'Stalin in heels' with a talent for turning round ailing magazines

After the failure of much-hyped magazine Talk in 2002, Tina Brown hopes to reinvent herself online, with the launch of a new news website.

It was partly a love of America's capacity for giving people second chances that led Tina Brown to take US citizenship in 2005. "In England people just kind of subside," she tells Simon Houpt in The Globe and Mail. "In America people keep resurfacing in different guises." Now the 54-year-old former editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, once described as "Stalin in heels", hopes to reinvent herself as a top online journalist, following the failure of her much-hyped Talk magazine in 2002, with the launch of The Daily Beast, a news website backed by Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp.

Brown was never a woman to stay down. Expelled from various schools for her "subversive influence" she was asked to leave one for describing her headmistresses' breasts as "unidentified flying objects'' she ended up at a crammer and got into Oxford to read English aged 16, says Emma Brockes in The Guardian. After graduating, she was hired by The Sunday Times, where, aged 22, she began an affair with the editor, Sir Harold Evans, to whom she is still married. At 25, she became editor of Tatler, an ailing society magazine, and turned it around. When it was bought by Cond Nast in 1982, Cond Nast's boss Si Newhouse invited Brown to move to the US to edit Vanity Fair. Brown pumped up the title with bright young writers and shocking photography, including a naked, pregnant Demi Moore. In 1992 she went on to "nuke" The New Yorker, then full of what Brown describes as "50,000-word articles about zinc", says Vanessa Grigoriadis in The New York Times magazine. This appointment raised her and Evans now president of Random House to the "pinnacle" of Manhattan society, says James Robinson in The Observer. The couple became so well-known, not least for their parties at their home near Central Park, they became known simply as Tina and Harry.

Brown's appetite for money grew with her success. She approached Newhouse with a plan to branch into books and films, asking for a stake in the business. He refused, so she quit to set up Talk magazine with Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein. There was talk of "synergies" between the magazine and the film business, says Houpt, but after it burned through $55m in under three years, Weinstein pulled the plug. Brown walked off with a $1m pay-off. "I might have wanted my f**k-you money, but I got my f**k-off money," she told Grigoriadis.

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And despite her talent for creating a buzz and raising circulation, colleagues and rivals are dismissive of her business ability. At the The New Yorker she spent money like a "spoiled princess on the verge of a divorce settlement", says Houpt; it lost millions each year. Of her legacy at Vanity Fair, a rival of Brown's told The New York Times' Elizabeth Kolbert, "if someone was willing to lose $75m, you or I could make Popular Mechanics into a hot magazine". For a billionaire like Newhouse, a "splendid simulacra of success" may have been worth more than a genuine profit, but IAC boss Diller probably doesn't feel the same, says The Bulldog Reporter. For now Brown is in the enviable position of not having to lure "big-bucks advertising", but with IAC's diving value and several high-profile web failures, including Ask.com, Diller doubtless hopes Brown's "new take" on news aggregration will help "right the ship".

Another nail in the coffin for print journalism?

Brown has been predicting the demise of print journalism for some time, and her sideways move is a timely one. Howell Raines, former New York Times editor, says the internet has done for newspapers what cars did for horse-drawn carts. In a single week in July almost 1,000 jobs were lost in US newspapers. Vin Crosbie's analysis of the decline of newspapers on his Digital Deliverance blog predicts that more than half of the 1,439 daily newspapers in the US won't exist by the end of the next decade. The few national dailies will limp on in internet form only; the regional dailies have "already begun to implode". This situation will be mirrored in Britain, says Roy Greenslade in The Guardian.

It's not all bad news. The paradox, says Timothy Egan in the International Herald Tribune, is that while the internet may kill the daily newspaper as we know it, it has allowed some papers to grow their readership tenfold. Newspaper websites are attracting record numbers of visitors. Yet because online advertising accounts for just 10% of total ad revenue, newspapers are "haemorrhaging" money.

In its current form, the web format will never make enough money to maintain viable reporting staffs at the biggest papers. A new business model is bound to emerge. The e-zine Slate has been profitable for years, thanks to keeping down costs and attracting plenty of advertising, the Guardian's website turned a profit in 2006, and others have started charging for content. But in the meantime, says Jane Martinson in The Guardian, the question is "how many will survive the next 15 months and can anything be done to save them"?