Steven Brill's New Target: The News Media
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (email@example.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
With one chapter of his life closed, Steven Brill, the hard-nosed, enterprising journalist who founded American Lawyer Media and Court TV, is ready for yet another challenge. The reported $30 million buyout he accepted from Time Warner for his empire left him without any media properties but with the capital to build again. And this time, the man who revolutionized coverage of lawyers is turning his critical attention toward another big target — the news media.
The monthly magazine he is launching, Content, will investigate "anything that purports to be nonfiction," Brill says. "I'd like to fill what is a huge information gap. There's no magazine telling people what's true, what's real, what's reliable — whether it's on the Web, a magazine, advertising, newspapers, television."
Content is being tested with a national direct mail campaign of about a half a million prototype copies. If the response is positive, another 8 million will be released in early January. Brill says he needs to attract between 300,000 and 400,000 subscribers in the first four years to make the new magazine a permanent part of the media landscape.
What will differentiate Content from established journalism reviews like AJR? Brill's target audience is not the profession, but the public as a whole. He's aiming, Brill says, at "people who consume information, not the small group who produces it."
Content echoes the spirit of Brill's American Lawyer, a magazine he founded in 1979 to expose the workings of the legal profession. Until then, the only publications reporting on lawyers were run by lawyers themselves.
Brill's latest challenge won't be easy. "He has taken on one of the most difficult assignments in journalism," says Marvin Kalb, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, "and that is to judge journalism, to be a Consumer Reports on what is good journalism and what is bad journalism."
Brill sees the media as "an enormously powerful force that no one really reports about except for those who are a part of it." And if Brill's reputed obsession with accuracy is any indicator, journalists will be in for some close scrutiny indeed. At American Lawyer, Brill ran front page corrections on mistakes in his own publication.
Brill recently had first- hand experience with the "powerful force" of the media, and things didn't go too well for him. He tried to buy Time Warner's share of his empire, but when the battle ended, Brill was forced to relinquish control of his holdings in February.
Now he's out to build another multimedia enterprise, with financial backing coming, he says, from one source — himself. And Brill's plans hardly begin and end with print. He's working with two networks on versions of a television offshoot slated to air in late fall or early winter, he says. He's also planning a "very serious online component" that will field media complaints from the public.
Critiquing the news media has not proven to be a reliable way to make big money. AJR and Columbia Journalism Review are hardly known as cash cows. A quarterly magazine with a mission similar to Brill's, Forbes Media Critic, was launched with high hopes in 1993 but went under early this year. Content, Brill says, will be vastly different from the Forbes publication.
Edward Wasserman, chairman and editor in chief of South Florida's three Daily Business Reviews, which Brill used to own, believes his former boss will have a major impact on journalism. "The media are tremendously worried about their image and how they're perceived," says Wasserman, onetime executive business editor of the Miami Herald. "I think [Content] will be very well read."
Any impact will come only if enough of the public is interested in buying Brill's magazine. Brill will have a better idea of the magazine's viability later in the fall when the results of his first test mailing are known, and cautions, "It may be a puff of smoke by then."