The Standard

December 6, 1999


Getting the Inside Dope

Magazine veterans Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn have teamed up to
form a news site. They've got cash, ambition and plenty of buzz.


by James Ledbetter

Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn, a pair of publishing industry veterans, have had enough of magazines. Their new venture, a Web-based media and entertainment news site tentatively called Inside Dope, is housed in an out-of-the-way warehouse office overlooking Manhattan's West Side rail yards, miles from the cushy midtown environs of Conde Nast and Time Warner.

And just listen to them talk: "Magazines are in retrenchment mode," says Andersen, 45, puffing away on a cigarette. "Caretakers, rearranging the deck chairs pick your metaphor."

Hirschorn jumps right in: "Magazines like New York and Spin have very established relationships with advertisers in which advertisers are able to subtly and not so subtly influence the content of the magazine."

The examples are deliberate. Less than a year ago, 35-year-old Hirschorn was removed from his post as Spin's editor in chief. Three years earlier, Andersen was similarly booted as editor in chief of New York magazine, though, by most measures, he had revitalized its aging formula and kept its circulation from falling. (Hirschorn was one of his key deputies.)

Andersen and Hirschorn are less magazine outsiders than seasoned, if jilted, insiders which helps explain the name of their new Web-based publishing venture: Inside Dope. Their CEO, 35-year-old Deanna Brown, is also a veteran of a half-dozen magazines, some of which she left involuntarily.

"We met," quips Andersen, "in a support group."

Inside Dope intends to use the Web to do first-rate reporting on the media and entertainment business. "We want to do for the media industry what TheStreet.com does with Wall Street and investing," says Andersen. And like TheStreet.com, Inside Dope won't be afraid to charge for its juiciest information, a business model that is still far from proven.

The teaming of Andersen, Hirschorn and Brown along with some financial assistance from hedge-fund manager and TheStreet.com cofounder James Cramer has Manhattan media circles buzzing.

Why so much interest? It's partly due to the pedigree of the company's founders. But there's also an unspoken understanding that New York for all its presumed media saturation has not produced a genuine Internet media sensation. Yes, there's TheStreet.com, but it's too obsessed with Wall Street for the liberal-arts majors in New York's publishing crowd. Both Slate and Salon have New York offices, but their home offices and editorial hearts lie elsewhere.

There's little question that this team of insiders can regularly come up with media tidbits, especially since they will use the Web and e-mail to beat out slower-moving dailies and weeklies. They envision a staff of about 30 editors and reporters, about half of them in Los Angeles. The question, of course, is whether there are enough potential readers to make Inside Dope a viable business.

It's difficult to quantify or even explain the appetite for news and gossip about media, film and publishing companies. In New York, there's a steady flow of dish. Each of the city's three dailies publishes news about media companies in its business section; both the New York Times and the New York Post have bolstered their coverage in recent years. The New York Daily News and the Post supplement straight coverage with gossip columns. The bigger weeklies New York, the Village Voice, the New York Press and the New York Observer each publish at least a story a week that dissects media news. And there's also an ample body of trade publications Advertising Age, Billboard, the Hollywood Reporter, Media Insider Newsletter, Publishers Weekly and Variety all of which Andersen refers to as "narrow papers of record" for their respective topics.

Inside Dope believes readers of this last group will allow the company to escape the standard misconception that Web content must be free.

The Inside Dope blueprint has three main components. For starters, the company notes that the media industry is converging, creating an increasing desire among people in one sector to get information about others. The proposed merger of Viacom (VIAB) and CBS (CBS) , for example, would create a single company with some of the biggest properties in network broadcasting, cable, film, radio and book publishing. But to date, there's no one-stop shop for all media industry buzz.

Second, Inside Dope is counting on the fact that media industry insiders are willing to pay for information they think they need. A year's subscription to Daily Variety costs $219. Billboard charges $289 and has a special fax or online bulletin service for more than $400. The companies that publish trade papers are profitable because employers pick up the tab. "They're expense-account subscriptions," Brown says.

Finally, although the Inside Dope team is far too calculating to say this for attribution, a lot of media trade journalism sucks. The writing is frequently lifeless, the reporting unreliable and the presentation dull.

Partly for that reason, Inside Dope declines to identify itself as a trade publication (substituting in, some- what curiously, b-to-b). It cites both TheStreet.com and TheStandard.com as examples of successful industry reporting on the Web. "We want to do real journalism, with actual journalistic values," explains Hirschorn.

It's off to an impressive start. In addition to Andersen, Brown and Hirschorn, Inside Dope will feature an impressive roster of media writers and editors, including Lorne Manley, former Off the Record columnist for the New York Observer and recently of Brill's Content; Kyle Pope, a television reporter and editor from the Wall Street Journal; Craig Marks, a former editor at Spin; and Chris Petrikin, a news editor from Variety.

Inside Dope believes it has a lineup that people will pay to read. Andersen, comfortably adopting the Net argot and bravado, sees Inside Dope's hiring spree as "a real inflection point in terms of media culture. It's incredibly appealing to people to be part of this medium now. We can get anybody."

They can get financing, too; the company so far has raised $5 million. Trading on old alliances, Andersen and Hirschorn used former New York columnist Jim Cramer to pair up with Flatiron Partners, one of the principal backers of TheStreet.com. Flatiron, which takes its capital from Chase Bank, is now the largest investor in Inside Dope, funneling $3 million to the company through various Chase entities. Inside Dope is also backed by about $2 million from individual investors, half from Cramer and half from such media insiders as Tom Phillips, CEO of Deja.com and the former publisher of Spy, which Andersen cofounded.

What has that money bought? As of early December, Inside Dope does not have a demo for public consumption. It has yet to finalize a URL (although it has registered Insidedope.com and similar domain names). It has not yet hired a CTO. It doesn't even have a fully detailed business plan; the trio declines to reveal their specific pricing, beyond the assertion that much of the Web site will be free and paying subscribers will have access to premium services, similar to TheStreet.com's offering.

If Inside Dope has anything approaching a secret weapon, it's data (or the idea of data). Go to the better financial news sites, and you'll find an enormous amount of data, much of it instantly customizable. The same goes for sports sites, especially those that cater to numbers-intensive fantasy leagues. Then imagine something similar for media data a searchable and customizable database of TV ratings, box-office receipts and book sales. Inside Dope is betting this is something for which hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of media insiders will pay dearly.

Inside Dope has made some stabs in that direction, most notably the purchase of Prepub, a fledgling company founded by a New York literary agent, which sought to be a comprehensive database for contracted but not-yet-published books.

Still, Andersen cautions, "it's not something we're promising at launch," which is wise. It's a formidable task that may also be unrealistic. First, there might not be a smoothly functioning technology that can accomplish what Inside Dope says it wants to do. Second, in the financial arena, much of the information is easily obtained because it's in the public record. In contrast, much of the media and entertainment world's relevant data is either private (e.g., book sales) or proprietary and expensive (e.g., Nielsen ratings).

Fred Wilson, Flatiron's managing partner, acknowledges that there's a technology gap between Inside Dope's vision and existing technology. "That's the wild card in this deal," Wilson says. "It's a bit of a bet that the Internet is going to work to capture that data, publish it and make it available on a real-time basis."

What is certain is that some of the most experienced hands in the magazine business now believe the Web is a superior mechanism for delivering journalism. Even if Inside Dope fails, it would be a milestone in the Internet Economy. Says Wilson: "If they do a bad job, they've got Variety online. If they do a good job, they've got Bloomberg for the entertainment and media industries."

Copyright 1999 The Standard.  All Rights Reserved.

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