Media: Brill's wants you to join its crusade against BS and PR

If a member of the press gets out of line, you can count on Brill's Content to let you know about it. But if Stephen Brill himself admits that reading it can be like homework, what can you do to keep readers interested? Claire Atkinson reports

If a member of the press gets out of line, you can count on Brill's Content to let you know about it. But if Stephen Brill himself admits that reading it can be like homework, what can you do to keep readers interested? Claire Atkinson reports

If a member of the press gets out of line, you can count on Brill's Content to let you know about it. But if Stephen Brill himself admits that reading it can be like homework, what can you do to keep readers interested? Claire Atkinson reports

Brill's Content burst onto the media scene in June 1998, fulfilling its aim of exposing media wrongdoing with a cover story titled 'Press Gate.' The article, published at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, identified leaks from the Independent Counsel's office and documented some of the worst excesses of the media covering the story.

The following year, however, even founder and editor Steven Brill, admitted that reading his genre busting title was a bit like 'homework.' Features ran the length of supplements and the writing style was more law journal than consumer title. And controversy was to follow as Brill's spin-off Web site, Contentville, was dubbed 'Conflictville'because of its backing by major media.

But the magazine has entered a period of relative calm under the watch of editor-in-chief David Kuhn, who joined in February. His reason for joining was based more on a desire to oversee an entire magazine than any moral crusade. Kuhn has spent much of his career on high profile titles such as Tina Brown's Talk, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, which doubtless gave him a bird's eye view of media shenanigans.

Kuhn's says his role has been to add a new 'DNA strand' to the magazine by bringing in new voices and fresh talent. Kuhn says Brill had already done a good job of giving Content an identity. February also marked a redesign by the title's creative director, Luke Hayman, and an ad campaign orchestrated by Ogilvy & Mather.

Kuhn's Content

So how has Kuhn changed the magazine? He says there are still the trademark stories of media inadequacy. 'You have to make sure you have something no one else has,' he says, but adds that those hard investigative stories are mixed with features that approach media criticism from a subtler standpoint.

The October issue carries an article about false Vietnam war veterans with the underlying message that few journalists are checking out war veterans' claims.

Kuhn has also brought some lighter fare to the title. He says he wanted something related to the new Beatles book for the October issue. What he got was a story on the bizarre 60s media myth surrounding the alleged death of Paul McCartney. Content, which has its own in-house publicist, Cindy Rosenthal, has generated some buzz with pieces on gossip columnist Liz Smith, who reveals she had homosexual affairs and an item on Reader's Digest editors who insert false quotes.

PR supremo Howard Rubenstein has been the subject of Content articles and describes the magazine as the 'Village Voice of the media.' 'I enjoy reading it. I don't agree with everything in it, but you have to read it tongue-in-cheek. Almost everything in it is muck raking,' says Rubenstein.

'Kuhn is going to improve it, he won't be as harsh. The less predictable it is, the more successful it'll be.'

The editor-in-chief, whose name is spelt in Scrabble letters outside his door, was putting together the November Influence List when PRWeek spoke to him. He is mulling over two PR people for the list and is keen to broaden the magazine's subject matter by doing more on the ultimate behind-the-scenes media professionals.

Stacie Leone, director of global marketing communications at Web measurement firm Media Metrix thinks Content is a force for good. 'They keep the media on their toes. We're dealing with 500 reporters a day and we hear of some unorthodox things that go on. It is good to have someone watching the media. They are always watching us.'

Respect for (some) PR folk

The Content offices, interestingly located opposite the headquarters of Fox News and The New York Post on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue, you'll be greeted by a huge sign in reception that reads: 'Skepticism is a Weapon.

It deflects spin, propaganda, PR, BS, press agents, publicity seekers..etc' You may want to think again.

Kuhn acknowledges that publicists play an important role in influencing people and says he has great respect for a certain cadre of practitioner.

'PR people, at their most sophisticated, think like editors,' he says.

They are at their most insulting when they're not familiar with the publication, he adds.

He is particularly interested in crisis PR but is also looking for stunts and gimmicks. 'We're looking for things that are fun, and clever ways people have used or manipulated the media,' he says.

While he's keen to hear PR folks' own story ideas, there is little room for promoting your clients. In some cases Content tries to avoid the promoted material, with sections like a section named Unhyped Books, for example.

However, there's a handful of columns that do accept suggestions from PR sources. Stuff We Like is edited by Luke Barr and welcomes off-beat ideas that can be anything from a Web site that tracks the income gap between rich and poor (Inequality.org) to a folk music collection. Other potential areas to pitch include Ticker, an edgy statistics column, and Gimmick, which features fun promotional strategies employed by publicists.

The magazine is aimed at 'thought leaders' - the type of person who reads more than one newspaper a day - and though it isn't stuffed with ad pages common to e-biz titles such as Red Herring, it is supported by book publishers, software firms and the odd cigar retailer.

Kuhn admits the potential circulation for Content is limited. 'There is a ceiling to the number of readers and it's under a million,' he laughs.

But growth has been steady: Content launched with a rate base of 150,000 and guaranteed sales have grown to 325,000. The title is yet to turn a profit. But the business plan gives Kuhn another three years to achieve that.



Contact List

Brill's Content

1230 Avenue of the Americas

Sixteenth Floor

New York, NY 10020

Tel: (212) 332 6300 (switchboard)

Fax: (212) 332 6350 Web: www.brillscontent.com

Editor-in-chief: David Kuhn Editor: Eric Effron

Senior editors: Susan Ellingwood, Laura Mazer, Paul Schnee, Ed Shanahan

Senior correspondents: Gay Jervey, Abigail Pogrebin

Brill'sContent.com

Executive editor: Heather Maher.



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