All about Vicky

Tina Brown's Talk may have more than it bargained for in its new executive editor.

Published April 21, 2000 9:26AM (EDT)

Last week, the New York Observer quietly broke the news that Tina Brown's Talk magazine finally had an executive editor. Vicky Ward, the news feature editor at the New York Post, had been hired to fill the post David Kuhn vacated when he went to Brill's Content five months ago.

"With Ms. Brown's focus increasingly on the broader affairs of Talk Media, Ms. Ward will be in charge of the day-to-day business of the actual magazine," wrote Observer media reporter Gabriel Snyder.

Since Kuhn's departure, editorial director Bob Wallace has been playing two roles, thinking long term while also managing the magazine's staff on a daily basis. Long before Talk launched last summer, there were tales of poor morale followed by editorial desertions. The numbers have also been grim. Though last year's debut issue in August sold out its print run of a million copies, prompting the printing of 300,000 more, the rate base for subsequent issues was 500,000, with 600,000 projected for this August. The arrival of Ward will allow him to focus more on the big picture, he says, claiming they have future issues mapped out until the end of the year.

"What I am expecting from Vicky is somebody who has the time and energy to read the newspapers every morning and keep us really focused on the news," said Wallace of his recent hire. But while Wallace is credited with bucking up the demoralized staff at Talk, Ward should not be expected to do the same. "At the New York Post," stated the Observer item, "people were surprised to see Ms. Ward, 30, go; just last February, she had been promoted to the newly created position of news feature editor."

Surprised? "We were literally cheering and dancing in the halls," said one Post staffer I spoke to. (Most of the current and former Post staffers I spoke to requested anonymity.) And the reaction seemed to go beyond simple water-cooler talk. Some of the people I spoke to had not worked there in over a year.

"When I read in the Observer that Talk had hired Vicky Ward, I froze," said one former Post reporter. "I thought, who do I call first and start screaming?"

Tales of disgruntled former employees are a dime a dozen, of course, in publishing as in every other racket. But the level of animosity I encountered while speaking to people who worked with her at the Murdoch-owned tabloid was remarkable -- and remarkably consistent.

"We all butted heads with her," said one writer. "But she's impervious, she's immune to human suffering, given how much she causes."

Wallace said he and Brown had heard some of the stories before they hired her. "I hear stories about everybody. If I based my hiring decisions on what I heard about people in New York, I wouldn't have a staff at all."

Some of Ward's problems at the Post may be chalked up to culture clash. Ward came to the Post from the U.K., with a background in tabloid journalism there. (She wrote for the Daily Mail as well as the Daily Telegraph and others.) But there seemed to be a difference between the tabloid culture there and that of the Post.

"Sure, there was an initial clash between her managerial style and the culture of the Post," said Post film critic Jonathan Foreman, a fellow Brit who knew Ward before she worked at the paper. "But she's good at what she does. She's probably a natural magazine editor," he continued, adding that the schedule of a daily paper did not seem to agree with her.

"You have to understand, the Post is a place where no one is paid that well," said a current Post staff member. "But it's a weirdly cheerful kind of place, completely unlike the Daily News. And she brought in a very, very different managerial style, screaming at the top of her voice at people across a huge newsroom, 'Get in here!' That's just not done here."

Ward's behavior (which drove numerous underlings to tears and prompted at least one reporter to resign) soon earned her the nickname "Mental" (and, in the less kind incarnation, "Psycho") Ward.

"The nickname showed up about 10 days after I got there," according to one former Post editor. "She didn't even try to play nice; it started instantly."

While being unkind to your subordinates may be tolerated in some circles (Condi Nast comes to mind), newspaper editors depend on their reporters and generally attempt to treat them with a modicum of respect. But Ward, who worked as both editor of the Living section and as news feature editor, had rather definite ideas about how a piece should come out.

"We had a huge conflict when she was running the Style section," recalls one Style reporter, "because she changed quotes. I mean, even by English standards she doesn't have a clue about journalistic ethics."

Ward categorically denies ever rewriting a quote and offers a blanket explanation for the bad feelings she seems to have engendered.

"I think I've learned a lot about management in the last 18 months," she said. "I came fresh from being a reporter to running a team of writers with a different idea of what a feature was to what they had. I think, in the beginning, I was probably too hard on people."

And she does admit to putting some of the writers she had under her, including some veteran reporters, through the paces.

"When the copy that came in was so widely different from what I expected, I used to get the writers to stand behind me and watch what I did to their copy so they could understand what I was trying to get from them," she said of her early days there. "Once they understood, there wasn't a problem."

Not for her perhaps, though on at least one occasion her free hand with copy caused the paper to print a retraction. When the Post ran a "first person" account of going to the Academy Awards by Oscar-nominated documentary director Liz Garbus, Ward retooled the piece so much the author objected.

"But Vicky felt like, 'Who gives a shit, this is just some nobody,'" said one editor close to the whole debacle. But it turned out Garbus (who directed the 1999 nominee "The Farm: Angola, USA") was more than a talented filmmaker; she is also the daughter of one of the heads of one of the most powerful entertainment law firms in New York (Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz). Along with the apology, Garbus asked for (and received) a separate article about her documentary.

"Vicky was furious," claimed the editor, "and screamed at one of the reporters, 'Why didn't anyone tell me that this girl wasn't a nobody?'"

Ward denies altering the text of Garbus' story and says only, "We added more quotes into her text than she wanted." And her mission at the paper was to punch things up -- and, seemingly, damn the consequences.

A new sort of feature began appearing in the Post after she was made news feature editor in February. One story that brought Ward to the attention of Brown -- a double-truck feature about Salman Rushdie's possibly fatal attraction to Indian model Padma Lakshi -- was the talk of the town.

Even those who are critical of her work methods can be surprisingly defensive of Ward. "Personally, I like her," says Post reporter-at-large Jeanne MacIntosh. "To her credit she will argue her point, makes no apologies and no excuses."

Perhaps the most famous excuse Ward uttered at the Post is one that strikes most of the staff there as ironic. In a newsroom confrontation that has taken on legendary status, Ward once defended sitting on a story by former Page Sixer Ian Spiegelman by saying, "Well, that's how Tina Brown does it!" (Spiegelman, now at New York magazine, confirmed the account and added, "I'm still not sure what she meant by that.")

While Ward confesses to admiring her new boss, others at the Post paint it more as an obsession. "You don't understand, this is 'All About Eve,' this woman is Eve Harrington," the editor ranted. "What was Tina thinking to hire this succubus? Right down to the hair, the girl wants to be Tina; she has little Tina dolls in her house with candles around them."

Though in her day Brown has been known to sit on, rewrite and kill stories as she deemed fit, that style has caused problems at Talk. Confusion and exhaustion reigned when Wallace was brought in.

Wallace -- a multimedia veteran of Rolling Stone, ABC News and St. Martin's Press -- has reportedly been a godsend to staff morale there. "Everybody likes him," one Talk employee told me. "He worked for Jann Wenner and Diane Sawyer as the No. 2 guy under very difficult people. That's his job, to make people feel better."

Wallace says he will remain involved with the staff and that all roles are fungible. "We need someone who can focus every issue on the hot profile of the moment, the hot story of the moment," he said. "We're a small staff and I also need somebody I can put in charge of planning for future issues."

So what if Ward is not exactly a people person? She may blend right in at Talk. But despite all the sneering ("Tina without the talent," is how one reporter described her), the smart money is on Ward surviving and maybe even flourishing there. (The film's called "All About Eve," remember.)

For his part, Wallace isn't worrying about how the staff will receive her. "I think it's unfair to judge someone before you've even met them," he said. "I'm confident that that won't be a problem. Though I have told her to wear a Kevlar vest on her first day."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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