Talk of the town

Tina Brown's new magazine hits newsstands Aug. 2; here's a look at the chatter about Talk -- and what may be in the first issue.

Published July 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Talk is here even though it's not. Miramax capo Harvey Weinstein's gassy pronouncements about the synergistic potential of a magazine owned by a large film company have become corporeal. Evidence: videotape releases of recent Miramax movies include a decidedly odd 30-second snippet at the beginning, preview-style.

Picture Ed and Audrey, Boise sophisticates, stopping by the Blockbuster to rent "Little Voice." They settle in for the previews, gee-whizzing about all the celebrities Woody Allen has jammed into "Celebrity." There's Leonardo. Kenneth. Bebe. Melanie. Then trailers for a bunch of Merchant Ivory knockoffs. Finally, a chic-let of a woman with an ineffable accent pops up. She has claims on a single name too. Tina. ("Herself" as she is known at her new shop.)

"I think a new century needs a new magazine and new voice," she says. The "new"-ness is a reach, but you have to appreciate the modesty that claims only the next century as her realm and not the next millennium.

The bold words on the screen instruct Ed and Audrey to "Get Ready to Talk."

A loping bass line walks in, and journalism's first true crossover star begins to -- you only wish I was making this up -- rap. Tina's wordy rappinghood is parsed, clipped and edited over percussive video, a blizzard of buzzies shot through 30 very fast seconds. The screen goes dark.

"What the hell was that?" Audrey says to Ed.

"I think it was a magazine."

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Ed's only partly right. Somewhere between the trailer's streaming litany of high-culture hot buttons (opera, ballet, biographies) and low-culture preoccupations (chocolate, pizza, smoking) lies Tinaworld, Disney's first portable theme park. Talk, if the ad reflects the product, will land Aug. 2 as most everything to most everybody -- "weather" even makes the topical cut. The wide net leaves Brown's (brand) name as the only discernible thread.

America's Coolhuntress-at-Large may be selling vaporware, but everybody who lives in Manhattan -- or wishes they did -- is buying. It's a self-defined elite, better dressed but not fundamentally different from the nerds who were beside themselves wading through the hype for Windows '95. Brown wants her "cultural search engine" to be just as ubiquitous, a product that will rest comfortably on tea tables in the Hamptons, checkout counters in Duluth and desktops in Dallas.

But software that takes the form of a shiny, lavishly produced magazine is risky. (Just ask John Kennedy Jr.) In order to stoke a general-interest magazine, Brown must reach beyond the media echo-chamber thick with mentions and find a way to mass market elites to non-elites. People like Ed and Audrey.

It would be stupid to bet she can't do it. The reason that all of mediadom are both sharpening their machetes and queuing for invites to the launch party is that she is not like the rest of us. In a business full of pasty-faced trolls who make Hugo Boss suits look like Burlington Coat Factory seconds, Brown emits the cold calculus of elegance and success, even if it is against a backdrop of crimson ink.

And even though the gag has yet to be removed from Talk, her most important primary audience -- advertisers -- has already voted. Ron Galotti, a fellow traveler from Condi Nast (he was publisher of Vogue), convinced major buyers to commit to the first four issues, which are pretty much sold. For the rest of us, the pitch remains very mysterious, but there's something in it about you and me and Brown, how all of us are engaged in "a dialogue of the American culture."

Never mind that accent; '90s America is a culture she more or less edited, just as surely as she captained the '80s Vanity Fair. In the publishing world, she changed the economics of magazining through brute profligacy, overlaying a seemingly corrosive template of rich assholes, heinous crimes, Hollywood-as-business and politics-as-Hollywood onto two very different titles. All the while, she generated endless crackle moving over a carpet of attentive peers.

"If the publicity she gets is not a fully conscious and elucidated strategy on her part as an editor, then it is the most fundamental subconscious component of who she is," says Alex Kuczynski, who covers media for the New York Times. She adds that last summer, Brown showed up as an answer on Jeopardy. "Who was the editor who ran Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker?"

For a scant moment, there was no talk about Talk. Then came a very New York contretemps over Brown's efforts to throw a launch party at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The site will eventually become a $150 million studio owned by Miramax and actor Robert De Niro. Brown thought that holding the launch party at the boat yard (get it?) would sprinkle some early cachet over the location -- and, oh, by the way, wouldn't it be madcap to ferry all the glittering attendees over by fireboat? Those plans slid off into the East River when Mayor Rudy Giuliani found out that the likely cover subject for the inaugural issue would be Hillary Rodham Clinton, his presumptive opponent in the 2000 Senate race. He took the bait, dumped the party and Talk hit the cover of both tabs in New York.

Having been gifted with a very public stiffing, Talk is now the talk of mediaphiles, who had long, serious conversations about the launch party Diaspora. It ended Friday, when the New York Daily News fronted with the news that the launch will indeed go off in the harbor -- at the Statue of Liberty. "Talk magazine boss Tina Brown has one-upped Mayor Giuliani, snaring the Statue of Liberty for her August launch party after City Hall pulled the plug on her big blowout at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A glittering lineup of 800 guests will bask in the glow of Lady Liberty," read the lead. And there still will be boatloads of celebrities -- Harrison Ford! Michael Eisner! Jerry Seinfeld! Oprah Winfrey!

Lucky "break" again, and some nifty symbolism to go with it -- "Bring me your non-fabulous, your clueless, your badly coifed." (I wonder if Ms. Liberty will get a makeover for the event. That rag she wears, even though it's French, is, well, just a little "too, too," if you know what I mean.) Brown's done it again: Her parties consistently rival her titles for charmed news bounce -- remember New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir mugging for the paparazzi at Talk's Oscar party in Los Angeles even as the Diallo affair exploded back at the home office? The craven posturing for access to Liberty Island has the people staffing the magazine worried they might not get invited. "She wouldn't do that, would she?" asks one.

A while back, a few editors of the mag were given penmanship tests. The one who came up aces is currently hand-addressing 800 invites in between finishing off the first issue.

It's a kinky guest list. One person who glanced at a page of the S's saw that Todd Solondz's name was followed by Latrell Sprewell's. One is a bully with a tremendous vertical leap and the other is a victim whose two feet have never left the ground at the same time. The only thing they have in common is that they are famous and they are very good at their jobs.

As is Brown, depending on what you think her job is. Two hundred requests for interviews with her are languishing in a folder at Miramax. Brown, however, doesn't have to talk to make a noise. "She is possessed of an incredible streak, or capacity, for luck. Luck favors the prepared and if Giuliani hadn't come along, then something else would have," says someone who works at the magazine. "It's a kind of savantism that can't be explained. She touches it and then someone else touches it, and then it becomes buzz."

It's a very small campfire we sit around. As a media writer in Washington, I found myself calling other media writers and saying "Hi, I'm calling about the buzz-that-created-the-sizzle-that-kicks-up-chatter-about-Talk." It's fun writing stories about nothing, but embarrassing. "Oh, you mean why are people always writing stories like the one you are?" said one.

Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, isn't surprised by the surfeit of stories about a magazine that exists only between Brown's ears.

"Journalists like writing about launches. She is the immigrant who launched 100,000 cocktail conversations and here we are having the 100,001st conversation -- and I don't even have a drink in my hand. The magazine will go along on that panache for a while, but at some time, there is going to have to be a magazine that people are interested in reading," Gitlin says.

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The magazine that is being virtually thumbed-through is sitting in shreds on an art director's table on the 56th floor of the Carnegie Towers in Midtown. ("Every day we get a list [of stories] and every day the list changes," says one staffer.) The editrixial anointing of who is in and who is out -- of the magazine, of the party, of the conversation -- is fundamental to her alchemy.

At some point, the marketing and cultural calculation must coalesce into a magazine that will actually plop into our midst. According to various sources at the magazine, the launch issue will be all over the cultural map, high and low, celebrity and serious. Only Brown knows for sure, but there may or may not be an excellent first-person piece by Mark Ross about leading a tour ambushed by Ugandan rebels. There may be two excellent turns by Tucker Carlson of the Weekly Standard. In one he all but shares a toilet with George W. Bush, a man everybody wants to vote for and nobody knows; in a smaller but mightier piece, he pantses Jerry Falwell as God's own media slut. A piece that suggests Heidi Fleiss would do better as a guy is a staff favorite. It argues that all of Fleiss' talents for business and pleasure, condemned because they were manifest in a woman, would be mightily celebrated in a man. Eddie Dean (a writer who works at the paper I edit, the Washington City Paper) will likely make the cut with his diary of a month in the trailers of Northern Virginia at a place called Paradise Estates -- think long episode of "Cops" with a litmag lilt. Tom Stoppard does himself, a fine assignment in a memoir age; Martin Amis does a smashing, if tardy, review of Thomas Harris' "Hannibal"; and Christopher Buckley types mythical letters to the editor.

Disregarding the imperatives of currency, Hillary Clinton is an unfortunate choice for a cover subject. Brown sponsored Sidney Blumenthal's pom-pomming for the Clintons at the New Yorker before he moved over to the couple's payroll, and herself penned an ode to Bill that seemed lifted from a teen diary. Everybody knows she's in the tank for the first couple. A profile by Clinton familiar Lucinda Franks won't do much to change that image.

There may also be plenty of offal to create context for the jewels. Three Hollywood siblings, one an agent and two publicists, get a turn -- complete nonsense in a genre that Brown deserves all the blame for inventing. There might be a piece about an ex-wife of a General Electric exec who got $11 million in her divorce and wants a bunch more. There may or may not be a cheesy piece about the founder of the Hard Rock Cafe. There may also be an unfortunately bug-eyed conspiratorial look at the death of Diana. (Let the princess rest, Tina.) Incidentally -- the mystery stops here -- there will be an astrology column.

Whether it gels and becomes something good, true and marketable may be beside the point. One of the downsides to all of the sizzle the launch is creating is that nothing can trump the hype. People inside the shop aren't worried, even though they say Brown is wandering through the shop looking less like America's sexiest bookworm and more like a plain old editor crashing on a very tough deadline.

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Until the magazine comes out, her six-year tenure at the New Yorker defines her. Ignoring for a minute that she didn't rack up a lot of business successes -- she lost $30 million in her first year and gobs more afterwards -- people either love or hate Brown based on what she did to "their" magazine. I personally made the effort to stay with it, not because it was worthy, but because it was not resistible. (There were exceptions. The Miramax preview before Brown's was for a movie called "Rowing With the Wind." The voice-over said that the heroine's "world was one of grace and beauty, but from the depths of her imagination came an evil that she could not control." I don't know about you, but I'm thinking Ken Auletta or the crimson-bummed Daphne Merkin.)

Brown torqued up the pace of the New Yorker and still published important longer pieces like Mark Danner's autopsy on state-sponsored killing at El Mezote and William Finnegan's various children's crusades. She "found" Malcolm Gladwell, David Remnick, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and, back in her VF days, gifted a much bigger audience with James Wolcott. Her biggest stunt may have been bringing out the inner drag queen in all of us, forcing us to admit that we liked reading what were often women's magazines stuffed into unisex uniforms.

Not everybody was dazzled. Lawrence Weschler, longtime New Yorker writer, says that while it's nothing personal, he believes she murdered the magazine she was brought in to save.

"She took a Rolls Royce and tore it apart ... [William] Shawn thought that TV would kill the New Yorker, not because people would be watching it instead of reading, but because, as he put it, 'People will lose the ability to think long thoughts at the very moment when things are becoming more rather than less complicated.' Working for Tina Brown was as if that compression of attention span had been incarnated and appointed your editor ... You always had the feeling that the conduits were being set up, that there is always a book or a movie to be launched. I don't want to say she is the problem, because she is actually just the embodiment of a whole set of social forces."

That may not be a bad credential for launching a magazine with multimedia ambitions, but that doesn't mean Talk will walk. Brown's knack is one of reinvention -- she gained cachet by counter-intuiting context. Her inaugural issue of the New Yorker plopped a slouching punk into one of Edward Sorel's nicely rendered carriages on the cover. Cheeky, that -- but it was her subsequent decisions to use the insides of the mag as an occasional boudoir for the lavish tongueing of Robert Redford and his cohort that drove Tilley heads 'round the bend. ("I have no problem with the fact that Vanity Fair exists," says Weschler. "I just didn't think we needed another one.")

Talk is about pure invention. The only context she will be working against is the one she crafted at two of America's most visible titles.

"She has always had something to play off against, and in this, she doesn't have anything to play off but her own reputation," says Tom Carson, a columnist for Esquire who wrote a bookend to the Brown era at the New Yorker in the Village Voice last summer.

The ownership of Talk may create some problems down the road for Brown. There is her fascination with Hollywood mogul-dumb; but are you going to turn to a Disney-owned mag for the definitive forensics on the Katzenberg-Eisner death match? More broadly, she is hemmed in on both flanks by the still-robust formula she built at Vanity Fair and Remnick's quieter version of a pop-cult New Yorker.

Brown's innovations at both of those publications had to do with tempo. It didn't come cheap. She treated the monthly Vanity Fair like a weekly, spending His Royal Si-ness' (a pet name given to Si Newhouse by Condi Nasties) money by the suitcase as she tore up page after page in an effort to keep the glossy behemoth current. And at the New Yorker, what was a weekly became a player on daily events, with Joe Klein, or Peter Boyer, or Jane Mayer, dispatched at the last possible minute to jam a scoop into its staid pages. In order to prep her staff for the "Next" special issue, she spent half a million to send the staff to two days at the Disney Institute -- in retrospect, just seed money for Talk. That kind of editing takes stupid money, and she was working with a pile of it. Si Newhouse didn't care that he lost $175 million in 13 years (according to Fortune); he owned the most august title in America. At Condi Nast, throwing money down a rathole was a business tenet, and if the editors felt it was important to Fed Ex their luggage ahead of them so they wouldn't be encumbered coming off the Concorde, then get out the packing tape. Brown was working with a whole different kind of currency at Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.

Although the magazine division is privately held in a 50-50 partnership with Hearst, there will be no such permissions at Miramax, which is part of Disney, a publicly traded company. Shareholders may not abide $100,000 photo shoots that end up on the cutting-room floor because the subjects cooled off a few degrees. There are no gilded carts laden with comestibles rolling through the title she heads now. The big excitement in the office last week was how delicious the espresso was from the new self-serve machine in the kitchen. It's situated right next to all-you-can-eat supplies of Wheat Thins and breakfast cereals.

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There's a good chance the magazine will be a good, and maybe even a worthy, read. She has bifurcated her hires in a way that could give her a toehold in two important worlds: brainy writers with bankable brands edited by young, ambitious whippersnappers who don't know squat about synergy, but don't have to search the Web for Zeitgeist. "We have to make a magazine that matches her ambitions and still get to the church on time. Simple as that," says one.

Among the next generation of editors in for a beta test are former Forward staffer Jonathan Mahler; Sam Sifton, who used to work at the New York Press; and Tom Watson, editor of Legal Times -- smart guys all, but not names that will be recognized by the maitre d' at the Four Seasons. They join Danielle Mattoon from Rolling Stone and Lisa Chase, a senior editor from the New York Observer, in an interesting arrangement of superstar content providers and "who's that?" content editors.

Peter Kaplan, publisher of the New York Observer, excuses himself for the clichi, but says it would be silly to underestimate an editor of Brown's history and caliber.

"White lightning is her favorite means and she attracts it like no one else. She knows how to make it happen. Who knows if they actually have their shit together, but I think it's very important that they have already sold [ads for the] first four issues. I think that is an astonishing number. But even with that, the magazine itself has to driven by an idea. And we'll see. It could either be 'Apocalypse Now' or 'One From the Heart,'" Kaplan says. "They both came from the same great director, but they are worlds apart."

Carson says the kvetching class will hate Talk on general principle, general principles of viciousness and Schadenfreude-in-abeyance that they save for any title that didn't have the wisdom to offer them a contract. "The odds against Talk being declared anything but a disappointment are nil. But keep in mind, that gives Tina an opportunity to resurrect it."

By David Carr

David Carr is editor of Washington City Paper, an alternative newspaper owned by the Chicago Reader, which has competed with Leonard Stern to buy weekly newspapers. He has no stock options that he is aware of.

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