In a media environment dominated by big players, where Disney, News Corp., Time Warner, and AT&T are gobbling up every outlet, it's refreshing to find publisher and entrepreneur Steven Brill. He's living proof that there's still room for a small media company to survive and prosper. 20 years ago, Brill created American Lawyer magazine to shed light on the secret ways of the legal profession. Under his guidance, the magazine won numerous national awards, had the highest average subscriber income of any paid-circulation periodical in the world, and expanded with other publications and online enterprises.
Then in 1991, Brill founded Court TV. More than two thirds of the states allow TV cameras in courtrooms, so this cable network seized the opportunity to broadcast real trials. Its peak popularity was during the O.J. Simpson murder case. No other network could compete with Court TV's continuous coverage. It had as many as four million viewers, a phenomenal number for a channel that's available to only one out of every five households. Cable systems clamored to add Court TV, and Brill forged a new partnership with Time Warner, NBC, and Liberty Media giving the network financial stability. But trials are pretty dull affairs. Court TV never again achieved the ratings that O.J. provided and now has a smaller audience than the NBA playoffs, if that's possible. In 1997, Brill sold his interest in the network and American Lawyer to his deep-pockets partners.
Then he began a new venture, a magazine entitled Brill's Content: The Independent Voice of the Information Age, now in its second year. His objective is to look at how the news and information media really work, exposing bias and sloppy journalism wherever he finds it while heaping praise on the organizations and individuals who do their jobs well. It's a Consumer Reports approach to media criticism. And Brill's Content isn't afraid to put itself under the same microscope. Each edition begins with a critique of past issues by an independent ombudsman who pulls no punches.
The timely features are crisply written, specifically avoiding strident rhetoric. The current issue takes book reviewers to task for not scrutinizing the accuracy of non-fiction titles. Instead, they believe that publishers, editors, and writers check their facts, a poor assumption. Other stories reveal the personal biases of influential fine arts critics, and accuse the national media of treating the war in Kosovo the same way they did the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Tackling this last piece himself, Brill shows how competitive pressures are destroying standards for accuracy with the result that we consumers know a lot about the war that just ain't so. He wonders aloud how this new media environment would accommodate World War II.
Then there's multifaceted coverage of the media at Littleton, Colorado. We look inside the editorial process at the Denver Rocky Mountain News. A writer for an open-source website describes thousands of messages he received from kids persecuted by peers and authorites because they dress weird, act moody, or openly resent the way they're being treated. A newspaper editor from a small New Hampshire town reveals how difficult it is to write objectively about kids.
Brill's Content is not all dry and serious. There's a lively feature called "Stuff We Like," and Chippy the chimpanzee competes with Washington pundits at the prediction game. So far Chippy trails Margaret Carlson, Pat Buchanan, and Cokie Roberts but is comfortably ahead of John McLaughlin and George Will.
We need more publications like this. I'm glad that Steven Brill has the savvy and finances to pull it off.