Content Provider

(Note: This article originally appeared online at The Electronic Newsstand, in slightly different form.

Earlier this year, Parade Magazine asked its readers to complete a survey about the news media. Three thousand people responded; none of the letters that Parade chose to print in a follow-up article had much praise for the nation's squawking heads and scandalmongers. "I think it is time that the news media start acting as if they are reporting the news to relatively intelligent and informed individuals..." wrote one respondent. "Help us to understand how our neighborhood and country are running and what we might do to improve it," exhorted another. Others requested better informed, unbiased, civil, positive, and responsible news, with more emphasis on world affairs and less emphasis on celebrities and sensationalism. In light of such sentiments, it should come as no surprise that the death of Princess Diana has attracted more attention this year than any other story. On the two Sundays following Diana's death and her subsequent funeral, for example, over 20,000 relatively intelligent and informed people who don't usually purchase the Washington Post did; no doubt the "world affairs" aspect of the story piqued their curiosity.

For most journalists, this gap between what the public says it wants and what it actually wants is frustrating, but for Steven Brill, founder of the magazine American Lawyer and Court TV, it may be the key to his next fortune. In the spring of next year, Brill will start publishing Content, which he describes as a "consumer magazine for the information age." According to Brill, the magazine will assess the accuracy and value of "a lot of stuff out there that purports to be journalism;" prospective articles include "Diane Sawyer's Three Sappiest Interviews," "Ken Starr, Spinmeister," and "Ad-Corrupted Web Sites." Even these titles only hint at Brill's aggressive perspective. According to Folio magazine, the pugnacious editor, addressing a group of editors at an industry event last June, spoke of "joining in the effort to embarrass journalists who live off the First Amendment by peddling all varieties of sleaze." For a public that appears unable to resist the sensationalism they say they don't want, a subscription to Content may be just the thing. In between gorging themselves on the latest celebrity scandal, they can read Content's rebukes and exposes, and thus maintain an attitude of superiority that will allow them to point fingers with scrupulously fact-checked authority.

Of course, it would be nice if Content actually has a more significant impact on media excess, incompetence, and chicanery than that. Media criticism is a growth industry these days, and yet the public remains fairly unaware, or at least indifferent, to all but the media's most obvious sins. There seems to be little interest in the fact that many high-profile journalists receive exorbitant fees for speaking to companies and industry groups whose business they report on, for example, or that a handful of huge corporations now control an overwhelming number of all the world's media outlets. Could the sort of mainstream, mass market magazine that Brill envisions serve as antidote to the public's media ennui?

In a recent profile of Brill that appeared in Vanity Fair, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, citing a landmark article that Brill wrote for American Lawyer about Time's defamation of Ariel Sharon in a 1984 cover story, suggests that Brill may indeed effect real reform with his new enterprise. For his own part, Brill professes to have no overarching agenda. "We're going to write magazine articles," he responded when asked if Content will position itself as an advocate for change or champion specific reforms. "We're not going to be advocates of X,Y, or Z."

If Content ends up reaching the audience Brill believes it can reach, its impact could be considerable, agendas or not. Despite an increasing number of sources of media criticism, very few of these sources reach audiences of any great size. Columbia Journalism Review, for example, has a circulation of approximately 30,000. Brill, on the other hand, is aiming for much higher numbers. "We originally thought we'd start with 150,000," he exclaims, "But our direct mail tests and our soundings on the newsstands tell us that we will probably start with 175,000 to 200,000, and get to 300,000 by the end of the first year." Ultimately, Brill hopes to reach a circulation of 700,000. With the money he received when Time Warner bought out his share of American Lawyer Media last March, he may actually have the resources to do it. The Wall Street Journal reported that Brill's take from that deal was more than $20 million; Vanity Fair put it at $30 million. To further capitalize Content, Brill is also in the midst of finalizing deals with an undisclosed number of partners.

In trying to reach 700,000 readers, however, Content runs the risk of becoming the sort of celebrity-dominated magazine it might otherwise criticize; to sell on the newsstands these days, you need stars on the cover. And while the threat of negative exposure in Content may persuade a few nervous truth-stretchers to keep their journalistic imaginations in check, Content's glamorization of the media world may ultimately end up being its most noticeable effect. Indeed, one only has to look at the legacy of American Lawyer to understand the possibilities. Founded in 1979, Brill's first magazine gave us a new way to look at lawyers: it presented them as knowing, powerful stars in the world's most compelling dramas, involved in every deal of any consequence. Seven years later, those dramas began shifting from the pages of American Lawyer to the nation's TV screens, in the form of L.A. Law and all the other post-Perry Mason lawyer shows that followed in its wake, including, of course, Court TV's Trial of the Century, where accountability often placed a distant second to inveterate grandstanding. Journalists, of course, need little prompting to engage in such antics, and yet Content will no doubt serve as an additional carrot to some. And three or four years from now, one imagines, the media landscape will look much the same as it does now - except, of course, for the addition of New York Rewrite Desk to some megacorporation's fall primetime lineup.

-- G. Beato

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