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
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
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
“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 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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”