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Brown, Christina - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Christina Brown, Social and Economic Impact

magazine yorker vanity fair

(1953-)
The New Yorker

Overview

Christina Hambly Brown was the former editor-in-chief of the British magazine Tatler before moving to the United States to take over as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair magazine at the age of 30. She mixed a little controversy with a target population of yuppies and got booming magazine sales at both publications. Her success led to her being named as the editor-in-chief of the distinguished The New Yorker in 1992. Brown has a record of success in magazine publishing where she continues to demonstrate an ability to dramatically increase magazine sales.

Personal Life

Christina Hambly Brown was born on November 21, 1953, in Maidenhead, England. Her father, George Hambly Brown, worked as a film producer and her mother, Bettina (Kohr) Brown, worked as a writer and had once worked as the press agent for legendary British actor Sir Laurence Olivier. She and her brother, Christopher, were raised in the upper-middle-class village of Little Marlow in Buckinghamshire, England. The home was filled with love and support for the children but also contained an excitement brought by the family’s close association with the motion picture community.

Brown attended St. Anne’s at Oxford University in 1971, intending to follow the career path of her mother and become a writer. She was well on her way when she won the 1973 award given by the London newspaper, The Sunday Times, for her play “Under the Bamboo Tree.” She graduated from Oxford University in 1974 and decided to enter the magazine business.

In 1978 Brown moved in with her future husband, Harold Evans, whom she married on August 20, 1981. He later became head of Random House Publishing. The couple have two children: a son, born in 1986, and a daughter, born in 1990.

Career Details

After graduating from college in 1974, Brown worked as a freelance journalist and contributed articles concerning various issues in the United States to the noteworthy British publications The Sunday Times, Punch, Sunday Telegraph, and New Statesman. Her concise writing style earned her the 1978 Young Journalist of the Year Award given by Punch magazine.

In 1979 Brown was involved with publishing a magazine as well as writing for one. That year, Gary Bogard gave her the job as editor-in-chief of the respected British magazine Tatler, which had been founded in 1709. Bogard had recently purchased Tatler and was determined to make the old publication new and on the cutting edge. His appointment of Brown was a gamble as she had never worked in this capacity before and was relatively new to the magazine industry.

Brown showed that she was more than up to the task, and she immediately began to change the old stuffy style of the magazine into one that would inject more irreverence into certain topics in British life, such as the monarchy. Her approach was not based on hard research or experience, but rather a hunch that she played on.

This hunch paid off and within the next four years, sales of Tatler quadrupled. Brown demonstrated a talent for writing and editing and an ability to generate publicity. Brown realized quickly that free media coverage is more effective than expensive advertising. This shaped her attitude and she would continually give journalists something to write about, not caring what was said about it later. This attitude was to prove very successful for Brown.

Brown blended cultivated sass, intelligence, and a tongue-in-cheek attitude that ensured that Tatler would become successful. She also came to the attention of millionaire publisher S. I. Newhouse, Jr., who was head of the Condé Nast magazine empire. Newhouse bought the now widely successful Tatler in 1982 and offered Brown her next job.

Newhouse and his brother Donald were also coowners of the large media conglomerate, Advance Publications, and they tried in 1983 to revive an old media property, Vanity Fair magazine. Vanity Fair was founded in 1913 and was considered romantic and sophisticated in its day. It shut down, however, in 1936 due, in large part, to the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. Although there was a great deal of media fanfare at Newhouse’s decision to bring Vanity Fair out of retirement, the magazine had poor advertising sales and attracted few readers. Adding to Vanity Fair ’s poor showing in the early 1980s were critics who criticized its apparent lack of editorial focus and treated it as an expensive Newhouse joke.

In January of 1984 Newhouse offered the job of editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair to Brown. She accepted the position, replacing Vanity Fair ’s editor Leo Lerman. She soon set about making changes in the magazine to make it more attractive to readers. She insisted that the magazine have good taste while also whetting the readers appetite for more so that they would purchase the next issue.

It took more than a year for Brown’s changes to take effect, but eventually readership soared and the advertising dollars started rolling in. Brown took Vanity Fair ‘s circulation from 200,000 in 1984 to 750,000 in 1990. Brown discarded Vanity Fair ’s previous image of an old-time conservative magazine that only occasionally covered Hollywood and celebrities. Brown instead used the magazine to cater to the interests and tastes of the yuppie or “me” generation of the young urban professional. She successfully exploited the consumer’s drive for wealth, status, and celebrity. Her version of Vanity Fair became famous for stories about then—Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and long intellectual pieces. She punctuated these high-brow pieces with fluff stories about movie stars and celebrities. In 1986 Vanity Fair was cited as the “hottest” publication by the magazine trade journal Adweek, and in 1988 Brown was named as Editor of the Year by Advertising Age magazine.

Chronology: Christina Brown

1953: Born.

1971: Attended St. Anne’s at Oxford University.

1974: Graduated from Oxford University.

1979: Became editor-in-chief of Tatler.

1984: Became editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair.

1988: Named Editor of the Year by Advertising Age.

1992: Became editor-in-chief of The New Yorker.

1997: Sold 807,935 issues of The New Yorker in six months.

Just as she had done at Tatler, Brown generated huge amounts of free publicity through a series of seemingly outrageous acts. She used nude photos of actress Demi Moore on the cover twice, once when she was near the end of a pregnancy in 1991. She featured Claus von Bumlow clad in leather while he was fighting charges of attempted murder in the death of his wealthy socialite wife. By the time Brown left Vanity Fair in 1992, the circulation was nearly one million, and she found herself at the brink of personal stardom.

Because of her success at Vanity Fair, Brown was destined to move on to bigger things. Newhouse was so enamored of Brown’s success that he put her in charge of another of his magazines, The New Yorker, in July of 1992. The New Yorker was a more respected magazine and one some would call an institution in the publishing world, yet its style had become predictable. As might have been expected, Brown brought controversial changes to the magazine changes that are still being evaluated several years later.

Newhouse had purchased The New Yorker in 1985 and had put Robert Gottlieb in charge in 1987. But the magazine, founded in 1925, was still floundering in debt and needed a serious rebirth to avoid folding. Newhouse hoped that his appointment of Brown as only the magazine’s fourth editor in its history could save his $168 million investment and make The New Yorker as profitable as Vanity Fair.

Newhouse had angered New York’s respected and faithful news readers with his decision to give Brown the job and appoint Graydon Carter, the founder of Spy magazine, to Brown’s position at Vanity Fair. Many of the critics felt that Brown would turn The New Yorker into a trashy tabloid instead of the well-informed publication that they had come to trust. Many also felt that Brown’s previous successes had been due to her readers’ lack of discrimination when it came to their publications.

Brown initially worried about her new position as the first woman in charge of the The New Yorker and the staff changes that she knew would come. She realized that The New Yorker was one of the most highly respected literary magazines in the United States, and she stated that she did not want to completely change the magazine, just alter it a bit to make it more successful. After a teary farewell to her Vanity Fair staff, Brown set out to make The New Yorker a more successful publication.

Brown started at The New Yorker using the same techniques that made her a success in her other posts. She started the previously unheard of practice of using color on editorial and opinion pages and, in 1995 drew criticism from traditionalists both from within The New Yorker and from beyond its walls when she invited controversial television star Roseanne Arnold to contribute a literary piece on American women. Brown also began the practice of consolidating overhead business costs, such as printing and marketing, with the Condé Nast parent company. It was predicted that in 1998 alone, this practice would save the publication $1 million a month.

With these controversial moves, Brown has indeed made The New Yorker a more popular and profitable publication. Circulation of the magazine increased 31 percent from 616,800 issues sold in 1992 to 807,935 issues sold in the last six months of 1997 this was an average of 48,655 issues on the newsstand per month, which was the highest newsstand sales since 1975. Brown’s well-publicized issue featuring the late Princess Diana sold 140,000 copies on the newsstand, making it the highest selling single issue in 30 years.

Even though The New Yorker still loses more than $12 million a year, it is substantially less than the $32 million deficit that Brown inherited when she took over the magazine in 1992. Brown still has more work to do in order to make the publication as successful as Vanity Fair, but industry sources predict that The New Yorker will see its first profit by the year 2000.

Social and Economic Impact

Interviewed in the Washington Journalism Review in November of 1989, Brown said: “My kind of editing comes very much from the tradition of the eclectic magazine which mixes culture, arts, business all those things with an overriding point of view.” She blends all this and more into The New Yorker to keep it current and attractive to readers. Brown brings an irreverent attitude to stuffy subjects, which can “really make a lot of waves.” In doing so, she garners a lot of attention and media coverage. Brown’s business style, however, is wrapped up in selling magazines using this very same free publicity whenever it is available and then doing outrageous things in her magazine to garner even more of that same free media attention. This circle of free advertising as well as Brown’s tongue-in-cheek style of writing has brought her from a small traditional magazine in England to one of the largest and most respected magazines in the United States, The New Yorker.

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