Tina Brown explains how she created and led world-class teams at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Daily Beast, and what's next for Women in the World.
Tina Brown gets things done.
"I am very driven, and I'm not easy to work for. I'm very, very demanding," she said on Business Insider's podcast, "Success! How I Did It." "I also have people that come back and come back."
She has been a leader since her mid-20s, and she has built the teams that transformed Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and built The Daily Beast.
Brown grew up in England and became a media mogul in New York. Editors and writers have always questioned her most ambitious plans, but her résumé is marked by major successes.
A huge exception, of course, is a short-lived media brand called Talk that she launched with, of all people, Harvey Weinstein.
Today she runs the Women in the World Media group, which puts on an annual summit. It highlights the stories of people fighting for women's rights around the world. It has allowed her to inspire a new generation of leaders.
I started by asking why she thinks her legacy is other people — and how that connects with the magazines I've got in my living room.
Listen to the full episode here:
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Richard Feloni: There are only two magazines that I subscribe to in print, and they're Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. When I look at them, I could still see your legacy in both.
Tina Brown: We laid down good bones. What can I say? We really did. I think a magazine's DNA, once you put that imprint in, it can be reproduced with succeeding generations. That's the goal: that you leave behind a staff and a structure and people who can continue it. Otherwise, you haven't really been successful if it disappears after you go, right? A lot of the people — most of them, actually — have stayed. In fact, the people that I had at Vanity Fair only just departed. At The New Yorker, they're all still there.
Feloni: How do you define success?
Brown: That. I think the way I define success is that we build something that has such an identity, such a powerful pedigree of talent that it's going to survive long after you go.
The pedigree of hiring is something I think about a lot, which is that if you hire great people, they hire great people. It goes on as a kind of reproducing DNA of talent. If you can keep that up, it's going to have a very long life. It's really when that gets shot out from under for various reasons — if it's a takeover or some kind of financial debacle — that those bones get trampled. If they don't, then you're going to be OK.
Feloni: I'd like to talk about your personal story, as well. What were you like as a kid growing up? You had some interesting parents.
Brown: I did. Well, I was very rebellious as a child but not in the sense of being a wild drug taker or something. I was just incredibly insubordinate and attitudinal.
Feloni: Weren't you kicked out of school three times?
Brown: I was kicked out, yeah, I was kicked out of three boarding schools. The wonderful thing about my parents was my father was a movie producer, my mother was a passionate stay-at-home mum with me, and they always just supported me. My father used to come to the school and say, "You know, it must be terrible for you to have failed with this exceptional child." I would pack up my trunk and off I would go from the boarding school. I was lucky to have parents who were supportive in that way. They weren't indulgent. When I got home, they would give me hell, but when I was at the school, they had my back.
Feloni: Why were you getting into trouble so often?
Brown: I was always in revolt. I was always questioning authority. But it didn't stop me getting into Oxford, which it probably would have now with a résumé like that. Oxford's all about: Can you think? It's about the oral exam as much as it is what your transcript looks like.
I never had trouble having a point of view. I think I was a born journalist, quite honestly. I was very skeptical of authority, and I think that's what makes me a journalist. I don't just believe what I'm told. I have a very questioning intellect. I think to be a successful editor, you need a questioning intellect because what makes you pursue a story is thinking, "There's more to this story than meets the eye." That's really always been my guiding drive as an editor. "This is only the tip of the iceberg with the story. What really happened?"
Feloni: Do you think your parents helped foster this skepticism?
Brown: I do, actually. My father was always pursuing stories for movies. My mother was just very smart woman — she always questioned what she was told. They raised me to do that. I'm proud of it. I feel you cannot be a good editor without being really curious. I'm also extremely curious as a person. I really very rarely start talking to someone without getting really interested in their story. I get deep into it. I can talk for hours to somebody about their lives. I start to interrogate them about their lives and ask a thousand questions. They end up telling it to me.
I was a very good reporter. I got a lot of very good stories.
Feloni: The first time you became an editor-in-chief was when you were just 25 at Tatler. How did that happen?
Brown: Well, I became a journalist for the Oxford magazine. I caught the eye of Fleet Street editors because the pieces they thought were good. I was invited to start writing for mainstream Fleet Street publications and magazines. At that time, Tatler was bought by a real-estate guy who was looking to expand his profile. I guess he was the Jared Kushner of that moment. He bought Tatler, which was this old, fading society magazine, like a sort of poor man's Town & Country at the time, but it had a great history. It was actually founded in the 18th century, so it had a great pedigree, if you like, in England.
He couldn't find anyone to edit it. Then somebody said: "Why don't you just go young? Here's this young writer who keeps writing these sparky things." He asked me for an interview, and I immediately decided I wanted to be an editor. I realized that it would my own show. I wanted my own show, and I also had such a strong point of view about everything. I was frustrated by not being able to have outlets for those points of view about the world. I said, "I'll do it."
Instantly I took to it, actually. You have to be a person who gets it all together, who persuades people to do things for you, who sees stories, who assigns stories, who juggles all the aspects of it. I'd watched my father do that all my life with his movie producing. I do think producing and editing are very similar, so I took very quickly to editing and hired all my friends, which is what editors do. They were a good group.
Feloni: Because didn't you take most of them — all but one, right? — all the way to New York with Condé Nast?
Brown: Yes, I brought with me a big batch from London. I brought with me three editors and a managing editor, who then stayed at Vanity Fair and who just left last week. They were an amazing group from Tatler actually.
Feloni: What was it like learning how to be a manager in terms of hiring people, scouting talent, developing talent? How did that work? What was the learning curve like?
Brown: Well, I usually hire on instinct. Also, it's very important you have the right personalities on a team. For instance, I'm a kind of a Whirling Dervish. Therefore, I do need with me a really calm counterpoint person, whether it's a business partner or an executive editor. I look for someone who has other gifts, which I don't have. I am actually respectful of people who have very different gifts to mine. I don't want everyone to "look like me." I want a team that balances out.
That, I think, is the critical thing that we're, for instance, not seeing with Donald Trump: He doesn't know how to create a team. A team is not about 20 people with alpha egos, but a mix of people who bring different things to the table. One person is very judicious and thoughtful and you turn to for advice. Another person is really organized, an organization whiz. Another person is the flair person that is going to bring in that one idea that is just different. You have to really consider what you're building here. I've always been very good at that, actually, at the chemistry of different teams.
They've all been actually very successful in their own way, even on the things that haven't worked, like Talk magazine. The teams I put together were amazing, and I think I know how to find talent.
Feloni: Can you give an example of maybe a meeting that you had where you're considering someone for a position, and something beyond their writing talent that struck you, that you thought, "This is someone that I want on my team"?
Brown: Well, Dominick Dunne was a classic example of that.
I first met him when I first arrived at Vanity Fair in 1984. I was invited out to somebody's house. I was sat next to this fading film producer who I'd never met before. I loved his stories. He was incredibly entertaining and observant.
Then he told me a very tragic thing as we really bonded over dinner, which is that his daughter had been murdered. He was on his way out to LA for the trial of her murderer. I was so attracted to his voice, that I just said to him: "Dominick, have you ever thought about keeping a diary? Because I think you should keep a diary of the trial. If it's really poignant, as I think it will be, and interesting, we might consider publishing it at Vanity Fair." His eyes lit up because I think it gave him a lifeline.
He went off to the trial. Then we wrote this absolutely amazing, epic piece, which was called "Justice," about how this chef at Ma Maison restaurant in LA had killed his daughter and then got a very, very light sentence because he was a jury pleaser, as Dominick called it. I said: "OK, this is so amazing. Let's just give you a writing contract." He was my first writing contract. Of course, he became a huge talent for Vanity Fair for years. He did all the major pieces that we often remember from there: the trial of Claus von Bülow, the socialite who was accused of trying to murder his wife; he did the O.J. Simpson trial. Dominick became a big celebrity writer. That was a very gratifying moment, when I followed my instincts and found a really big talent.
Feloni: Your career in New York began at Vanity Fair. What was it about that opportunity that said, "I need to come here"?
Brown: To me, it was a no-brainer. It took me exactly 20 seconds. I was first asked to do it when the second editor was failing.
Feloni: It was a relaunch of an old series.
Brown: It was a relaunch. Vanity Fair relaunched in 1983 after a hugely golden past in the '20s and '30s, when it then closed. The whole thing was that Condé Nast wanted to reopen it with a flourish, remake it. It was going to be a magazine that completely obliterated The New Yorker, which became the great flagship of Condé Nast. They relaunched it and it was a turkey. It was a disaster.
That's when I was at Tatler. They brought me to New York as a "consultant." I was just 29 and my husband was in England. I was really attracted to it, but I was fearful. I didn't know anybody in New York. Within a few months of being there as a consultant, I realized that I actually could do this job and I should do this job, but I wasn't quite ready for it. I went back to London, and I thought: "Oh, I've blown it. They're going to stay with the second editor who was also a disaster." After a few months, they had had enough. I had to just wait for them to realize that he was a disaster, and then they called me and said, "Would you come back?" At that point, I had no hesitation, and I just took it right away.
In fact, I arrived on January 1984 from a vacation in Barbados. I arrived with a suitcase full of cheesecloth bikinis and sarongs. I didn't go back home to London for three years. I went straight into that job. I stayed in a hotel, and my husband, who was so incredibly supportive, went back to London and packed up the house. He got a job teaching at Duke and said, "Let's just do it." And I did.
Feloni: At Vanity Fair, you were covering celebrities in the New York socialite scene, which included Donald Trump, but you ended up becoming a figure in that yourself. How did that happen?
Brown: Well, I think when you have success, obviously you are not moving into the echelon in which you're covering, but I was always there as a journalist. I always saw the point of being somewhere to get stories. I never felt confused about why I was somewhere, actually. I'm pretty private and quiet, and I'd never go out on weekends or whatever. The reason I used to go out in the '80s, and I did constantly, was to get stories.
Sometimes I look back on that period, and I just have no idea how I did it. I had a closet full of Christian Lacroix poof dresses and all that stuff — which I don't have anymore — and the red nails. It was power suits and the whole hilarious '80s thing. It was enormous fun at the time. My children were very young. It was a lot of juggling, but it was just that moment when you just did it all at warp speed. When I look back at my Vanity Fair diaries, which I made into my book, one of the things that blows me away is just when did I sleep? It seems like never.
Feloni: Well, I saw you said it helped that you didn't drink alcohol.
Brown: It did. It did help because it got me to remember all those things I wrote down.
Feloni: Did you feel like you had to transform yourself from someone who was more private, introverted, into someone else?
Brown: Well, I was always a split personality. I was always somebody who was hell-for-leather in my career. I would hit the scene to get the stories, and then I would withdraw. I've always lived that life of private and public, and it works for me.
Feloni: When you moved to The New Yorker to take that over, there were editors or writers who thought that you were going to ruin this magazine, bringing in photos for example, like, "This is just going to become a tabloid." Do you think that they were just underestimating you?
Brown: Well, they didn't understand my own range. I understand why they didn't understand that. Here was the editor of Vanity Fair, who just put Demi Moore pregnant and naked on the cover, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, right? Now I was coming into the ivory tower. Surely I was going to trash the citadel. That was their fear. But of course, I knew that actually my real roots were literary, that the first magazines I wrote for were not in any way Fleet Street tabloids. They were magazines that were the equivalent of The New Republic here. The New Statesman was the place I wrote. I knew that I had the literary depth to do it.
The question was could I renovate this magazine and save it from its decaying audience at enough speed that Condé Nast would stay with it? That was obviously the challenge. That was the mission. It was put to me very clearly that The New Yorker, a jewel in the crown of Condé Nast after having been purchased by Si Newhouse several years before, was really ailing. The readership had aged so profoundly and the advertisers were falling away. It was losing a huge amount of money. Could I actually do what I had done at Vanity Fair but in a very different way?
It was a completely different challenge and probably one of the hardest things I've ever done, which was to wake up Sleeping Beauty while keeping its purity. I succeeded because the whole question was: Where to find this new talent that was as good as the old? Because I do know how to find talent, I did find the talent. I let go 70 people at The New Yorker, and I hired another 50. They're all still there. That's what we had to do.
Feloni: It seems that whenever you've created something, you always had some pushback from people. Often, it could be pretty intense pushback. I saw for example, when you were at Newsweek, there was a WWD report that was saying that you were "impulsive" or "drove people too hard," or things like this.
Brown: That's all true. I am very driven, and I'm not easy to work for. I'm very, very demanding. I also have people that come back and come back. Many of them I've worked with several times. I still bring them into what I'm doing. I have a very committed cadre of people that I've always worked with, and frankly, the people who don't make the cut are the ones that I just didn't think had what it took. It's not easy, but I do have a passionately loyal cadre of people who've been with me for years.
Feloni: After The New Yorker, you ended up partnering with Harvey Weinstein.
Brown: Yeah, that was a great career move!
Feloni: Well, something I think that was interesting with that is I heard you say that you knew from day one that he was a terrible business partner.
Brown: Terrible, yeah. It was a huge mistake.
Feloni: Can you explain that?
Brown: I left The New Yorker, which was a hugely wonderful job, let's face it, because Harvey had promised me the things that I wanted to then do there that Condé Nast didn't want to do. I left The New Yorker because I kept on saying I felt The New Yorker needed to expand more than being just a magazine. I wanted to see it as a literary festival, a book-publishing company, a radio show. Ironically, that is of course what they're doing now, all this time later.
Feloni: You were ahead of the time.
Brown: This was in 1998 that I was saying these things. Si Newhouse, the chairman, just didn't get it. He said: "No, just go back and edit the magazine. You're just bored. You should just do the magazine." I wasn't just bored. I wasn't bored at all. I believed that the magazine needed to be more than just a magazine. Of course, I was completely right about that, but as you say, I was ahead of the time.
Along comes Harvey Weinstein and says, "I want to do a magazine that is also book-publishing company" — that it's also all of the things in fact that I had wanted to do, but it has to be a new magazine because it has to be started from scratch. I think that was probably the first mistake. We probably should've bought something and expanded it. It would've been much easier than a launch because by that time, the desire for me to fail was huge because I'd upset everybody at Condé Nast by leaving. Nobody wants to see somebody have four successes in a row.
Frankly, I had made a big mistake, which was to partner with Harvey Weinstein, because he was so disruptive to be in business with. You cannot do your best work if you have some crazy, profane, impulsive, out-of-control person on the other end of the telephone every five minutes of the day, which is what he was like. I'd never experienced that. However difficult life had been at Condé Nast for various reasons, basically Si Newhouse was a great boss. He was always very civil. Nobody would be behaving as Harvey behaved. He never sexually harassed me, but he was just so volcanic all the time.
Feloni: Like a bully?
Brown: Like a bully all the time, always calling me and demanding that I publish horrible stuff I didn't want to publish because some journalist had to be appeased, who was on his tail. He would be constantly running around town assigning stories I didn't want, then telling me I had to publish them, but then it would take my budget. When I protested, he would say, "You pay for it out of your own budget." It was for me to clean up. It was the worst situation, plus making an enemy of the person whose piece I then killed because I wasn't going to publish garbage. That was one of the things that was so difficult. Secondly, he just didn't know how to be a publisher. We partnered with Hearst, but joint ventures are always very difficult in the best of times. You have to imagine what being a joint partner with Harvey Weinstein is like. There's no such thing as being a partner of Harvey Weinstein. He's simply the one who's bullying everybody. It just was a failure.
The magazine itself, actually, was one of the best magazines that I've done, particularly at the beginning, before he ruined it with all his demands. The first issues were so good, I have to say — full of great stuff. The staff was an amazing staff who went on to run everything in the media. We just needed to have time. Of course, we then had 9/11 to deal with, too. In fairness to Harvey, we did have 9/11, and that's what killed the whole advertising climate, which meant that a small, independent magazine like Talk wasn't going to survive in that situation. It was a perfect storm.
That's the one I feel got away. The more I look at it now, which I had to do while I was thinking about my book and all the rest of it, I thought: "My God, this is such a good magazine. This is fresh. It's as if it was published yesterday." I had Jake Tapper and Tucker Carlson as my political writers. Again, two people who ended up with huge careers writing for Talk. It was amazing.
Feloni: When you helped build The Daily Beast after that, what did these experiences teach you about what it takes to build something and have it be successful?
Brown: Yes, well a major lesson that I brought to The Daily Beast — which was a completely happy experience; I had a wonderful time there — was just to do things just without any hype. One of the issues that I had at Talk to deal with was because I'd had the three successes and because there was so much publicity, it was a much "awaited" launch. As we know, much-awaited launches almost never work. You see it again and again with television with, like, Katie Couric or Megyn Kelly. They switch from their big platforms to another network, and it's going to be great. It's going to be this huge show, and then, boom, it bombs. Same thing with us. All of that hype was very dangerous.
At The Daily Beast, I said: "You know what we're going to do? We're going to create the site. We want to get it up before the 2008 election." That was critical in terms of traffic, I felt. I said, "As soon as it's ready, we're just going to start posting." And that's what we did. We just decided: "OK, go. It's live." It was a great idea because basically people discovered it. The way we got it to build was by just breaking news all the time. It was like, "Wait a minute, what's this thing, The Daily Beast?" Then there's another great piece. "What's this on The Daily Beast?" Then, "Hey, there's another piece on The Daily Beast." The rule of three in journalism always is by the third piece, people are paying attention. Suddenly, it's like, "OK, now I need to bookmark that site because it's clearly something I need."
It took off very quickly and became a roaring success. Everybody wanted to write for it. We broke so much news. It's still a major news maker. It's always been hard to fight its economic muddle. I left four years ago now, and I don't think it's making money, still. It's very, very difficult, as we know, to make money with a news site, but we built a brand. Again, I felt very proud of having done that.
Feloni: I do want to talk about, too, your Women in the World Summit. Can you explain what that is?
Brown: In 2010, I started something while I was still at The Daily Beast. I wanted to create a platform that would bring to Americans' attention the voices of amazing global women. I felt that there were these rumblings of a really exciting women's movement globally that really wasn't getting any attention and that American feminism really was sort of dormant and dead at that time. It's not so much that I was some kind of passionate feminist; it's just that I'm a real great storyteller. I kept meeting women with incredible stories — stories about women in Africa, India, the Middle East — and wondering why they weren't getting attention. Yet once people hear them, they're blown away by their stories and they become very interested in the places they come from.
It began with that philosophy, and right from the beginning, it just took off instantly. We had incredible women from Congo, an amazing woman who spearheaded the uprising in Liberia that helped topple the dictator Charles Taylor. I put those women on the stage, but I also always then combine them with women like Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Christine Lagarde, who bring their spotlight to them. It just really worked.
I left The Daily Beast and I brought the Women in the World out of it and launched it then as a separate company with Tina Brown Live Media. Since then, 2014 to now, we've really been an independent, very growing global platform, which reproduces these live journalistic stories all over the world. This year's summit is proving incredibly exciting and topical, and next year's summit, which is the 10th anniversary, is going to really be a massive celebration.
Feloni: How will you be addressing the #MeToo movement at this year's event?
Brown: Well, our whole mission has always been global, so for us, it's about: Who are the forgotten women of #MeToo, and can we take #MeToo global? For instance, opening night, we had a very, very powerful discussion about why Italy, of all places, is such a terrible place for women's rights. We had on the stage Asia Argento, who is one of the actresses who accused Harvey Weinstein of his appalling treatment.
Feloni: One of the first ones.
Brown: One of the very first. With Ambra Gutierrez, who is the young Italian model who was on the FBI sting and who also accused Berlusconi of having these terrible "bunga bunga" parties, as they were called. We put them on the stage with Laura Boldrini, who is one of the leading feminist politicians, who has really spoken out about women's rights in a very big way, and had Ronan Farrow moderate it. This was really a classic Women in the World discussion. It's made a lot of news.
Feloni: It's about telling the stories around the movement.
Brown: And telling the stories. Telling how a woman who's a #MeToo hero in the US goes back to Italy and finds herself slut-shamed, finds herself abused as some kind of a whore. Unthinkable here, really, but not unthinkable in Italy, where they've really been treated like, "You're just prostitutes," which has really been very hurtful to these women.
Feloni: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career like yours?
Brown: You need passion, absolute passion to, however unlikely it seems, just pursue the heck out of it. Really nurture talent — I mean, talent's the key to it all. You have to handle people properly. You need to find them, but then you've got to keep them with you. The way you keep them with you is by being genuinely engaged with people.
I'm always shocked, frankly, at how editors really don't pay much attention to the writers at all. Writers will write for somebody for very little money, as they did for me at the Beast, if they get a response. If they get a note back saying: "Fantastic piece. Can you just make the top this, and I suggest you change the middle to this?" Boom, they love it. They want response, and they want to feel that they've found a home. Most of the time today, people just write pieces, and there's no real response. It just posts. Nobody really says anything. They don't even know that it was liked or not liked. But there's no real sense that anybody cares, frankly, that you're there out there. I think that is the major mistake that people make. Keeping your talent happy, keeping your talent there, is really the major function of an editor, and it's the major thing you have to learn how to do.
Feloni: What do you think the biggest challenge has been in your career?
Brown: I think that The New Yorker was a very hard challenge because there was so much at stake. I'd had a huge success at Vanity Fair, and it always means you're much more vulnerable. This magazine, The New Yorker, was such a beloved jewel, and at the same time, there were many people rooting for me to fail because when you've had one success, people don't necessarily root for you to have a second. There were many people I had to let go at The New Yorker who were not happy about that and who wanted the magazine to stay as it was. That was a hugely challenging time for me. It took several years, but I was so proud at the end because we did it. We did turn it around. It took some time to make money. In fact, only recently has it begun to make money in the last five years, really, but that's the kind of time it took. At the same time, we saved and reinvented a great American literary institution, which I think the world has never needed more than now. I'm very, very proud of what we've pulled off there.
Feloni: Is people out there wanting you to fail, does that just come with the territory when you're a leader of something?
Brown: I think you create jealousy when you succeed. Frankly, I had had three big successes as an editor. Therefore, there was a lot of competitiveness amongst editors who felt they hadn't had the same kind of attention or awards. Also, being a woman, I think, also makes people much more sharp-elbowed about you. You have to also beat back the belittling that comes in the sexist terrain, which I experienced so often and still do in many ways.
Feloni: What would an example be of that?
Brown: Just the kind of nonacknowledging of the success that you've wrought, or denigrating it as some kind of a publicity stunt. And if I had been a male editor, it would be really looking at the literary achievements, really looking at the writers that I brought and the photographers that I brought, and the whole visual sides of the magazines that I've done. I've invented so many careers, quite honestly. That achievement I don't think at the time got the same kind of just acknowledgement than if I'd been a male editor. It was always tended to be denigrated as "buzz generating" or because I had a budget to work with or whatever. It was very rarely said to be simply that it was an achievement, whichever way you look at it.
Feloni: How should you view failure, especially after you've had major success?
Brown: I think failure is a really great learning tool. I learned so much from my experience at Talk. It's painful, but it also liberates you, too. After Talk failed, I went back to my roots. I wrote my book about Princess Diana. It was a No. 1 best-seller. That was so restoring for me. I wasn't managing people. I wasn't coping with the screaming Harvey Weinstein. I was just sitting at my desk, writing my book. It was bliss.
It can be very, very restoring to find yourself with the worst thing that could happen happening. It didn't work. All of that agony about, "Well, what if it fails?" You know what? It failed. So what? America is full of — which is what I love about America — people who've succeeded and failed, succeeded and failed.
I think it's important to remember that your strength is your strength. It's not dependent on the opinion of other people.