Talk Just Can’t Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

The official word on Talk magazine has been that it has turned the corner, veering away from those turbulent start-up

The official word on Talk magazine has been that it has turned the corner, veering away from those turbulent start-up days and heading for calmer seas. However, word has been filtering out of the construction-zone-cum-editorial-offices on 20th Street that there’s still some choppy surf.

While editor Tina Brown has made some big-ticket hires of late–including deputy editorial director Perry van der Meer, executive editor Vicky Ward and entertainment editor Maggie Buckley–staff at the magazine say that there have been small signs of the operation running short on cash. To wit, colored folders recently became verboten ; only the less expensive plain manila ones are allowed. And staff have mentioned running out to the local Staples for supplies, only to have the corporate charge card declined. (A Talk spokeswoman denied these cutbacks.)

But these are the little things. What really spooked Talk staffers recently was the firing of popular assistant editor Todd Nickels on Sept. 28.

Mr. Nickels came on board as an assistant almost at the beginning of the magazine, in February 1999, when he followed entertainment editor Tom Piechura from the Miramax publicity department. Last spring, Mr. Nickels was promoted to the assistant editor slot and took over some of the celebrity-wrangling duties.

Mr. Piechura, however, was leaving Talk to take a job in publicity at Sony Pictures Entertainment beginning Oct. 2. And Maggie Buckley had been brought in from Harper’s Bazaar as Mr. Piechura’s replacement. Mr. Nickels knew his position at the magazine was uncertain–but no one had any idea just how uncertain.

On the afternoon of Sept. 28, he was called into managing editor Sarah Min’s office and, after discussing a story he was writing, was told he was being fired. According to people who spoke to a distraught Mr. Nickels afterwards, the reason given was a problem with the “head count,” which was interpreted to mean too many salaries in the office.

A spokeswoman for Talk disputed that money was an issue in Mr. Nickels’ firing. (He was making well under $50,000.) “We brought in Maggie Buckley, who has extensive experience, and she will want to bring in the people who she’s been working with and will reorganize the department as she sees fit from her experience,” the spokeswoman said.

An editor at the magazine, though, said that Ms. Buckley’s requests to hire an assistant have been denied.

Mr. Piechura’s farewell party, planned for Friday, Sept. 29, at El Rey Del Sol on West 14th Street, became instead an impromptu wake for Mr. Nickels, with many current staff–including enterprise editor Tom Watson, contributing writer Holly Millea, Mr. van der Meer and Ms. Ward–and former reporters and editors–former contributing writer Ian Parker, now at The New Yorker , former assistant editor Virginia Heffernan, former assistant photo editor Kathryn Millan–showing up to offer condolences, help finding a job and even money to help him get by.

“He was a beloved member of the staff and part of the original family that started the magazine,” Mr. Piechura somberly told Off the Record.

Others were less reserved. “This was an example of Tina Brown eating her young,” said one staffer.

The Daily News has managed to successfully fend off a raid by the New York Post in the latest skirmish between the two tabloids.

Stuart Marques, the Post ‘s managing editor for news, had been courting the News ‘ investigative reporter, Joe Calderone, for several months, hoping to bring Mr. Calderone’s ability to generate exclusive cover stories to the Post .

According to Mr. Marques, the Post came mighty close to landing Mr. Calderone. “He said we had a deal twice. He gave me his word but [the Daily News ] matched,” Mr. Marques said. The Daily News wasn’t anxious to suffer a defection, and it appears to have convinced Mr. Calderone to stay put. So, as of Oct. 4, Mr. Calderone was promoted from “chief of investigations” to “investigation editor.”

“They gave me a promotion here,” Mr. Calderone said, “and I decided to stay with the lady who brought me to the dance.”

Mr. Calderone came to the Daily News when New York Newsday folded in 1995. Among the projects he has worked on was the News ‘ 1998 series on the epidemic of asthma among New York City children, which garnered the paper numerous awards, including the Deadline Club’s Public Service Award.

It doesn’t seem that his promotion will change Mr. Calderone’s actual job very much (though it may boost his pay). As chief of investigations, he has been head of the Daily News ‘ investigative reporting team–which includes Russ Buettner, Larry Cohler, Tom Zambito and Bob Port, a recent refugee of the near-death experience at APB News . Mr. Calderone did say he would add a little editing to his responsibilities.

The promotion, however, does answer one question raised by the departure of Arthur Browne. Immediately prior to his move to in July, Mr. Browne had been appointed the senior managing editor for investigations in editor in chief Ed Kosner’s regime. No one had been named in his place.

The fight over Mr. Calderone is indicative of the emerging importance of exclusives since the Daily News introduced its afternoon Express edition that it distributes free to commuters. On many days, the Post has chosen to wood with stories they have exclusively rather than with breaking news that could potentially go stale by the time the Express is hawked on the streets.

Could it be the fight for Mr. Calderone is also indicative of the News ‘ newfound respect for its talent? Certainly that seemed to be the message on Oct. 4 when a number of other personnel shifts were announced, most geared toward rewarding experienced staff who have stuck it out during the turbulence–and staff hemorrhage–that has marked the Mort Zuckerman era. Robert Sapio, who was executive editor under former editor Debby Krenek, was named senior managing editor; John Marzulli, a long-time anchor at Police Headquarters, was named police bureau chief; and Karen Hunter, a former and well-liked member of the editorial board, was given a weekly news column. News executives also announced that Zev Chafets, an American journalist who spent his career in Israel, was hired and named as a new columnist.

Said Michael Goodwin, executive editor of the News , “These promotions and additions are further evidence of our continued commitment to put out the smartest paper in New York.”

New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann made his debut as an electronic author on Sept. 26 with the re-publication of his profiles of George W. Bush and Al Gore bundled together as a Slate e-book. The profiles, which originally appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year, can be downloaded for free on the Web site.

Does this mean Mr. Lemann is going to follow his wife, Slate New York senior writer Judith Shulevitz, into the digital domain?

The author sounded nonplussed. “We know that, at least the way things are looking, I’m never going to be able to make my living as an online author, so it’s just kind of a side line.”

Mr. Lemann said his agent, Binky Urban of I.C.M., had talked with one publisher about expanding the two pieces into a full-fledged book, but the deal did not work out. However, some e-book publishers did approach Ms. Urban.

“So it wasn’t as if I was given a straight-up choice between doing it as a hardcover and doing it as an e-book. In essence, there was interest in the e-book world much more so than the regular old publishing world,” he said. “If the choice is to have this happen or not happen, it’s great to have it happen. I’m very happy about it. It just seems very gratifying in not a huge way, but a distinct way.”

Everything came together pretty quickly. Slate , which is edited by Mr. Lemann’s longtime friend Michael Kinsley, made its offer on Thursday, Sept. 21, and after Mr. Lemann wrote a 560-word introduction over the weekend, the pieces went up the following Tuesday.

The quick turnaround meant not much was changed–a reference to “the pages of this magazine forty years ago” (meaning, of course, The New Yorker and not Slate) stayed in the text–but it also meant that Mr. Lemann didn’t have to pad out the 26,000 words to fill a 200-page book. He also avoided the “big production hassle” needed to get a book out before the election. And then there were the psychological advantages.

“I would have been mildly neurotic about reviews if it were coming out in hardcover form,” Mr. Lemann said, “and would have wanted to take a couple of weeks and revisit the pieces with the thought of re-reading them as a book critic would read them.”

But the real question is, did Mr. Kinsley pay Mr. Lemann anything for the privilege of giving away his work?

Mr. Lemann was circumspect. “I would like to use the construction that I also used with my editors at The New Yorker ,” he said, “which is, there’s a range between enough to take your wife out for a nice dinner and enough to take your wife to a country inn for the weekend. It was somewhere in that range.”

Mr. Kinsley, who during his time in Redmond, Wash., may have forgotten what a Manhattan dinner tab looks like, didn’t want to seem like a cheapskate. “Gosh, unless his wife has very expensive tastes, it’s closer to the latter,” he said.

NBC has taken a lot of heat because their Olympic coverage was run on an 18-hour tape delay. But at least they kept things consistent.

In the case of newspapers, keeping chronology straight was an exercise in the surreal. To wit, if an event finished before 3 p.m. or so on Monday in Sydney, it would be early enough to appear in the Monday morning editions in New York. Otherwise, coverage would have to wait until the Tuesday paper–which would come out, Sydney time, late Tuesday night. That edition would also carry the results of early Tuesday events. Got it?

It was just as confusing for the sports editors in New York. “At one point last week, I was asking ‘What day is it?'” said New York Times sports editor Tom Jolly.

Perhaps that explains why virtually identical copy ran in the Sept. 27 and Sept. 28 papers.

On Sept. 27, in a story headlined “Venus Williams Streaking With Gold,” Times sports writer Selena Roberts reported on Ms. Williams winning the gold medal: “Just after tucking away a nervous match point, Venus Williams was trotting around the tennis court with a racket in one hand and an American flag in the other. An ambidextrous celebration for the ubiquitous Williams.”

In the next day’s paper, in another story by Ms. Roberts–also on Ms. Williams’ win, this time headlined, “A Summer to Remember Becomes More Memorable”–readers came across this: “Just after tucking away a shaky third try at a match point, Williams took a detour to the players’ box. From the United States coaches, Billie Jean King and Zina Garrison, she grabbed an American flag in one hand and held her racket in the other. It was an ambidextrous celebration for the ubiquitous Williams.”

Mr. Jolly said that because Ms. Williams finished her match right on the paper’s deadline and Ms. Roberts just managed to get a story in the Sept. 27 paper, “the next day she re-wrote the story and took a different angle.”

Really? Sept. 27: “In a couple of weeks, Williams will gather her back-to-school pencils and notebooks and plop down in a fashion design class. And if a teacher or classmate should ask, ‘So, what did you do last summer?’ she can present the show-and-tell of all time.”

Sept. 28: “For an entire summer, she has been everywhere, equally dominant on different continents. But soon, her summer will end. And fall classes will begin. Although she will play some select tournaments, Williams will plop down in a fashion design class. And if a teacher or classmate should ask, ‘So, what did you do last summer?’ she can present the show-and-tell of all time.”

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at Talk Just Can’t Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is