Her success in reviving Vanity Fair impressed Condé Nast’s chairman, S. I. Newhouse Jr., so much, he asked her to take over his cherished New Yorker in 1992. She challenged conventions there as well, stripping the magazine of much of its stodgy feel and de-emphasizing fiction writing for long reported pieces on current events and breezy feature articles. Circulation and newsstand sales soared.
She left to start Talk in 1998, and after it folded, she hosted a show on CNBC and wrote a book about Princess Diana. She also showed an appetite for getting back into magazine editing. When Time was looking for a new managing editor in 2006, she approached people there about the job. The magazine’s leadership chose Richard Stengel, a Time veteran.
Before taking the reins at Newsweek, Ms. Brown had been editing The Daily Beast, an online media partnership she began with Barry Diller in 2008.
With the Newsweek-Daily Beast merger complete — the companies agreed to combine in November, and they officially closed on the deal late last month — she has quickly thrown herself into overhauling the magazine. She has adapted her famous, at times infamous, ways of running a staff to suit the technological and economic realities of 2011. But there is still plenty of vintage Tina Brown to go around.
Gone are the faxes that would stream from her office at all hours; she conducts much of her written correspondence on her BlackBerry these days, eliminating the need for drivers to shuttle drafts of articles to her weekend house. It is not uncommon for her senior editors to find themselves barraged with e-mail from her predawn or on weekends.
“Her energy and her capacities are stunning to me, and she is at it all the time,” Mr. Harman said in an interview. “I pull myself out of the sack in the morning and there she is talking to me on ‘Morning Joe.’ ”
Known for wanting only stories that were, in her vernacular, “hot” — she would scrawl “hot” or “v. hot” on drafts of articles she deemed the proper temperature needed to generate the buzz she sought — she now speaks of Newsweek as needing to be both “seductive and serious.”
Ms. Brown would not reveal anything about the contents of the redesigned magazine or its debut. “We’re only going to do it when we’re ready, let’s put it that way,” she said in the interview. Between answering questions, she clicked through her BlackBerry, scanning e-mail.
“I think that big, sort of theatrical relaunches tend to set you up for failure and hype,” she added. “And you know we — I — went through that at Talk magazine, and it was a mistake.”
People outside the magazine who have seen the current prototype described it as recognizable as Newsweek in name only. The paper is thicker and glossier. There are more photographs and a greater use of white space. It incorporates The Daily Beast brand in a new section called NewsBeast. Advertisers have been told the back page will be a column written by a different notable figure each week discussing a professional blunder. Joe Scarborough wrote the one in the prototype being circulated now, which Newsweek executives never let out of their hands.
“From what I saw, it’s night and day,” said George Janson, an executive with the ad buyer GroupM. “Its look, its energy is much more stylish.”
As familiar as the process of magazine reinvention is to Ms. Brown, there are notable differences this time. Financially, she has less flexibility. When Mr. Harman has spoken of his financial plan for the magazine, he has told people privately that he is giving the magazine three years to succeed and can afford to lose about $40 million in that time, several people who have spoken with him said. Anything exceeding that amount, he has said, would affect what he is able to leave to his heirs.
By contrast, Newsweek’s expenses last year ran $40 million in the third quarter alone. The operation is considerably smaller now because of buyouts, layoffs and resignations. More buyouts were offered last week, and Mr. Harman said the staff of the combined Daily Beast/Newsweek would soon be smaller than the about 350 people that Newsweek had when he bought it.
Ms. Brown also acknowledged that readers’ appetites had changed since she last edited a magazine. “You have to basically make the assumption that they have absolutely no interest in you whatsoever,” she said. “There is so little attention to spare, you have to make sure that where their window of attention is open, you’re in.”
In her previous jobs, Ms. Brown was famous for scooping up prominent writers and putting them on expensive contracts that would require only a few articles a year while preventing them from writing for competitors. She said that practice would be nonexistent at Newsweek, where she has been looking to hire more writers paid by the article.
“What we cannot have is what the old-style magazines had, where people are supported to do not a ton of pieces,” she said.
Ms. Brown has a salary in the $700,000 range, according to one person briefed on her negotiations with Mr. Harman. Mr. Harman declined to comment. That amount is not wildly high for an editor with as high a profile as Ms. Brown’s.
Holding costs down is one thing. Turning a profit is another. And Ms. Brown’s magazines have generally proven better at spending money than earning it.
The New Yorker broke into the black in 2002, four years after she left but also for the first time since Condé Nast bought it in 1985. Ms. Brown points out that the magazine’s losses had slowed significantly by the time she left.
At Vanity Fair, Ms. Brown had a reputation for spending lavishly on writers and photographers, expenses that put the magazine deeply in debt. But in her final years as editor, it began to turn a profit, though not every year, according to one person with knowledge of Vanity Fair’s business. This person spoke only on the condition of anonymity because Condé Nast is private and does not release specific financial information.
Whether The Daily Beast has been the success that Ms. Brown had hoped it would be is a matter of some debate. It initially lost about $10 million a year, but executives said that advertising had picked up in the last year and that they expected profitability “in the next few years,” according to Stephen Colvin, chief executive of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company. Unique visitors to the site have leveled off in the range of two million to three million a month over the last year, according to comScore, the Internet traffic research firm.
The task of taking two money-losing operations and combining them to try to become one profitable enterprise has struck many in the media business as fanciful. This is not lost on Mr. Harman.
“What I wanted to know was whether there was a shot at this thing breaking even,” Mr. Harman said, reflecting on his thoughts after he bought the magazine. “But I’m looking at this thing and saying to myself: ‘Son of a gun. I think we got a business here.’ My expectation is it will surely break even.”