Tina Brown, Media Darling

Anyone outside of New York City’s media fishbowl could be forgiven for waking up last Monday and wondering what the heck some lady named Tina Brown was doing on the front page of The New York Times. In the 21st century, Brown has edited a failed magazine, hosted a failed talk show, written one well-received book, and launched a Web site that loses an estimated $10 million a year and attracts relatively few readers. Even Jeremy Peters, the author of the Times article, acknowledged that Brown’s greatest achievements—as editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker back in the 20th century—were long behind her.

Brown is now returning to print as editor of the soon-to-be-new Newsweek, which was all but left for dead before its merger with her site, The Daily Beast, last November. But Newsweek, which Peters described to Adweek as “a magazine that is discussed almost nowhere,” wasn’t what put Brown on the front page. As Times media columnist David Carr put it, “You and I would not be talking about the redesign of Newsweek if it was somebody besides Tina Brown doing it.” The what-will-Tina-do-next? story is “the oldest, hoariest parlor game in Manhattan media,” Carr said.

The Tina game keeps press critics employed and editors entertained, but no one profits from it as much as Brown herself. In the game’s latest iteration, old-guard establishments like the Times have positioned Brown as a rival to Arianna Huffington—someone national readers are likely more familiar with—despite the fact that The Huffington Post is approaching 100 million visits per month while the Beast stumbles along underneath 9 million, according to Quantcast.

Harper’s Bazaar recently interviewed the two women, looking, like everyone before them, for “a juicy media catfight.” That no fight is ever found may be because, unlike the media, heavyweight Huffington knows where bantamweight Brown actually weighs in.

“[Brown] does a very good job of keeping herself in the public eye,” Peters admitted. “I mean, this is a woman who is a first-rate self-promoter.  . . . So, to a certain extent, a lot of this she’s manufactured herself.”

Slate’s Jack Shafer has also noted Brown’s facility for staying center stage. “She will make so much noise, violate so many societal standards, and generate so much deliberate controversy that the media oxpeckers will stop writing about The New York Times and turn their exclusive attention on Newsweek,” Shafer wrote after the merger in November.

For the moment, however, the “oxpeckers” are probably the only ones paying attention. As pageview-obsessed Gawker chief Nick Denton told Adweek by instant message, his site can’t do Brown stories anymore “because they perform so badly!” He said part of the reason the Times gave Brown front-page coverage was because “Times editors ignore stats.”

“People outside of New York City really don’t know who Tina Brown is,” said someone who has worked at The Daily Beast. “People across the country don’t even care whether Newsweek is relaunching,” said another. “It’s just not a front-page article.”

Brown agreed, telling Adweek by e-mail that she doubted anyone outside of the five boroughs is interested in her story.

So what explains the old guard’s undying fascination with Brown? “You’ll have to ask them,” she quipped.

Speculation abounds, but yields little. Applying somewhat circular logic, Peters attributed the celebration of her career to “a celebrated career,” answering the question with more or less the same question: “Is there a more famous editor out there?”

Carr said it might be attributed to nostalgia. For media’s old guard, coverage of Brown “brings to mind a time when we were not kings, but we lived as kings, we felt really important,” he said, referring to the late ’90s, when Brown could pay writers $5 a word and launch the short-lived Talk magazine with an extravagant party underneath the Statue of Liberty. “Tina’s a bridge to that.”

The absence of any clear explanation is further testament to the influence of Brown’s PR operation, which seems to be successfully pitching a more fiscally responsible version of her to critics and ad agencies in the run up to Newsweek’s relaunch.

“[Brown] is doing her redemption PR tour at this point,” said Scott Daly, the executive media director of Dentsu America, the advertising agency. “A lot of media people certainly remember the Talk debacle. That’s why she’s doing a very orchestrated PR effort to say, ‘We’re not going to be like Talk, we’re not going to do this grandiose launch,’ sort of lowering expectations a bit.”

Things like the Times article are “part of the marketing plan for the new Newsweek,” Daly said, “and we’re all falling for it hook, line and sinker.”

The article—“At Newsweek, a Humble and Frugal Tina Brown”—may have been Brown’s best press so far. Back when she was bouncing around the business and arts sections, Times’ writers actually questioned the viability of the Newsweek-Daily Beast venture. But just as comparisons to Huffington have put Brown on higher footing than she might deserve, sources say the recent Times piece painted the combined Newsweek-Daily Beast operation as more fiscally responsible than it actually is.

“I don’t believe there have been any significant cuts in editorial spending,” someone who has worked at The Daily Beast said. “It just doesn’t tally. It’s very inconsistent with what I’ve heard has been happening.”

Newsweek did offer voluntary buyouts after the merger, and it has cut staff. But Brown, whose salary is reportedly somewhere around $700,000, has brought on some high-profile—and surely highly paid—writers from The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Washington Post and elsewhere as she staffs up the combined operation. “Tina is out there trying to hire people at what I cannot believe are small salaries,” the source said. “I don’t know where this ‘new, frugal Tina Brown’ comes from.”

“I am famously frugal,” Brown assured Adweek. “I put the ‘brown’ in ‘brown-bagging.’”

The marketing effort rolls ever onward. Newsweek may relaunch as early as March 7, according to the Times, and as The New York Observer pointed out, it’s quickly surpassing Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily “in anticipatory hype.”