“Hello! If you would like a free internet website, plus a chance to make a lot of money, press one now.”–Automated telephone sales pitch delivered on Easter Sunday
My God, those heady months of January through April 13th, 2000, when every internet IPO went through the roof and Black Friday was a reference to a bad day in the market back in the 80’s. How far away it all seems! Yet that it was in that now lost era when I visited Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn in their new offices, as they prepared to launch inside.com. “Getting people to write for us has been easier than getting laid in the sixties,” Mr. Andersen famously remarked at the time.
1. Meet The New Boss
At first the new thing was called Powerful Media, but they were mocked in the press, and retreated, and now the new thing is called Inside.com.
They had to buy the name from some Brazilians down in Rio, who presumably registered the name for its racy undertones. It’s got some porn potential, does Inside.com. The Brazilians held out for some porn-style cash, and got it: $100,000 dollars.
This new thing, Inside.com, is a much ballyhooed website that will deliver… no one has really been able to explain it. The general idea is they will report on the information industry. It’s possible that Kurt Andersen and Mike Hirschorn know what the New Thing is, and are simply being coy about discussing it. It is also possible that they have no idea what the New Thing is, and have madly bluffed their way to $5 million is start up funds, with another round of $15 million on its way this fall. Either way, I paid a visit to their offices in the hopes of finding out.
The building that houses the office of Inside.com is located at 601 West 26th Street; it’s an absolutely enormous industrial building, thick with soot, that was built in the nineteenth century and once served as the terminus of the Lehigh Railroad. It is, however, now being renovated. A hive of activity surrounds the sidewalk outside, and the lobby is a mad chaos of people lining up in front of one of four elevators, which are all operated by cantankerous elevator men in charge of shuttling bodies up and down all day. There are faces of many different colors here, and all this activity seems strange in what was once such a remote, industrial neighborhood.
A block west, the Chelsea art scene continues to bubble away, but even now with the stores moving in at high speed, there are still as many garages–with exhausted taxi cabs in some state of disassembly–as there are galleries.
The energy on the sidewalk in front of 601 West 26th street, however, is different.
Basically what is happening is this: The sweatshops that have long occupied this sooty hulk are moving out. And the internet companies are moving in.
You can see this transition in the strange demographics of the packed elevators–the Mexican delivery guys, the deadlocked messengers, the college educated white guys trying to play it off in a slacker mode, and the shark-toothed slicked-back supermodel-dating businessmen, about to close a deal. You might run into the odd supermodel, too, for that matter, and on the way up, I do: there is Claudia Schiffer, looking quite blowsy and relaxed, alongside her impeccably dressed boyfriend, whose handsome face is wound up in the slightly strained squint of a man about to make (or who has just made) a deal. Claudia and I, mildly chummy from our Arena get-together, catch up. Tim is clutching his cell phone. She seems blowsy and relaxed and happy on this summer, day, but there is an almost bemused curl to her lips and I can’t help wonder if she is somehow rolling her eyes at her boyfriend’s deal making intensity. I’m just projecting, of course, though given the nature of the building’s tenants, I can’t imagine I’m too far off the mark. That’s what half the women are Manhattan are doing–rolling their eyes at their boyfriend’s obsession with stocks, with deals, with electronic gadgets, with the rhetoric of the new economy. When I get to my floor Claudia and I kiss good-bye; Tim gives me an iron man handshake.
Inside.com is located, for better and for worse, on the thirteenth floor. It’s a long walk to their office down an industrial-width hallway; the thrum and bang and screech of renovation makes the place seem like a war zone. I pass something purporting to be an art gallery, outside of which is a large sign with the words, “Sex Sells.”
2. Same as the Old Boss
A pit. A hive. A Dickensian mewling mass of well-educated white people standing and sitting and gesturing in between rows of desks that are wooden slabs set up on saw horses. I suppose one could characterize this as a newsroom, but every one of these people has that tell-tale, “We’ve got to get this done by yesterday!” look in their eye that characterizes the Internet start-up world.
In front of every individual sits a Blueberry iMac. Whatever you’re preferences are regarding iMac and iBook colors, a roomful of blueberry jars the eye. Its uniformity seems creepy.
The place looks less like a publication’s offices than it does a trading floor of a brokerage house. The improvised nature of the office makes inside.com look like it’s some penny stock chop shop right out of The Boiler Room. (The stock market and The Internet have become almost interchangeable in the minds of most Americans; it’s as though the very word I-n-t-e-r-n-e-t scrolls across their imagination as a stock ticker racing across the screen.)
Beyond this swarm is an enormous picture window overlooking the Hudson River. In between me and that window are about two hundred stressed out, well-educated examples of a certain hysteria that has swept through this town–it is Thursday, April 6th and the money is still pouring in. NASDAQ does not know gravity.
But these are numbers, and what the Internet boom has primarily rewarded are business plans that revolve around e-commerce. Content has been a much lesser player in the venture capital game.
And Kurt Andersen and Mike Hirschorn are–or least used to be–writers and editors, i.e., content providers. This venture of theirs is an attempt to bridge the gap between the wild frenzy of money and possibility that comprises the Internet world, and the relatively staid, Internet-resistant world of publishers, intellectuals, writers, and editors, who collectively make up old media.
There’s a lot of journalists in New York, and it hasn’t escaped their (brief) attentions that a lot of fairly mediocre writers and editors who jumped onto the Internet bandwagon a few years ago–often because they couldn’t make it in the print world– have done just fine, thank you.
Andersen and Hirschorn are, teamed together, the two highest profile members of the vaguely cerebral world of American print journalism to dive headfirst into the Internet with the intent of being businessmen. In some respects this quest for equity began with Tina Brown leveraging her name for a piece of Talk. But not everybody has Tina Brown’s name, and anyway the jury is still out on Talk. These two guys used to be talent, but now they’re buying talent. They used to write for others; now they want to control the means of production. Can they do it?
3. Twin Peaks
Kurt Andersen looks a lot like Kyle MacLachlan, who made his name in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and later in Twin Peaks. He stands to greet me, and the blue Hudson river looms behind him through the huge plate glass window. There is a bank of file cabinets that sets off this part of the room and makes it a bit of a rarified aviary, a place where the two impresarios can concentrate away from the din.
Andersen is tall and a bit drawn and has a certain creepy Lynch-like quality about him, as though his intelligence prevents him from ever being entirely present in any given situation, but instead makes him stand outside it doing an instant satire of what he is experiencing. He’s a good satirist, and his magazine, Spy (which he co-founded with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter) was, in it’s late eighties hay-day, the most influential magazine of the last twenty or so years. Before Spy, the last American magazine that seemed to both capture its moment and make money was Rolling Stone. Before that, who knows? Perhaps one must all the way back to Harold Ross and The New Yorker.
It’s nice back here, away from the mad gesturing, away from the panic. Anderson’s desk is spare and neat; his manner removed and pleasantly aloof.
Hirschorn’s desk, on the other hand, is chaos, and he stands to present an entirely different figure. To say Hirschorn is Falstaffian –assuming Falstaff could hack it in the corporate world –wouldn’t be too far off the mark, except for the brimming acuity in Hirschorn’s eyes, as though he’s seen it all before, including you. Maybe a young Charles Laughton could play him, if Laughton could master the accent of a smart Manhattan kid who went to Collegiate and Harvard, played roles at Esquire and New York, took a faltering Spin magazine on a reasonable run before seeing the light and bailing into Inside.com. Hirschorn has spent most of adult career being faintly apologetic for being so successful, but now I can sense a newfound bravado in him, the thrill of the start up.
There they stand, the Laurel and Hardy of the New media age. Or Maybe the Odd Couple (Andersen has a bit of the Felix Unger about him). Or who knows? Woodward and Bernstein? Fisketjohn and Entrekin? Bonnie and Clyde?
“For executives in media right now, the world is filled with opportunity and dread,” says Hirschorn. He is taking me through a preview of Inside.com, which will be available only by subscription. “There are going to be enormous changes in the media landscape in the next two years. A lot of people will lose their jobs, and a lot of people will get new ones. Billions of dollars will be lost, and billions of dollars will be made.”
Hirschorn has clearly gone through the looking glass. Going through the looking glass is that moment when the Internet’s possibilities–for fun, for communications, for profit, for newness–open up to you in one blinding epiphany, which is then followed by a mad descent into Internet workaholism. Converts like Hirschorn (and about half of Manhattan’s under forty population) tend to be a little evangelical, a little apocalyptic.
“Magazines today are reactive, defensive, and fearful,” he continues, “and tending more towards blandness.”
“And your publication is going to change all that?” I ask.
“It’s not a publication,” he snaps. “It’s a service.”
“Let’s see some service, then.”
Ten minutes later Hirschorn has gotten the general idea across. Inside.com will take information that no one has previously cared about all that much–such as which books have been optioned for the movies THIS AFTERNOON, or what the sales figures of a hit record are TODAY–and turn it, through some witty editorial slight of hand, into something that people do care about. Not only care about, but be willing to pay a FEE in order to receive. Continuously. Ever day. Every hour.
Basically Inside.com is promising to take you into the viscous plasma of the entertainment industry itself. You can float along and visit the different organs (Television, Film, Music, Media, and Books) and feel every heart beat in real time, as it happens. It will take you inside the giant monster that is the entertainment/industrial complex. You will not just know it. You will become one with it.
And the content you consume will match the medium through which you consume it. Hirschorn speaks with the breathy, rapid fire delivery of a man with a lot to say and only a little time to say it (his time is scarce because he is starting a company, and his time is even more scarce because this whole project has so antagonized and fascinated the old-news-media that there is a veritable line around the block comprised of reporters from every major outlet wanting to get a quote from these guys) but one phrase jumps out at me and I ask for clarification.
“Platform agnosticism,” he repeats. “It means that right now we think of being online as sitting in front of our computers looking a screen. But not too long from now that is going to seem quaint. We’ll get online on watches, on palm pilots, on car radios, on all sorts of platforms we haven’t even imagined.”
Part of me feels this is all far fetched, and then there is the piece of paper lying haphazardly on the desk with some numbers for the upcoming Inside.com launch party. In New York, they’re planning to drop forty to fifty thousand, but haven’t chosen a venue. In LA, the Beverly Hills Hotel is set to go at $45,000. These are not small numbers for a launch party. A lot of money seems to think that these guys are onto something.
“Basically,” says Hirschorn, “we’re in an arms race to become one with real time.”
“And what separates you from the raw data spewing across every financial news network all day?” I ask.
“We add value,” says Hirschorn. By this I assume he means that he and Anderson, seasoned satirists and packagers and marketers, will somehow be able to find ways of presenting this information in a titillating fashion. But before I can ask, a resounding “Oh Shit!” emanates from Anderson’s work space just a few feet away. An assistant scurries in search of napkins, and an encroaching sea of diet coke placidly spreads out over Anderson’s desk, and onto his lap.
I visit Kurt Andersen on Friday, April 14, in the afternoon. Since My last visit, NASDAQ is down. My God is it down. By that evening the day will have a name: Black Friday. Melodramatic, of course, in the manner most people are with money, but fairly accurate as well. By the end of the day the tech sector–which is to say the gravity defying world of the dot.com’s –will have seen its value drastically decrease.
Hirschorn is out of the office, as are a number of the male staff, playing their weekly basketball game at the nearby Chelsea Piers. The hangar-like space is more subdued than my last visit. The only evidence of Hirschorn is a forearm grip that sits rather forlornly at his desk, resting atop a stack of disorderly papers like a paper-weight.
By himself, Andersen seems even more stately and aloof, an eminence and a visionary who right now has a view of the turbulent, cloud darkened Hudson, and a stock market that might or might not be crashing beneath him. He went Harvard, wrote for television news and then for Time magazine, where he met Graydon Carter and began to scheme about starting Spy; when he sold Spy, he moved on to a stint editing New York magazine, and then left to write a novel, Turn of the Century. Unsurprisingly, it is a satire.
All this might make him seem like the consummate insider, but he is from Omaha, Nebraska; his voice, both as editor and writer is that of the outsider, which is a peculiar thing for someone who is running Inside.com. His attitude is at once wide-eyed and disdainful of the goings on in the big city. One can’t help wonder how such imperial distance complicates his personal life.
“Magazines were a medium of the twentieth century,” he says to me. “There was a great surge of energy in America in the twenties, when a lot of people felt it was time for something new. Simon and Schuster, Harold Ross and The New Yorker… I don’t any of those people would be starting magazines today.”
Inside.com will feature a regular column by Anderson. “We’re looking to bridge the gap as much as possible between columns and raw data,” he says.
“I realize that a lot of people have a weird compulsion to keep track of which movie was number one at the box office,” I say. “But do you think you can build a whole magazine, or service, or whatever, around that impulse?”
“Well, there are lot of things you can do with information,” he says. “For example we are going to have a data base of names, celebrities, media people, artists, businessmen, and there is going to be an ongoing poll in which people’s hot rating will be measured. It’s like ascribing a hot number to every person.”
I let this sink in for a moment. It is the first truly original idea I have heard from these guys, and I must admit that it is a good one–it is interactive, it makes the reader a participant, it is cruel, and I can imagine Tina Brown assigning her assistant to an afternoon of stuffing the ballot; making sure her Q rating, or whatever they choose to call it, stays high.
“But do you think people will relate to this information they way they always have to their news sources? People read the paper, or watch television news, in the spirit of someone slipping into a warm bath.”
“We’ll be a Jacuzzi,” says Anderson. “Hopefully we won’t be a whirl pool that can you suck you under.”
It’s clear that the you of the above statement means, at least in part: “Me.”
“I’m in a position to appreciate that things have their lifespans. The twentieth century was a magazine age. The twenty first is the Internet.”
I ask how long he imagines being involved in this new media venture. Listening to Hirschorn, one feels it is a lifetime commitment, but Andersen surprises me with his answer.
“I’m not going to be doing this in five years,” he says. There are tug boats on the Hudson, pulling heavy barges. For a just a moment, on Black Friday, that frantic 24/7 pace of the new Internet economy seems to have paused, and one of its new captains has paused with it, and become reflective.
“Like all young people of a certain caste, I thought novel-writing was the highest calling,” says Anderson. Throughout all his various journalistic ventures, he claims, “Those embers were always burning. Having been fired rather spectacularly (from New York magazine) I had the gumption-chutzpa-severance to finally do it. And I intend to keep doing it. Inside.com is an incredibly challenging digression from what I’m going to be doing for the next ten years.”
On Black Friday, Kurt Anderson, pioneer of the new age of new media, had a rather touchingly old fashioned sentiment on his mind: “I want to keep writing novels.”