`Brill's Content' is calling it quits

Magazine: Review started in 1998 with mission to help set bar for ethical conduct in journalism.

October 16, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Brill's Content, perhaps the country's brashest, glossiest journalism review, was shut down yesterday, after the partnership between the magazine's founder and his financial backers unraveled. Observers, including some competitors, say the announcement underscores the fragility of any publication on the media intended for mass appeal.

"It may be because it was impossible, or it may be because we didn't do it very well," said Steven Brill, the magazine's founder and chairman.

About half a million regular readers made up a highly educated demographic. But Brill said yesterday he couldn't convince advertisers that they could shape a pitch around the subject of his magazine. "We just were never able, in the time we had, to get that message together for advertisers," he said.

From his first issue in June 1998, which included a controversial interview with Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, Brill sought to design an industry-specific publication that would appeal to a wider audience. Public opinion polls registered a high level of disgust with the news profession during the impeachment inquiry, and the media was ripe for review, Brill said.

He promised to help set the bar for ethical conduct within the industry with a series of pronouncements that were repeated in every edition, on accuracy, sourcing, conflicts of interest, and accountability. One key example: the creation of an ombudsman whose articles critiquing the magazine could not be edited before publication. The motto emblazoned on every cover: "Skepticism is a virtue."

Initially, the magazine's earnestness and purity were derided by some journalists. "There's only so many levels of criticism of criticism of criticism that readers could take without having their eyes glaze over," said Ira Stoll, founder of smartertimes.com, a daily, online critique of the New York Times. But he said he admired much of Brill's Content.

The publication took on many respected institutions, including the Times, CNN and The Sun. With a combination of tough dissection and gossipy profiles, the magazine challenged what it contended was the insular approach of Harvard University's Nieman Reports, Columbia University's Columbia Journalism Review and the University of Maryland's American Journalism Review, all written by journalists for journalists. A newer Internet journal, the Online Journalism Review from the University of Southern California, also started in 1998.

But all those publications depend on significant backing from universities and foundations. "You just don't do them to make money," said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's Merrill School of Journalism. "You do them because you think they're important."

Brill sold a stake in the magazine's parent company to Primedia, which publishes a slew of magazine titles. Earlier this year, he combined the magazine with Inside.com, which tracks the worlds of media and entertainment, and he changed Brill's publishing schedule from 10 times a year to quarterly. The magazine had expanded its definition of the media to include more of non-news programming on television, movies and the world of publishing.

Yesterday, most of the staff of Brill's Content and Inside.com were laid off; the Web site Inside.com now will provide links to stories by other Primedia publications. Brill said the immediate cause of the closure was his falling-out with Primedia, but acknowledged that he'd been fighting an uphill battle.

"If I'd been able to build the vibrant, independent magazine that I said I'd do when I started, then it wouldn't matter if the agreement fell apart with Primedia," Brill said yesterday.

In recent years, there has been a competing model: a profusion of not-for-profit media Web sites such as Jim Romanesko's MediaNews (available at www.poynter.org/medianews) or the one offered by the Center for Excellence in Journalism (www.journalism.org), which provide daily round-ups of newspaper and magazine articles about the media. In a sense, those sites create their own free magazines daily from sources as varied as the Village Voice, the National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times.

Stoll's smartertimes.com, which draws 4,000 people daily, costs him about $30 a month to run from his basement studio in Brooklyn Heights.

"There is not a vast appetite for heavy reporting on the news business," said Michael Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "Our audience normally is working journalists. And so our mission is clearer in a way -- we're all about trying to encourage good journalism and discourage bad journalism. We have our own budget problems, but we didn't have too worry about attracting a great deal of advertising."

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