Talk Stops, To Stunned Silence

This has been a rough season in the print media, but among those

who watch closely, few were surprised by the deflation and slow settling to

ground of the grand balloon known as Talk .

For like some turn-of-the-century hot-air balloon-the kind with

gilded gondolas and loud gas jets filling their air chambers-there was

something unwieldy and antiquated about Talk:

It didn’t travel as fast as other, more modern forms of communication, or as

fast as it should have to match its editor’s aviatrix-like instincts. And as

others of their style began losing air and drunkenly spiraling down- George , Brill’s Content , Mademoiselle – Talk ‘s short flight looked imperiled as

well, despite the truly glittering smile of its captain, who continued to wave

and express confidence all the while in its incessant descent until it

dropped-klump!

Then she emerged with the desultory smile of an around-the-world

balloonist brought down in Peoria. There were adjunct reverberations in Park

City, Utah-where part-owner Harvey Weinstein was shopping for new independent

movies at the Sundance Film festival-and Los Angeles, where Talk ‘s premonitory wake had been held,

unknowingly, a party preceding the Golden Globe Awards.

Talk magazine may have

started as, among other things, Tina Brown’s entrepreneurial urge for

independence after some tense New Yorker

jousting with Steve Florio at Condé Nast, and Harvey Weinstein’s fascinated

need to have and hold a media property. And though it’s true she entered at the

top of page 1 of The New York Times ,

and exited two years later at the bottom, Ms. Brown and Mr. Weinstein pretty

much went out as they went in-dispensing glittery, amusing $50 million quotes

as their lieutenants fended for themselves.

On the chilly afternoon of Friday, Jan. 18, outside Talk ‘s Chelsea offices, the very

reporting hordes Talk depended on-and

now was complaining had brought it down-waited to give Ms. Brown either the

Marilyn Monroe or the Norma Desmond treatment by getting a big quote. The media

pack, looking at the fall of Talk

like a steamed dumpling stuffed with Schadenfreude ,

waited for an epitaph to a magazine to which few had any particular emotional

allegiance-as many had with Life or

the Saturday Evening Post or Lingua Franca – but which they remembered

mostly for a party on Liberty Island on a strange, humid evening in 1999. That

was the party, of course, to which they’d been invited with Madonna, Henry

Kissinger and about a million gallons of sponsored liquor, the party that-remember?-the

magazine’s then-avowed enemy, Rudy Giuliani, had kept out of the Brooklyn Navy

Yards. For political reasons.

Ms. Brown’s explanations for Talk ‘s

demise: a somewhat opportunistic assigning of blame to Sept. 11; a rotten

economy prior; the crushing weight of expectations no start-up magazine had

ever faced. (Although she might have honored her own signal triumph by

remembering that Vanity Fair had far

grander expectations and was a bigger flop, before she showed up to save it in

the 1980’s.)

Behind the scenes, there was scattered, equally predictable

noise: Hearst was cheap, Miramax was profligate, Ms. Brown wasn’t the glamour

surgeon she’d been in the Reagan years.

Now Ms. Brown suggested that the media should be less gleeful at Talk ‘s demise. “When you think about it,

with Talk gone, where do you place a

sophisticated story now?” she said to Off the Record. “You could do it for The New Yorker , but that’s highly

competitive with a whole bunch of staff writers who mostly write it. The Time and Newsweek s of the world are really mainstream, and you couldn’t

write a really risqué piece for those publications. The New York Times is also very conservative. And Vanity Fair has its sort of established

roster.

“There’s not many places to submit a piece at this point,” she

said. “There’s really a death of places to write. So I think when people say,

‘Was there a reason for Talk ?’ Yes,

there’s a reason for Talk . We did

provide outlets for a whole bunch of other writers, and they were writing for

our pages and loving doing it.”

Mr. Weinstein sounded a more bottom-line note, with a complaint

at the shark-stocked nature of the media pool. “I was surprised that members of

the media didn’t see Talk as a chance

to create more jobs in the industry,” he responded to a written question from

Off the Record. “While there’s obviously competitiveness in the movie industry,

there is an appreciation for competitors providing opportunities for those in

the industry to work.”

Left unanswered: what Talk ‘s

farewell meant for prospects in the genre Ms. Brown had so successfully

reinvigorated, first at Tatler , then

at Vanity Fair and at The New Yorker : Tina Brown was

supposedly the woman who had saved the general-interest magazine, and it had

been there that Talk had a terrible

weight upon itself. If Talk had

promise, it was because it could be-once you got past Gwyneth, Heather and

then, as things descended, Estella and Gwyneth once more-a magazine. Ms. Brown,

who had been marketed, hoisted and made a

60 Minutes subject, the first really well-known editor since Jann Wenner,

was supposed to make things levitate.

But Talk never quite became a magazine-in the sense that Playboy or Sports Illustrated or Ladies

Home Journal is a magazine you know and can come to terms with. After its

initial kind of cool physical appearance as a stapled, sleek, oversized

magazine in the tradition of English Sunday supplements and Hello! That suggested a raffish feature

newsmagazine with a short lead-time, it returned to the usual lumbering

American perfect-bound format, and then to indistinguishability.

In the end, Ms. Brown said what editors say when it happens: She

wished she had more time. She wished she had more time to perfect her magazine

before it was reviewed, more time from her two backers, Hearst Magazines and

Miramax Films, more time to find new investors. Like scores of editors before

her who were told by their financiers that the money was being turned off, Ms.

Brown maintained right up until the announcement that Talk would close-without even printing its next issue with Courtney

Love on the cover-that she just needed a few more issues to prove that Talk could be a success.

“For us, being a single title in the conglomerate world, as it

were, was so incredibly difficult,” said Ms. Brown. “You know, you spend all

your time in that war, and so little time in the end is spent on the creative

stuff, which is the lifeblood of what you do. And so much time is spent in a

crouched position in the dugout.”

At least six months ago, it became clear to Talk that they would need another investor to keep the magazine

going. Hearst was starting to signal that it did not want to continue

underwriting half the losses of starting up a general-interest magazine,

sources close to the situation told Off the Record. So Ms. Brown and Ron

Galotti, the prodigious, aggressive publisher who was Talk’ s president, began seeking out a new investor. Miramax Films,

which had put up the other half of Talk ,

would continue to back them, they thought.

This past summer, Ms. Brown was confident that she would be able

to find someone to replace Hearst. Prior to Sept. 11, she said, “we would have

definitely found another partner. There were two people in particular we talked

to who really wanted to be in the magazine.” Ms. Brown wouldn’t say who the two

potential investors were, but a source close to Talk identified the two likely investors as Conrad Black, the chief

executive of newspaper publisher Hollinger International, and David Pecker,

chief executive of supermarket-tabloid publisher American Media Inc. (Hollinger

International did not respond to requests for comment, although the company

confirmed in other reports that it had once considered investing in Talk but decided to pass. A spokesman

for American Media would neither confirm nor deny that Mr. Pecker had looked at

the magazine.)

“The problem was,” Ms. Brown said, “they could live with our

pre–Sept. 11 business plan, but what no one can take was having to double the

number for the next year of losses.”

By Monday, Jan. 14, after a meeting with Hearst and Miramax, it

became clear that Hearst’s patience was gone and it was pulling out, said one

source who spoke to Ms. Brown after that meeting. 

The final decision, however, sat with Miramax. Would it continue

to back Talk , a magazine that had

been a long-term fascination of Mr. Weinstein’s and which, with his political

participation in the Gore campaign and his undisputed triumphs in Hollywood,

would have-if it had succeeded-made him a triple-threat power. Ms. Brown, the

source said, thought the magazine’s end was near, but was convinced she would

get a few more issues-issues which she believed were the strongest since the

magazine started. March was to have Ms. Love on the cover, April, Tom

Cruise-which she could use to round up a new investor.

“Really, the magazine since last summer has been really good,”

Ms. Brown said. “I think the magazine gelled, and it happened at Vanity Fair , although people love to

forget it, but it took two years to get that team right.”

On Wednesday, Jan. 16,with the March issue still closing, Ms.

Brown and Mr. Galotti headed to Los Angeles where Talk was throwing a party for the Golden Globe awards, crucial to

any studio’s Oscar campaigns, and Mr. Weinstein was to head there from the

Sundance Film Festival in Utah. When Ms. Brown and Mr. Galotti got to the

Mondrian Hotel, where they were to host their party, Ms. Brown got a call from

Mr. Weinstein telling her he had decided he couldn’t shoulder all of Talk on his own, and that the magazine

would close down immediately.

That meant the March issue would never be published.

Ms. Brown, sources said, began lobbying Hearst and Miramax

officials to print the March issue. Partly, they said, because she was proud of

it, and partly because she wanted to buy time to seek a new investor.

Attendees of the party, held in the Mondrian’s restaurant Asia de

Cuba, said it was hardly lively. Missing were the Miramax stars, like Judi

Dench, and the studio’s staff. Most conspicuously absent was Mr. Weinstein, who

was hosting a party in Park City, Utah, for Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman,

both of whom are featured in upcoming Miramax films. Many partygoers in Los

Angeles took the down-beat note of the party as sign. “To me the alarm bells

went off when Harvey went to Utah with Russell and Nicole,” one source said.

Many noticed that Ms. Brown spent a long while talking alone out

by the restaurant’s pool with Michael Eisner, the chief executive of the Walt

Disney Company. The conversation wasn’t heated, sources said, but serious and

determined, and the two seemed to make it clear that other people were not

welcome to join it. In Ms. Brown’s effort to publish one last issue of Talk , since Miramax is a subsidiary of

Disney, winning Mr. Eisner’s support could have been crucial.

Early on the morning of Friday, January 18, Ms. Brown and Mr.

Galotti flew back to New York to meet with their staff.

At Talk , which was

still closing the March issue, when the meeting was announced around noon on

Friday, speculation began to swirl. Some believed that Talk was going to be closed down. Editorial director Maer Roshan

believed that Ms. Brown and Mr. Galotti were bringing back good news. On

Wednesday, Mr. Roshan, who thought speculation about Talk ‘s future was distracting his staff during the close, asked Mr.

Galotti to update them on the search for investors, sources said. Mr. Galotti

had agreed, and Mr. Roshan thought that the meeting was the one he had asked

for.

But, in fact, it was not. Ms. Brown, Mr. Galotti, Hearst

Magazines chief executive Cathie Black and Miramax executive vice president

Charles Layton announced that Talk was over.

Then the recriminations began. In the three-way pull to avoid

blame for a failed magazine launch that reportedly burned through $50 million,

Hearst is being accused by some at Talk

and Miramax of undermining the magazine. In December, when speculation that

Hearst was on the verge of pulling out of the magazine began to intensify, Ms.

Black stood behind a statement that “we support” Talk ‘s efforts to find new investors and “expect that we will have

a continuing relationship with the magazine.”

At Talk , it was seen as

damning with faint praise, and since the staff felt increasingly under siege

from the press and now Hearst, very damaging to the very efforts Hearst said it

supported.

“For the past year, it seems they have done everything in their

power to shorten the life of the magazine,” said one close source. “They didn’t

just want to remove themselves from the magazine, they didn’t want any

magazine.”

Ms. Black was out of the country on Jan. 22 and unavailable for

comment. A spokesperson for Hearst said, “We can’t imagine why someone would

say this while Hearst was investing dollar for dollar alongside Miramax. It was

in everyone’s best interest that the magazine succeed.”

Meanwhile, the very press

that had mythologized Ms. Brown, Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Galotti as print

powerhouses suddenly were seen as the dirty rotten scoundrels who were dragging

it down. The press counted the ad pages, complaining that Talk was nothing but Vanity

Fair Jr. , watching the non-stop revolving door of hires, retreats,

announcements, raids and inside scuffles.

And the one thing that just worked-the book business-run by

Jonathan Burnham and launching best-sellers and prestige publications from

Simon Schama, Martin Amis and the astonishing, fortuitous signing of Mayor

Giuliani-did nothing but make the magazine look bad in contrast.

Asked if she would do anything differently now, Ms. Brown said,

after three years of hyping a magazine built largely on her own celebrity, she

wished she had kept a lower profile.

She brought up a conversation she had with the founder of women’s

cable network, Oxygen. “When I ran into Geraldine Laybourne recently,” Ms.

Brown said, “they were very unhappy about the fact that they didn’t have a New

York outlet. And I said, ‘You’re so lucky that you don’t have a New York

outlet. There’s been huge amount of turbulence over there, in terms of people

coming and going and so forth, but their programs weren’t being reviewed.”

In December, the three-year old Oxygen won a slot on New York

City cable. “I don’t know what their shows are going to be like,” said Ms.

Brown, “but you’d think after two years they’ve probably got it in much better

shape than if they had just opened on Broadway. One thing that would have been

great is that I wish we would have had an out-of-town try-out.”

And Ms. Brown volunteered that she had a lot of difficulty

editing a monthly after seven years of editing the weekly New Yorker . Asked if she would edit another magazine, Ms. Brown

said, “And if I were to do it again, I would never do a monthly again. I think

monthlies are a killer. It’s too long.” She added, “I think the culture is

moving very fast and the whole kind of laborious pre-historic kind of minuet to

the close, locked in aspects two or three weeks before you publish, it just

felt like agony”

For now, Ms. Brown said she plans to stay as chairman of Talk

Miramax Books, the wholly owned subsidiary of Miramax, which is set to publish

two books by former Mayor Giuliani, as well as a memoir by former Secretary of

State Madeleine Albright.

As for herself, she ruled out publishing her own diaries, kept

since age 12, except as a last resort. “I think my diary will be something at

some point when I’m 75,  when the

bailiffs are taking my furniture out, I’ll cash in then,” said Tina Brown.

Bill Colson’s sudden departure as the managing editor of

Sports Illustrated didn’t just signal

a shakeup for the venerable-yet-creaky jock weekly; it also marked the arrival

of John Huey as a cage-rattling force within Time Inc.

Five months into his tenure

as Time Inc.’s editorial director, Mr. Huey, the 53-year-old former managing editor of the Fortune

Group , has already shown a

willingness to personally intercede in publications he perceives to be on the

down slope. Sports Illustrated may

have simply been the first; People and

Entertainment Weekly could be next on

Mr. Huey’s hit list, a Time Inc. source said. Another source said that the new

editorial director was dissatisfied with all the magazines he oversees “except

for Fortune and Money .”

Mr. Huey declined to be interviewed for this story. But sources

at Time Inc. said that he has established himself as a far more aggressive

manager than his predecessors, Walter Isaacson and Henry Muller. As one Time

Inc. executive put it: “No [other editorial director] has flexed his muscles as

much as Huey already has. Even Walter didn’t flex his muscles as much as Huey.”

There were early signs that Mr. Huey would be a shakeup artist,

however. When Mr. Huey took over for Mr. Isaacson after the latter went to run

CNN, Time Inc. editor in chief Norm Pearlstine changed the editorial director’s

role. Instead of focusing on the broad synergies of AOL Time Warner properties,

Mr. Huey would have a more direct, day-to-day control over the company’s

flagship titles. (Mr. Pearlstine, too, declined to be interviewed for this

story).

Mr. Huey’s rise surprised few people inside or outside the

company. Ever since Mr. Pearlstine joined Time Inc. from The Wall Street Journal , Mr. Huey has served as his fixer: an

affable man who will deliver results, but one who can be ruthless in his

execution. Just a month into Mr. Pearlstine’s tenure, he replaced Fortune ‘s managing editor, Walter

Kiechel, with Mr. Huey, who proceeded to quickly remake the staff. Then, when

Mr. Huey was given oversight of Money

in 1997, longtime editor Frank Lalli was forced out the door in favor of Fortune senior editor and Wunderkind Bob Safian.

“I think that’s an indication of how things are going to go,” one

Time Inc. source said, referring to Mr. Huey’s scorched-earth past. “He got rid

of a lot of people at Fortune very

fast, and he told the remaining people, ‘Get on the program or leave.’ And then

he treated Money the same way. That

was just bloody over there.”

As editorial director, Mr. Huey’s been tinkering with small parts

of Time Inc. for a number of months. According to sources, Mr. Huey has been

visiting Time to talk to staffers and

chat with managing editor Jim Kelly. Last fall, according to sources, with Mr.

Kelly on vacation, he attended a 10 a.m. meeting in which editors debated

whether they should put President George W. Bush on the cover. When one editor

raised an objection, according to a source, Mr. Huey shot back, “Who cares what

you think?” (Mr. Kelly did not return phone calls for this story.)

But Sports Illustrated

was the first publication to be on the receiving end of a  thunderbolt from Mr. Huey. Long considered

the finest sports magazine in the country, the perception was that SI had fallen into something of a rut,

especially when compared the sassy, graphics-heavy ESPN the Magazine , SI ‘s

first serious competitor in years.

According to company sources, Mr. Pearlstine had been

dissatisfied with Mr. Colson’s performance since he won the job in 1995. But it

was Mr. Huey who finally initiated the move to do something about it.

Following a series of focus groups viewed via satellite simulcast

at AOL Time Warner’s building at 75 Rockefeller Plaza beginning in early November,

Mr. Huey became convinced that the magazine “was for 50-year-old white guys who

play golf five times a week,” one SI

source said. Then on Nov. 27, in a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco, Mr.

Huey met with four of the magazine’s West Coast writers and expressed concern

about the magazine. One of the writers who was there, Michael Silver, said the

meeting wasn’t a bitch-fest. “It wasn’t as if we sat around complaining,” said

Mr. Silver. “I thought the meeting was constructive and on a positive note.”

But sources in New York said the meeting represented a harbinger of things to

come. “Right after it happened,” said one SI

source, “everyone here knew about it. That’s when we knew major changes were

coming.” Given the command to implement major if not really necessary changes,

sources said, Mr. Colson decided to call it quits. (Mr. Colson declined to

comment for this story.)

But even before Mr. Colson’s decision to leave, Mr. Huey stepped

in and made changes with SI

content-even terminating pieces he didn’t like. One such piece was a column by

Steve Rushin about a golf outing with Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura for the

Oct. 1 issue. According to one SI

source, the column “just didn’t work” for Mr. Huey. When Mr. Colson tried to

intercede on Mr. Rushin’s behalf, saying the columnist might quit if the

magazine didn’t run it, the source said Mr. Huey responded: “Let him quit.”

Mr. Rushin didn’t return a call seeking comment. But Mr. Huey’s

meddling in content was seen by some SI

staffers as an ominous sign.

“You don’t get your column killed,” said one SI source. “Its sacrilege. A column is a column. You do what you

do.”

Mr. Huey also stepped in to

torpedo a mid-November piece written by a freelance writer about the heavy

financial losses of Major League Baseball. Commissioned by Mr. Colson, it was

written by Andew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and author of

the book Baseball and Billions.

Mr. Zimbalist said that the 1,500-word piece had gone through

various editors who all expressed happiness with it, only to be struck down in

the early-morning hours on Monday, as the magazine closed. When he asked why,

Mr. Zimbalist was told the piece had been killed by an outside editor. Said one

SI source: “Huey reached in and

killed it.”

“I thought it was wrong for an outside editor to kill an

initiated and approved piece,” Mr. Zimbalist said. “Furthermore, it’s

indicative of the difficult position Sports

Illustrated ‘s in as part of AOL Time Warner, which, as owner of the Atlanta

Braves, has a relationship with Major League Baseball. How can they claim to be

objective if an outside editor has such control?”

While it’s extremely unlikely Mr. Huey was acting on orders from

baseball commissioner Bud Selig in putting the kibosh on the economics piece,

it does appear that Time Inc.’s new editorial director has a Steinbrennerian

flair. Mr. Huey is meeting with SI

editors and writers about rejiggering the magazine one again, and as for

successors for Mr. Colson, the two most talked-about candidates are US Weekly ‘s Terry McDonnell and Roy

Johnson of Savoy .

And that figures to be the first of many shifts at Time Inc.’s

publications during the John Huey era. According to one company executive, Mr.

Huey is the clear favorite to succeed Mr. Pearlstine, whose contract reportedly

expires at the end of 2003.

“Norm’s in the back seat for the most part,” said another Time

Inc. source. “He’s more than happy to do the other stuff he’s doing. But Huey’s

pretty much got free rein.”

-Sridhar Pappu