The Boston Phoenix
August 5 - 12, 1999

[Don't Quote Me]

Talk show

Tina Brown proves she can still generate that old-time buzz. But can she put her money-losing days behind her?

by Dan Kennedy

Talk cover Good Tina. Tucker Carlson was sitting in his office at the Weekly Standard in Washington one day last fall when his phone rang. It was Tina Brown. "Out of the blue," he recalls. "I was impressed, really impressed. She didn't talk about synergy or new media or cultural search engines -- to me, anyway. She talked about story ideas. You could tell right away why she's a good editor. She has zero patience for boring stories." Carlson signed on for the debut issue of Talk, and wrote a mildly cutting profile of George W. Bush.

Bad Tina. Once, during Brown's days as editor of the New Yorker, a freelancer was struggling with an article about racism in a small Florida town. It was a difficult story, and it had gone through numerous rewrites. "Tina finally pronounced herself overjoyed, wrote the guy one of her effusive mash notes, and scheduled the piece," says one of her former top lieutenants. Then -- after showing it to another editor, who did not share her enthusiasm -- she abruptly canceled it. "She is a creature of incredible insecurities," says the former lieutenant, speaking strictly on a not-for-attribution basis. "The dirty little secret about her is that she lives an incredibly cloistered life. I think she knows deep down that she's not a real journalist -- that, as an editor, she's kind of a fake and an impostor. And I think that's what makes her so volatile and erratic."

Certainly no magazine editor today is as praised and as reviled as Tina Brown, the 47-year-old Oxford-educated British expatriate whose much-anticipated new monthly, Talk, finally made its appearance this week. Her résumé is as well known as those of the celebrities her magazines fawn over: the girl wonder who remade the Tatler, previously a stodgy journal for the British upper class. The upstart who, in the 1980s, was brought in to salvage Vanity Fair after its disastrous launch. (Brown's signature moment: putting a nude, pregnant Demi Moore on the cover.) The "queen of buzz" who, in the 1990s, transformed the New Yorker from a quaint, irrelevant literary magazine into a kind of hip newsmagazine for the elite, filling its pages with the likes of O.J. Simpson and dominatrixes -- while infusing its serious journalism with an urgency it had lacked for decades.

If nothing else, Brown this week proved that her year away from the magazine world hasn't eroded her talent for making herself and her publication the hot topic of the moment. During the weekend, word leaked out that Talk would feature an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton in which the would-be senator blames her husband's predatory sexuality on abuse he suffered as a child. HRC's comments have been Topic A on the talk shows ever since. Brown also maintained her well-earned reputation as a Clinton suck-up: Internet gossip Matt Drudge reported that Brown had personally intervened to make sure that the subject of alleged presidential rape victim Juanita Broaddrick was kept out of the Talk interview -- a charge Brown labeled "totally untrue" in an appearance on ABC's Good Morning America. (ABC is owned by Disney; Talk is half-owned by Miramax, a Disney subsidiary. How convenient.)

But if everyone is talking about Tina, Tina herself is parceling out her words in miserly fashion. Before publication, she agreed to just a handful of interviews, with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. (Talk spokeswoman Hilary Bass rejected the Phoenix's request for an audience.) Regardless, it's Talk itself that must now do the talking. Though Brown created magazines that everyone, well, talked about during her days at the Tatler, Vanity Fair, and, especially, the New Yorker, she also ran through tens of millions of indulgent owner Si Newhouse's dollars. That, presumably, is not an option this time.

The Disney half of Talk's ownership team is a publicly traded corporation whose shareholders will demand results. The other half, the Hearst Corporation, is a privately held company accustomed to generous profit margins from decidedly unbuzzworthy properties such as Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping. Although Brown saved money by hiring a young, relatively unknown staff, she and her hand-picked publisher, Ron Galotti -- whom she grabbed from Newhouse's Vogue and with whom she had previously worked at Vanity Fair -- are giving Talk a splendid launch, with a circulation of 400,000 and a budget that's been reported to be at least $50 million. The questions: can Brown make a financial success of Talk, something she failed to with the New Yorker? Can she do it with a general-interest magazine in a market that has been exceedingly unkind to general-interest magazines? And can she pull all this off in an overheated media atmosphere in which, to put it bluntly, the knives are out?

"I'm not sure how different a read it's going to be from Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. I don't know how much room there is left in that category to do something different and original and unique," says Tony Silber, editor of Folio, which covers the magazine industry. "That's a really steep hill to climb for Tina Brown and Ron Galotti. She's out there and she's vulnerable, because she's got to demonstrate success now against a Zeitgeist that in some ways wants to see her fail."

The premiere issue of Talk certainly looks a lot different from Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Printed in oversize format on thinner paper than is used by most glossies, it's priced at $2.95 -- a buck less than Vanity Fair, and a nickel cheaper than the New Yorker. Designed to resemble Paris Match -- or, for that matter, a thicker, graphically bolder New York Times Magazine -- Talk has a casual, almost disposable feel. But the content is remarkably similar to that of Brown's former magazines. Up front is a "Talk of the Town"-style section of short features. The middle consists of politics (W and Hillary), celebrities (most notably R-rated fashion shots of Gwyneth Paltrow), features such as a firsthand account of a massacre in Uganda (reportedly already optioned to Miramax -- an example of the "synergy" Brown and her partners so love), and even a serious policy piece (former weapons inspector Richard Butler on Saddam Hussein). There's a traditional back-of-the-book section as well, the highlight of which is novelist Martin Amis's takedown of Thomas Harris's Hannibal, which nearly everyone else has raved about. There are some dumb touches, too, such as a spread on boxing-ring fashion and an incomprehensible feature on the 50 "best talkers in America."

Overall, Talk comes across as having Brown's characteristic mix of sensation and seriousness. The effect is more of a return to her standard modus operandi than the bold departure she rather desperately wants you to believe it is.

Talk notebook In her own "Notebook," she likens Talk to "the European 'newsyellows,' with their multiple-image covers and glossy photo reportage, along with the tactile, rollable pleasure of their thin, color-saturated pages."

A former colleague, Alexander Chancellor, chortles at Brown's description. Chancellor, who spent a year editing "Talk of the Town" for Brown at the New Yorker, is now a columnist for the London Guardian and writes the "International Papers" roundup for Slate. A book about his experience, Some Times in America, is out in Britain now, and will be published in the US next spring. "I've been involved in magazines all my life. I've never heard the expression 'European "newsyellows," ' and I haven't found anyone else who has, either," he told the Phoenix. Chancellor sees all of Brown's magazines, beginning with the Tatler, as being essentially the same. "She says she's got 12 magazines in her," he says. "I think she's wrong. I think she's got one, and it works pretty well."

Still, the casual, roll-it-up-and-take-it-with-you format (a notable contrast with the dramatic photo-intensive design) may in fact say something interesting about Brown's own impatience -- about the Bad Tina who falls in and out of love with stories and writers, who's notorious for ripping up her magazines at the last minute to go with the absolute latest. Though Talk may come out monthly, Brown seems to want you to think of it as a weekly, or even a daily, that just happens to come out once a month. Slate editor Michael Kinsley, whose time at Oxford overlapped with Brown's and who considers her a "genius," predicts that the long lead times will drive her nuts. (Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein reportedly refused her request to remake the cover after John Kennedy's death, though she was able to add a Kennedy photo spread inside.) "She wants to be about what's happening now -- news, buzz, and all that -- yet she's a monthly," says Kinsley. "If you could publish overnight and come out once a month, it wouldn't matter so much. But the lead times are so humongous. And she's putting it out in the age of the Internet."

Indeed, despite the cutting-edge image that Brown cultivates, she persists in that most old-fashioned of media. The best new magazines of the '90s are not fast-starting, fast-fading glossies such as George and Brill's Content, but, rather, Slate and Salon, which are published online and are updated -- as Kinsley puts it -- "hourly, minutely, secondly, or whatever." Talk has a Web site ( -- not to be confused with a hilarious parody at, but it's not clear what Brown intends to do with it. Certainly she hasn't mentioned it -- not even when she uses that annoying phrase "cultural search engine" to describe her magazine.

More than anything, Brown needs to prove that the hot editor of the '80s and '90s is the hot editor of the new millennium as well.

Author Jonathan Harr (A Civil Action) tells an anecdote about the state of publishing, circa 1996, when Brown, then at the New Yorker, and her husband, Harry Evans -- a former editor of London's Sunday Times who was working for Newhouse as the head of Random House -- were queen and king of the media world. Harr and Evans were having lunch at the Four Seasons, and Harr was complaining that the 5000-word limit Brown had given him wasn't nearly enough for the piece he was working on: an investigation of the crash of USAir Flight 427.

Hilary spread As Harr remembers it, Evans summoned a phone, called Brown, and said, "Harr needs more space." He got it, too -- 16,000 words when the piece was finally published.

It must have been an incredibly heady time for "Teenandharry," as they were then known. Now Evans holds the considerably less sexy job of troubleshooting for Mortimer Zuckerman's publishing properties, such as the New York Daily News, the Atlantic Monthly, and U.S. News & World Report. And Brown is starting over, this time without Si Newhouse's financial net to catch her if she falls.

"It's the Tina dichotomy. Part of me wants to love it, part of me wants to hate it," says Dwight Garner, a top editor at the New York Times Book Review, who wrote a smart, even-handed analysis of Brown's New Yorker for Salon two years ago. "I'm sure there will be plenty enough there to make me feel both ways."

The Hillary Clinton revelations (tucked inside a nauseatingly reverential Lucinda Franks profile of HRC, by the way) show that Brown can still generate that old-time buzz. Now comes the far more difficult job of proving -- finally -- that she can make money, too.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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