactly do they have in mind? In an interview in his lofty new office, Powerful Media man Kurt Andersen answers these and other questions, speaks of "Web-specific things," calls Spy a prototypical Web publication and identifies the story of our time.

Have you had enough of magazines?

No, not at all.

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When I left New York magazine, I certainly didn't say, "Oh, I'm through with this medium." On the other hand, I had been so spoiled by my magazine experience that my bar was very, very high, so there just weren't many great magazines to do, and aren't.

As of June, I was looking forward to a very happy rest of my life doing nothing but writing novels and occasionally writing magazine pieces. Things happen. Opportunities arise. This reached that point of irresistibility.

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OK, so what are you doing? What will Insidedope.com, or whatever it's called, look like?

Like nothing that exists quite yet. The closest model is TheStreet.com. We are going to sell subscriptions; like TheStreet.com, we'll focus on one particular area and try to cover it in serious, useful and authoritative depth.

We're hiring A-list journalists to break stories, create analysis, etc. We'll also have various Web-specific things -- database stuff and aggregate things and all those Web things. We'll aspire to be a must-go place for information about these worlds that -- for better or worse -- I'm obsessed with.

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Who's going to read it?

Millions and millions, worldwide. There are several hundred thousand people who subscribe to trade magazines and newsletters about the industries we're going to cover. And there are people in the various businesses -- screenwriters and executives and editors and producers -- who, for a variety of reasons, don't subscribe to those trade magazines. We hope to get them to read this thing. Plus, we'll have material for the millions of Americans who read Entertainment Weekly, Talk, Premiere and the rest.

Do you guys know anything about the Net? You know about magazines. Does that mean you can succeed online?

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A completely reasonable thing to ask. We know enough not to try to simply redo a magazine. We know enough to abandon the habitual ways of thinking about writing journalism. There are ways to think about doing stories, presenting stories, that can be transplanted. I think we know enough to know what is the bath water and what is the baby. We're saving the baby.

Whenever I do something -- whether it's starting a magazine, or writing a book -- I wonder, Would I want this thing, will this fill a void for me personally? This will. Am I, therefore, better equipped to do it than a lot of other people? Maybe. We'll see.

"Turn of the Century" focuses a lot on the convergence of news and entertainment, and dramatizes the lack of available sorting mechanisms -- or an ideological framework -- in which to make sense of a vast stream of unsorted cultural information. Does your interest in these subjects affect the way you think about the Web magazine?

One of the exciting qualities of this moment is that there is flux and volatility, a proliferating glut of information and a great confusion -- in a professional sense -- about what to do next. Yes, the train is leaving the station. But which train? Where's it going?

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One thing this [Web site] can do is bring real editorial coherence to the accelerating flurry of news and gossip and chatter that is a little overwhelming to people.

Buzz did not serve Talk well. Are you nervous about the buzz surrounding this project?

I don't know that buzz served them badly. I guess there is a general fourth law of thermodynamics that says if you get this much buzz [points hands up] you get this back from it [points hands down]. All of us here have been around enough blocks to be aware of various ways you can go wrong with buzz -- too much, too little press, all that stuff. You try to play it the best you can.

What, on your site, is free? What's for sale?

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We're figuring that out.

Why all the confidentiality?

Isn't that what you're supposed to do in a new-media venture?

We're still months away from starting. I don't know what's to be gained from showing sketches and rough drafts. Nondisclosure agreements are part of the standard operating procedures for the lawyers and venture capitalists behind this thing, so when people come in for interviews, we have them sign nondisclosure agreements.

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It's an attempt to keep all those nosy, goddamned journalists out of our hair!

What are you going to do that Brill's Content doesn't do?

What are we going to do that the New York Times doesn't do?

Content had several fundamental errors in its conception. One was to focus strictly on journalism. It's called Content, but it's about journalism. Journalism will be part of our focus, but one very small part. We'll also focus on music, film, television, entertainment of various kinds, broadcast and cable, streaming video, online publishing and the book industry. These
worlds have always been contiguous and interwoven, but right now -- because of technology and the general blurring between all kinds of media -- it is a great time to regard them as all one thing.

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We're committed to serious journalism, but we won't have the single-minded prosecutorial take on the world that Brill's Content has. There are miscreants in the world who deserve prosecutorial focus, but they are a minority in any given profession. I hope this venture will have a sense of glee about the worlds -- not a censorious tone. When censoriousness is appropriate, fine, but that won't be our major focus.

Also, though our lack of Web professionalism will no doubt lead us to make all kinds of dopey errors, the fact that Michael and I have been editors at magazines that people really want to read gives us a leg up in terms of understanding what it takes to make people enjoy something. Being an editor is being an editor; knowing how to present and distill and ferret out information and opinions that a heterogeneous population of people will enjoy and find useful is a complicated task. Editing New York magazine or Esquire or working at Spin is good preparation for this.

You left out Spy. Will there be remnants of Spy in this project? A similar sensibility?

I'm sure certain pieces of my sensibility and genetic code will find their way into this. The difference between this and Spy is the difference between a 31-year-old person and a 45-year-old person, though.

One of my self-serving beliefs is that much of what Spy was about in terms of sensibility and even the physical graphic look was like a Web publication before there was such a thing -- it was 10 years too early for the platform. The irreverence, the obsessiveness, the skepticism, the density of information, the information-drivenness of it as a conception -- I find echoes, spores of all this in the Web.

This will be much more of a journalistic enterprise than Spy was. This will be witty in the way that the Economist and the Wall Street Journal and the New York Observer are.

What is it about the media that obsesses you?

It doesn't obsess me.

You said it did.

I know I did. But now that I'm addressing it seriously rather than ironically and self-deprecatingly, I'm being more accurate. I think the increasingly seamless and claustrophobic media culture is the important story in terms of shaping our culture. The way in which our lives -- for better and for worse -- are being transmogrified into a wall-to-wall entertainment media dome is interesting to me.

Politics, since Reagan and the shifts that fall under the rubric of Reaganism -- I just think Washington politics is mostly irrelevant.

It's not entertainment?

To the degree that it is entertainment, like Monica and Bill in 1998, it becomes interesting to people.

The traditional left, right, two-party system seems, each passing day, like an anachronism. It seems like the one thing in our society that is caught in some kind of time warp that hasn't moved ahead with everything else. I find myself not caring whether George W. Bush or Bill Bradley is elected -- I prefer that Bill Bradley be elected, but not very passionately. Kind of like I prefer swordfish to tuna.

Do you think independent voices, political or otherwise, can flourish in the entertainment culture dome you've described?

It's tricky. Any subversive voice that is successful enough to attract an audience is so instantaneously co-opted. MTV, for instance, being the great example, but there are a dozen smaller examples.

What have you read that you find subversive, fresh?

I find McSweeney's, Dave Eggers' thing, good, subversive and fresh. I find Bill Bastone's Smoking Gun a good little thing.

One of the reasons I'm helping to do this is that there has been an exponential increase in opinion but hardly any increase in reporting. Maybe it's time now in the development of this medium to try to do the thing that isn't cheap and easy and everybody has one of.

I know, you don't want to give it all away. But when you do your prototype, what kind of reports, what sorts of stories will it include?

I can't give examples of breaking stories because we don't exist yet and we haven't broken them yet. Stories about particular literary agents and authors, stories about particular music-management firms, that for a variety of reasons don't get reported anywhere else, don't get reported with a kind of cut-to-the-chase authority -- "Here's the real story." Very rarely do you find that in the trades. In newspapers, partly because of the accreted protocols of the form, you can't just say what's what.

What's an example of protocol inhibiting truth telling?

To varying degrees every story. The reporting on choosing the new editor of George -- to cite a parochial example -- didn't do what it could have done. There could have been more illustrative detail about all the players and what they have in mind and what the various variables were in terms of keeping this alive. It's a tiny example you can multiply out to a half-dozen realms covered.

We're hiring people who have reported on these people and these companies, and who really have the chops and know the stories and, not to overstate it, can really create a new kind of journalism, a kind of journalism one gets glimpses of all the time. The Jamie Tarses story, for instance; when Jamie Tarses left ABC this summer there was great reporting on that. You see glimpses of that. As a reader, I just want more of it in one place. Together with usable data and databases that this medium can deliver.

What sort of databases?

From the most obvious commodity data, like box-office results, you can slice and dice in interesting, useful ways and provide in a very timely fashion. Embedded with another story about a film, a very simply -- I don't want to give too much away --

You haven't given anything away.

Good. It would be nice to be able, as a screenwriter or producer, to see who is -- Take a book. Wouldn't it be useful to all kinds of people in television, movies and the book business to, say, type in the name of the book or an author you've heard about, and be able to find out the exact status of that book, when it's due, how much was paid for it. That's just one tiny little narrow example. There's lots of data available in disparate areas; information shopping with first-rate, correct analysis, new facts, new reporting and all of the various sales data all in one place -- that seems like a useful thing.

Powerful Media. What were you thinking when you chose that name?

It's kind of a placeholder name. We are still debating and kicking around actual URL Web-site names and testing them. Insidedope.com is one of them. Powerful Media is just a name that seemed to have a little bit of a wink that would describe what we're doing, and could be the suit-and-tie placeholder.

It suggests a bit of an ironic posture toward what you're doing?

A little. But like so many ironic things, already the irony has disappeared. In March, when we were first thinking of this, the URL was available and I was in my Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn in my dirty T-shirt, unshaven, and yes, the name Powerful Media had a distinctly powerful, ironic cast. In that kind of old, "Name of the Game" way, it had an appealing sense of self-importance. Having been momentarily a joke about self-importance, we will become that.

Do you like the Q & A format?

I like the disintermediated quality. It's a little rawer. I'm only interested if it's really good. Most writing isn't really good writing. People batting around and doing the various dances that are part of conversation is interesting.

What do you think -- has journalism been cheapened by obsessive celebrity coverage?

Yeah. Celebrity stories became an addictive thing that substituted the giant marketing of show business for actual thought. Look at Esquire in the '60s. That's setting the bar a little high. They put out a really interesting magazine. They had pieces about famous people sometimes. But it wasn't just, "Oh, who has a new movie? Oh, who has a new book? That's who we'll do." That allows editors to abdicate some of the duties of being an editor. You don't have to think.

As the consummate insider, do you ever long for the outside? Do you ever think, Get me out of here?

Talk to me in a year. I'm sure I'll be entirely re-nauseated at being present in this particular fishbowl. I had almost three years sitting in a room alone. I have some stored-up appetite for the fray.


Susan Lehman

Susan Lehman is a staff writer for Salon Media.

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