Tina Brown’s Innovation? Chintzing the Writers

From the beginning, Talk Media has been a hotbed of synergistic millennialism. At least publicly. Last summer, editor Tina Brown bubbled forth about how the magazine was going to be the “cultural search engine” that drove the whole multimedia enterprise–books to movies to TV shows. Now there is a book division headed by Jonathan Burnham. And a TV development person: Gabé Doppelt, formerly editor of Mademoiselle and VH1. And they finally found a corporate partner: Hearst Magazines. But since the deal was announced, in February, Talk Media has been operating pretty much like … well, just a magazine. And what remains of that vertical-integrationist impulse has been funneled, for the moment, into the most restrictive writer’s contract some agents and writers have ever seen. According to two Talk writers, the editors have been calling the rights-grab “one-stop shopping.” For now, it’s the only fuel available to make this synergistic engine go.

According to several New York literary agents who have seen it, the long and complex Talk contract contains two innovations: the “exclusive right to negotiate” to turn a Talk feature into a book, and an “outright option” on movie rights to the article. That option, at least in one case, lasts for two years. According to two agents’ reading of the contract, if the magazine manages to get either Miramax Films or another studio to make a movie out of it, the magazine keeps half of whatever the studio pays for the rights.

No writer or agent would go on the record discussing these terms, citing a nondisclosure agreement barring them from talking about their Talk contract. That may explain why various writers and agents contacted by Off the Record said they had dealt directly with the magazine’s house counsel, Devereux Chatillon, regarding contracts, rather than with the editors.

“I’ve never seen an organization where the in-house counsel takes such a prominent position,” said one writer. Another noted, “I’m not even sure the editors know what’s in the contract.”

Ms. Chatillon would not comment on any of the provisions in Talk ‘s contracts. However, an executive at Talk who is privy to the contracts being negotiated disputed any notion of a nondisclosure agreement and denied that Talk would take any portion of the ultimate payout that is normally due writers who have sold an article to the movies.

Nonetheless, Manhattan’s literary agents are in something of a tizzy because the Talk contract seems to do what they are supposed to do and get 15 percent for: sell a book deal, secure a movie option. “This is the worst of what magazines are trying to do recently,” said one agent–that is, looking at literary or journalistic output as “shovelware” that can be fed into other forms. “Obviously, Harvey [Weinstein, head of Miramax] and those guys feel like this is going to work. But they’re just not going to get name-brand talent under those circumstances.”

And to a certain extent, they haven’t. Most of the recently hired staff writers, who include Constance C.R. White, Tucker Carlson, James Surowiecki, Dr. Abraham Verghese, Lucinda Franks, Jon Cohen and Ian Parker, are not necessarily media grandees.

According to an article in The New York Times in January, a source at Talk commented that “well-known writers would want to retain the right to sell their articles to the movies or television, but that the magazine might retain such rights in the case of less experienced writers.” But according to some agents and writers approached by the magazine, Talk has proven considerably less flexible in terms of rights–meaning, the only thing negotiable is the length of the options, not Talk ‘s control of the options. “There’s no question about it, it’s Disney language,” said one distressed agent. “It just throws a lasso around everything they can.” However, the executive at Talk said that nothing is set in stone.

Writers and agents who have spoken to the Off the Record said they won’t go to Talk if they think a piece they’re working on has potential to start a bidding war. But, since most writers and agents have little idea what Hollywood is looking for at any given moment, they try not to think about that when they’re negotiating with Talk . Ultimately, they just want to get their check–which, interestingly, is not being cut by Disney but by the Hearst Corporation, according to one writer who’s been paid. “The contracts are entirely theoretical,” said one freelance writer who’s talked to Talk . “Unless you have a piece about the Ebola virus.”

“Everyone gets in a sweat about movie rights, but it happens so rarely,” said one agent. What agents are concerned with is getting pushed out of the picture by Talk . “It sets a very, very dangerous precedent,” said one contracts lawyer.

Most agents point out that there’s a conflict of interest for Talk to sell both movie and book rights, given that it has its own book publishing division and is itself a division of a movie studio. “Who’s going to negotiate the deal” for movie rights, asked the contracts lawyer. Agents also note that while an article is hot off the presses and has the most hype, Talk has locked the rights away from any other potential bidders.

But then, treating writers like crap is an old Hollywood tradition.

Mike Soutar, the new editor of Maxim , flew in on the Concorde from London the morning of April 5 to meet his editorial staff for the first time. “Looking over their C.V.’s, they’ve got some terrific experience,” he said. For the occasion, the former editor of the dominant British men’s magazine FHM (which is due to debut an American edition soon) was wearing a loosely tailored three-button gray suit, a French-cuff dress shirt with gold cuff links, shiny black shoes and a bracelet made out of interlocking silver links. Which is to say, the 32-year-old Mr. Soutar gave the appearance of being a serious magazine executive on a mission to unpack his set of reader-approved editorial battle plans and conquer America–very unlike his immediate predecessor, the rumpled but feisty Mark Golin, who ran Maxim on a combination of sharp wit, self-deprecation and seat-of-the-pants downmarket editorial bravado, and who recently left to take over Details .

Mr. Soutar put his new job in perspective. “It’s the biggest playground,” he said, referring to the United States. “You can have enormous success in the U.K., you can have enormous success in Europe. But at the end of the day, you absolutely have to prove it here.”

Mr. Soutar is the kind of guy who says “at the end of the day” a lot. He’s part of a new breed–the marketer-editor–who uses B-school catch phrases to communicate. He talks about “the brand” and “thinking outside of the box.” Born in Scotland, he started working at a women’s magazine called Secrets at 17. Eventually, he became beauty editor. After taking a turn in music publicity, he went to work for the large British publishing company Emap P.L.C., and at 24 became the youngest-ever editor of their pop music magazine, Smash Hits . Three years later, in 1994, Emap bought an in-store men’s magazine called FHM and put Mr. Soutar in charge. The editorial changes he made lost a number of fancy advertisers, like TAG Heuer watches. But, ultimately, the plan worked: The 50,000-circulation magazine exploded to 500,000 within two years.

As Mr. Soutar saw it, FHM was a magazine for “blokes” who wanted to have a good time but still had to get up and go to work in the morning. (That last part was important to advertisers.) With the British economy on the upswing , FHM helped set off a trend in British men’s titles . It was a simple plan, actively endorsed by FHM and its competitors– Maxim , British versions of GQ and Esquire , and the mother of all lad magazines, Loaded : get blokes to indulge their workaday fantasies–become dedicated followers of fashion, drinking, drugging, dancing, shagging and joking, pretty much in that order. Forget about literature, politics, love and art, it was time to discover your inner lad. Or as Mr. Soutar put it, “Men’s magazines began to become reader-centric, reader-focused.”

Mr. Soutar left FHM in 1997 to join Emap’s radio division. Then, at the end of February, he got a call from Felix Dennis, owner and publisher of Maxim .

When Mr. Soutar officially takes over, at the beginning of May, he will have quite a task ahead of him. Mr. Golin took the three top editors from Maxim with him to Details , though he wasn’t able to persuade editorial director Keith Blanchard, said to be a significant humor asset for the monthly, to leave. Immediately under Mr. Soutar will be Steve Perrine, a former editor at Men’s Health and Cosmopolitan , and James Kaminsky, a senior editor at Condé Nast Women’s Sports & Fitness . Both thought they were up for the top job when they were approached, but they were each persuaded by Mr. Dennis over marathon drink sessions on March 30 that they’d be happy with the subordinate, shared title of “co-editor.”

“I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t disappointed,” said Mr. Kaminsky, on the phone after his lunch with Mr. Soutar and Mr. Perrine at Keens Steakhouse on April 5. Their job, he said, would be to “translate” for Mr. Soutar: “We want American references, not British ones.” Mr. Soutar added that he wasn’t going to bring over “a load of limeys. I’m British enough.”

“We don’t want to throw out a structure that so many men are responding to right now,” said Mr. Kaminsky. Mr. Perrine is also looking forward to editing what he called “journalism-based pieces.”

According to several Maxim sources, Mr. Golin chafed at Mr. Dennis’ constant interference. “You have to think of Felix in the role of Jann Wenner,” said Dennis Publishing spokesman Drew Kerr. “Does Felix look at everything? Yeah. Does he make suggestions? Yeah. Does the editor have a lot of clout? Certainly. There’s always been compromise.” The new co-editors don’t seem to be worried, though. “It doesn’t scare me that he’ll be making decisions on things. From what I can see, this guy has good editorial judgments,” said Mr. Kaminsky.

Back in B-school pep-talk mode, Mr. Soutar explained that there were three steps to teamwork: “forming, storming and norming.” Right now, he’s in forming mode, but his eyes are on storming, which he never wants to leave for fear of the magazine getting stale and formulaic.

Meanwhile, Emap continues to consider a launch of FHM in America, although an executive based in the United States refused to say when it would happen. The executive did sound bitter about Mr. Soutar’s new job, however. “Good luck to Mike,” the executive said. “Felix is copying us again, right down to our editor.”

And so the battle of the blokes continues. The British publishers seem to believe that the lad magazines, which have peaked in popularity in England, have a ripe future in this country. Emap–and it would appear Felix Dennis–doesn’t believe in the celebrity editor; it believes that magazines are like brands of soap. So Mr. Dennis is obsessed with FHM ‘s arrival. After Mr. Golin quit in February, Mr. Dennis flew in to assemble the beleaguered staff in their dingy midtown offices and tell them two things: (1) He was not going to spend any more money on editorial, and (2) “Mark is not the enemy. The real enemy hasn’t arrived yet.” He meant Emap.

If all went according to plan, Good Friday was the day of the great mouse massacre in the fetid third- and fourth-floor editorial offices of Forbes magazine at 60 Fifth Avenue. Pack-rat editors and sloppy reporters had created a rodent-friendly underbrush in the 1925 building, and the mice were slowly taking over.

Victoria Ruggiero, editorial business director at Forbes , alerted the editorial staff to the coming carnage in an e-mail sent out on March 4. “As most of you know,” it began, “we have a serious mice problem. On the third and fourth floors, the mice are literally dancing on desks and loitering in the hallways.”

In fact, everyone did know, but they’d kind of grown accustomed to their friendly neighborhood vermin. “The reporter pool, which is open, is where most of the problem is,” reported one Forbes staff member. “People are here eating dinner at 2 in the morning.” One editorial employee who had a bowl of fruit in his office would come in and find little mouse-sized bites taken out of his apples in the morning. (Little known factoid: Mice spit out the rind on the plate.) According to another Forbes source, the mice tend to be white, giving rise to the rumor that they escaped from nearby labs at New York University. Even with that pedigree, some employees have gone to great lengths to keep the mice out. One staff member, who had her own office, glued steel wool around her door to keep the little animals out. To no avail.

Earlier attempts at extermination, which took place last summer and in February, were deemed failures because the place was such a mess they couldn’t hunt the mice down effectively. “A massive, thorough exterminating blitz” was scheduled for April 2. A directive was handed down: “All offices and cubicles must be thoroughly cleaned out. No papers, or boxes on the floors or radiators. No old food wrappers.”

So, how’d it go? When reached on April 6, Forbes spokesman Elizabeth Ames gave it a positive spin: “They’re in retreat!”

Editor in chief Steve Forbes was apparently unaffected by any of this, since his offices are on the more posh and comparatively rodent-free second floor. “But they probably clean his offices more often,” noted one Forbes reporter. Tina Brown’s Innovation? Chintzing the Writers