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April 16, 2000, Sunday
NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE DESK

The Way We Live Now: 4-16-00: Questions for Michael Hirschorn and Kurt Andersen; Inside Job



Q: Inside.com arrives in a few weeks. You’ve said it’s going to
be a digital information service about entertainment industry news. Who’s
your audience?

Andersen: People working in the entertainment and media
businesses primarily, and then secondarily people who have an interest
in the creation and business of culture.

Let’s talk about that second group for a moment, the
kinds of people who don’t work anywhere near Hollywood but who can quote
all the box-office grosses of the season’s movies. Not that you have to
go out of your way to get that information — in fact, it’s hard to avoid
— but why are so many ostensible outsiders so obsessed with it right now?

Hirschorn: I think people are interested in and increasingly
savvy about the process of the creation of entertainment and are interested
in understanding the way they are being manipulated.

How did that develop?

Andersen: I think with my generation. It extended to wanting
to know — and perhaps knowing too much for their own good — about Nielsen
ratings or record sales or how a movie is really produced, and thus we
have what has happened over the last decade, 15 years, 20 years: general-interest
daily newspapers and monthly magazines devoting more and more and more
of their resources to covering the behind-the-scenes of these worlds of
music and film and television and media. I would say that many of our lives
are increasingly defined by the cultural entertainment media dome that
we live in. And how that came to be — how those things get to be created,
who those men and women are that are determining what we watch and read
and see and hear- all those things are naturally interesting to people.

Hirschorn: In the old days the really powerful people
were distant shadowy figures behind huge oak doors. Now we know who they
are, and literally anyone with a good idea can immediately become a major
player. I think in a broader cultural sense, the creation of content has
become more interesting than the content itself.

How utterly depressing. Why has that come to pass?

Hirschorn: I think particularly with music, the quality
of mainstream musical output is pretty unimpressive right now. It’s blander
and blander and blander, and yet the business of the creation of music
is increasingly fascinating. Technological change and the way in which
digital media might or might not transform the music business is much more
byzantine and multifaceted and nuanced than the ‘N Sync record.

Andersen: I think the other factor at work here is that
business in general has become more interesting to more people over the
last eight years, as this bull market, which began in 1992, has stayed
alive.

To what extent does that trend produce a kind of narcissism?
Newspapers reporting on people who make magazines about people who produce
television shows about people who shoot movies about. . . . I mean, does
this sort of thing preclude a real engagement with the rest of what goes
on in the world?

Andersen: Yes, for better or for worse — and I could
argue both for better and for worse — yes, I think the popular interest
in culture and entertainment and diversion has indeed, like sports, replaced
engagement in national political affairs. But it’s one thing when The New
York Daily News spends four issues covering a magazine launch, given that
98 percent of its readership, if not more, doesn’t work in the entertainment
or media businesses. We have in our defense to say that this thing is for
that 2 percent, the people who do.

Does that insulate you from that kind of navel-gazing?

Hirschorn: We actually intend to write about ourselves
constantly. I’ll be writing about Kurt and Kurt will be writing about me
and my feelings about what Kurt says about me. Sort of a meta-”Real World.”

© The New York Times Company

 


 

May 3, 2000
THE WASHINGTON POST

Point and Clique; At Inside.com, Media Superstars Hope to Out-Scoop Giant News Rivals And Put People In the Loop–For a
Price

GIVEN THE POWERFUL ambitions of powerful media to alter the Internet
landscape, the setting here on a forlorn block off 12th Avenue, filled
with warehouses and loading docks, hardly suggests a vision of the future.

A hand-operated elevator delivers visitors to a
13th-floor loft, framed by concrete walls and grimy industrial windows,
that seems a Hollywood-like set for a dot-com company: mostly young people
in flannel shirts, jeans, Yankees caps and the occasional earring, noodling
over gleaming iMacs on makeshift wooden-slab desks.

But the creators of Inside.com, an entertainment and media Web site that
debuts in the next week, are hardly penniless geeks. The founders–former
Spy and New York magazine editor Kurt Andersen, ex- Spin editor Michael
Hirschorn and former Brill’s Content publisher Deanna Brown–have met this
morning with their Wall Street investors, who are bankrolling the fledgling
operation to the tune of $28 million. Raising the money in this e-biz age,
says Andersen, is as easy “as getting laid in 1969.”

For all the advance buzz, the trio faces a series of daunting questions:
How much “inside” information about their core areas– television,
movies, music, books, and newspapers and magazines–do readers really crave?
Can their modest staff beat the big media goliaths with real-time scoops?
And can their financial plan–in which most of the material is reserved
for $199-a-year subscribers– make money where so many others have crashed
and burned?

“It’s the great $64 million question about our business model,” says
Andersen, 45. “The conventional wisdom is you can’t do it.”

“We’re selling insecurity and opportunity,” says Hirschorn, 36,
meaning that media honchos would die before appearing out of their cyberloop. “The
really exciting, must-have information for a relatively small group of
people.”

While the other partners constantly talk about “New York and L.A.,” Brown,
the 36-year-old CEO, maintains that “the notion of being inside is
very sexy to an insurance broker in Kansas, as well as someone who’s in
the business.”

For all their chatter about being “platform agnostic” and about “aggregating
eyeballs,” “triangulating cost,” “crossover opportunities,” “unduplicated
readers” and the “post-bubble economy,” the Powerful Media
players have stocked their start-up with top talent from the Old Media.
These include reporters and editors from Time, the Wall Street Journal,
the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Disney, Variety, Hollywood Reporter,
the New York Observer and Rolling Stone.

One thing is certain: Inside.com won’t have trouble getting noticed. Not
only are Andersen and Hirschorn longtime laborers in the Manhattan hype
factory, but the Wall Street cash will fuel a $10 million marketing campaign–including
ads in such magazines as Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, online ads, billboards,
200,000 pieces of direct mail, even faxes served with menus at appropriately
chic restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

There’s nothing understated about the Web site’s self-promotion. In one
release, Inside.com promises “searching, deep, market-moving analysis,” along
with lots of “inside dish,” while also “giving professionals
the information they need now to do business better and smarter.” Whew.

“This is not some kind of quick-sprint, pump-and-dump IPO play,” Hirschorn
insists. But that doesn’t mean the company won’t go public down the road,
as its 45 full-time employees must fervently hope, since they are all the
proud owners of stock options.

For more on the Web site itself, click here. Oh, wait. You can’t do that
in print. So here’s an old-fashioned description.

The opening screen is clean and spare, not terribly exciting. To draw in
the user, it relies on headlines and departments: Inside Dope, Daily Digest,
Power Index, Ratings, This Morning’s Talk Shows, Mogul Astrology (say wha?)
and–very important–Today’s Gossip. The page will be automatically customized
for subscribers, based on their interests.

Andersen and Hirschorn plan to code each story, labeling it a 90A or 75B
or 40C, which will determine both how high it’s displayed on the home page
and how long before it vanishes to a secondary page. “Information
has less value at 5 p.m. than at 10 a.m.,” Hirschorn says.

The key to Powerful’s plan to attract 100,000 paying subscribers within
three years lies in one word: data. The site will bombard visitors with
all sorts of hot-stuff lists: TV ratings. Box office numbers. Big-selling
CDs. A roundup of movie reviews, electronically searchable so that you
can find whether the New York Times has written more favorably than The
Washington Post about Columbia Tri- Star releases. Summaries of network
newscasts, by television analyst Andrew Tyndall, so you can calculate whether
ABC, NBC or CBS is devoting more air time to the presidential campaign.
The latest traffic figures, provided by Media Metrix, for all manner of
news and entertainment Web sites.

“This is more of a business tool than a consumer magazine,” Brown
says.

Other bells and whistles for the let’s-do-lunch crowd will include the
tracking of all entertainment projects under consideration by the networks,
and of many book manuscripts in various stages of pre- publication–which
Hirschorn says his wife, an editor at St. Martin’s Press, would use to
scope out the competition.

“We’re interested in the people behind the books,” says Sara
Nelson, a former staffer at America Online and the Oxygen Network who heads
the books unit. “The authors, the agents, the editors, the publishers,
the back-office workings, how the deals are made, where they’re promoted,
who’s making the movie. A lot of the coverage is a little bit dry.”

For those who care more about their portfolios, Powerful has cut a deal
with SmartMoney.com to provide a “map” of media and entertainment
stocks–red or green, depending on the day’s market action–that would-be
traders can click on for more information.

Therein lies a clue as to why the founders believe that media professionals
(and their companies, which will get a discount for bulk subscriptions)
will feel compelled to pay up. In the print world, the New York Times can’t
include interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times or USA Today. But
Inside.com can link to these stories, even in such rivals as Variety, or
buy what it likes from other Web outlets, as in the case of SmartMoney.
This may produce the sort of one-stop shopping that was a secret of the
Drudge Report’s early success.

And there will likely be more deals. Powerful Media has talked to all the
networks about possible partnerships, and has a preliminary agreement with
Fortune to produce a page of material for each issue. The editors would
like to buy their way onto Yahoo! or some other popular slice of cyberspace.
They are looking for a partner to produce a print magazine. These relationships,
they say, will not deter them from aggressively covering the media companies
involved. And they hope such content will help them attract 1 million nonpaying
visitors (about the same level as Salon or Slate), who will have access
to less than 20 percent of the material.

Industry celebrities of varying degrees of luminescence will also be a
presence on Inside.com. Show-biz manager Bernie Brillstein will write an
advice column. Comedian Harry Shearer and “Homicide” producer
Tom Fontana will file dispatches from the field. James Bond screenwriter
Bruce Feirstein will host a weekly message board. They, too, will get a
piece of the action if the company goes public.

Still, the site’s reputation will probably rise or fall on the strength
of its original reporting. Kyle Pope, a former Wall Street Journal reporter
who signed on to cover television, says he and four colleagues will outnumber
the Journal’s TV team, but that they will have to file far more stories,
sometimes even hourly.

“Do we have enough people to do that? I don’t know,” Pope says. “Having
the spotlight on you is great, but also a little bit horrifying. The question
is, are we going to have something people come back to day after day? Month
after month? We’re really worried about this, making sure we don’t get
expectations so high they’re impossible to hit.”

Craig Marks, who covers music, sees a clear opening. “The music sector
is underserved by what exists out there,” says the former executive
editor of Spin. “We will translate the gobbledygook from the new media
world and the gobbledygook from the old record world and create a new,
higher form of gobbledygook.”

History is against Inside.com, since consumers have grown so accustomed
to free material on the Web. Over the past year, both Slate and TheStreet.com,
which had been charging for access, were forced to abandon the idea.

Some rivals scoff at the new company. Peter Bart, editor of Variety, calls
some of Powerful Media’s claims, such as those about its planned book database, “preposterous.”

“The economics of that operation don’t make sense,” Bart says. “This
audience is very well attached to some established brands, such as ours.
It’s a very crowded marketplace. I appreciate their bravado, but I’m not
scared.”

James Ledbetter, New York bureau chief of the Industry Standard magazine,
says Inside.com has “a staff of all-stars” and that “I have
no doubt they can and will put out a very solid and interesting journalistic
product.” But, he says, “there’s no record of anyone creating
content, outside of the Wall Street Journal and pornography, that a large
group of consumers is willing to pay for. If anybody can do it, these could
be the guys. I’m not sure anybody can do it.”

The idea for Powerful Media was born in 1998 when Andersen sent an e-mail
to his friend Jim Cramer, a Wall Street trader who is co- founder of TheStreet.com,
suggesting that his business site expand to cover media and entertainment.
Instead, Cramer introduced Andersen to his money men at Chase Capital and
Flatiron Partners, and agreed to invest some money as well.

Last year, Andersen’s pal Hirschorn–they worked together at New York magazine–called
with a “wacky idea” for a similar Web site. Andersen was finishing
his novel “Turn of the Century”; Hirschorn was looking for a
new gig, since he’d just been fired as Spin’s editor. They sought advice
from Brown–who’d worked with Hirschorn at Esquire- -on making a pitch
to venture capitalists.

Brown had worked at Conde Nast, Time Warner, Hearst and the New York Times
Co., and launched four start-ups.

“I was their dream date,” Brown says.

The money men liked Brown. “They just thought she was God,” Andersen
says.

No sooner was the office set up last fall on West 26th Street than Andersen
and Hirschorn began luring journalists to a Web site that didn’t yet exist. “I
was frankly astonished at how willing and eager people were to talk to
us about leaving their jobs,” Andersen says.

“There was some fear we had to overcome ourselves of giving up the
printed word for the digital screen,” Hirschorn adds.

But the Net seems to exert an almost magnetic pull. One recruit, David
Carr, editor of Washington City Paper, puts it simply: “I was afraid
of missing out on something cool.” Carr describes his new job as covering “the
whole process of how old media makes its way in a different age.”

Chris Peacock left his post as editor of Fortune.com. “It was probably
the best job at Time Inc.,” he says. “But I’d been doing the
same thing for 2 1/2 years.” (That’s an eternity in Internet time.)

Kim Masters quit Time to cover Hollywood for the new venture. “There’s
a limited appetite for what I cover in some of these general- circulation
magazines, like Time,” says Masters, a former Washington Post reporter. “Kurt
and Michael do understand this kind of news. It’s also nice to be part
of a new, we’re-making-it-up-as-we-go- along place.”

And then there are the financial incentives. “This does give me a
chance to roll the dice,” Masters says.

During test runs in recent days, the staff has run into plenty of technical
bugs, even in putting up a video clip of a forthcoming cable film. “Everyone’s
trying to get up to speed doing journalism while getting up to speed learning
the levers and switches and dials of the hardware,” Andersen says. “That
makes it more intense than usual.”

Sounding wary of the hype they have unleashed, Hirschorn cautions that
the site will debut with perhaps 30 percent of its eventual smorgasbord. “This
will be more like a restaurant than a magazine,” he says. “It
will emerge as we go along.”

© The Washington Post Company