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All Talk?

Countdown to Tina Brown's own Y2K problem: On the eve of the millennium, she's somehow supposed to get 'Talk' off the ground -- while everyone roots for her to fail.

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Why do so many people, media-business people, chattering-class people, want Tina Brown to fail? Some doubtless believe she will fail and have, as good handicappers, merely gotten on the side of the inevitable. After all, she is in business with some of the most difficult people in the world to be in business with. (Her backers, the Weinstein brothers at Miramax; their boss, Michael Eisner at Disney; and the co-founder of her new magazine, publisher Ron Galotti, all present issues of ego, scruples, and management styles so outsize that you can only really say, Oh, my God.) She's proposing to launch a big, bold, important general-interest magazine on an independent basis, even though it has been generations since such a magazine was successfully launched outside a major magazine company. And then the money: The only thing that has gone up faster than the cost of making movies is the cost of starting magazines (a trend in which no one has raised the ante more than Tina Brown). Starting a general-interest national magazine can cost way more, for instance, than it did to make Titanic.

Others want her to fail because, whether rationally or not, they feel she has betrayed them. In this group are the great number of brainy, sensitive, nonphysical men who have fallen in love with Tina Brown. They talk about her the way others talk about Princess Di (there is, certainly, in carriage and profile, a resemblance). So the fact that she could run off with Ron Galotti, the real-life Mr. Big in Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City, and Harvey Weinstein, an inversion of everything refined and sensitive, must mean she is not who she seems to be. Indeed, who she wants to be, certainly, is Martha Stewart, with equity in her own brand.

And then there's the synergy thing. The raison d'être of her new magazine, called Talk (or at least called Talk, says a media lawyer I know, until Si Newhouse tries to enjoin her from trading on The New Yorker's claim to "Talk of the Town," a.k.a. a "Talk" piece), is supposed to be synergy, that is, the ability to turn low-margin print products into high-margin movie hits. This notion -- this kind of alchemy -- threatens many interests on a basic level. It threatens writers who might have to change the way they write -- and get rewarded; it threatens agents who might get knocked out of the middle of a deal; and it threatens other movie producers who might not have a magazine.

And then the guilt. Her edge -- prurience, cruelty, sycophantry, snobbery, and a fashion sense that she brings to good, analytic journalism -- has been replaced in the half-year since she left The New Yorker by a creeping earnestness. Not only do ordinary, high-minded journalists, such as her successor, David Remnick, lack the amorality and the calculating eye to do what she did; now they seem to have second thoughts about Tina-style content -- even though her gifts as packager, showman, and provocateur made many of these same earnest journalists hot properties.

People I know, men, anyway, are always recounting the nuances of their meetings with Tina Brown. I was looking to be similarly transported. Likewise, I was keen to meet Ron Galotti, who is widely regarded to be the vilest of serpents.

In fact, Galotti is a good-looking man in his late forties with bright eyes and an open face. He seemed the opposite of Mr. Big. He seemed like Mr. Small-Boned. He's certainly not an obvious embodiment of evil: He's an ad salesman with requisite pep and cheerfulness.

On first impression, Tina Brown, too, struck me in reverse. Instead of a smart boy's siren, she seemed, behind her desk, tightly wound, severe, nervous, wearing a dowdy banker-girl blue suit (maybe this is a smart boy's siren). What's more, she was in temp space -- far from a controlled, flattering environment.

In the small offices around her were the few young editors whom she has hired; but Talk still has no real business side, no operations people, no circulation people, no marketing staff (save for the consultants).

What I was seeing, of course, was the nakedness of a start-up.

As a point of personal interest -- having spent my own time in start-up companies -- I inquired about the corporate organization of this new enterprise. To their credit or ultimate detriment, neither Brown nor Galotti had picked up the language of investment bankers. They stumbled around trying to describe their relationship with Miramax/Disney, using words like partnership and joint venture and stock without clear meaning. This did not seem so much to indicate they were babes in the woods (although it seemed that too) as it did seem to suggest the vagaries of any start-up. Equity (when you aren't paying for it) is always more or less illusory or, as the bankers say, contingent.

I went on to the synergy issue, which was becoming a flashpoint in many media deals partly because Brown had made it the calling card of her venture -- i.e., Talk would be a multimedia enterprise germinating from the seeds of magazine articles. But she didn't want to have synergy hung on her. "No," she said, with patient exasperation. "That's secondary. If it can happen, that's great, but our main focus is on creating a magazine." (I wondered if synergy had been the way to sell Miramax on the deal -- or the way for Miramax to sell its parent, Disney, on the deal.)

I asked Brown and Galotti to outline their basic business plan. They both seemed uncertain about what they could or shouldn't say; as likely, so much of the plan was up in the air that, practically speaking, there was no plan. But Galotti insisted they would launch the magazine in the fall of 1999 with a circulation of 500,000. This is a number at which Condé Nast or Time Warner or Hearst might launch a general-interest magazine but which hardly any other company (including Disney, with its disparate collection of publishing properties) could practically or economically manage for a first issue. When I expressed surprise at this ambition, Brown used the example of Condé Nast Traveler, which "my husband" -- Harry Evans -- "and Ron launched at that level." (Even Traveler had the benefit of having acquired the subscription list of Signature, the Diners Club magazine, which was folding.)

As for the money, they didn't argue with my guess of a $75 million launch plan (after the interview, Brown called to say the budget would more likely be around $50 million to $60 million; but as easily the launch could cost twice any of these numbers). And they denied flatly the reports that they needed more and were out scouting for partners. Now, there have been so many reports of such meetings -- with the leading partnership candidate being Hachette -- and so many accounts of how Harvey Weinstein reacted (incredulously) when presented with a business plan for Talk (and how annoyed Michael Eisner is at Harvey Weinstein), that I assumed this was not so much a denial as it was acceptable business disingenuousness. They did, however, acknowledge that they were in discussion about partnering on a variety of "support issues."

Then I asked Brown to talk about the magazine. The subtitle of Talk, she said, was "The American Conversation."

"We want it," she said, "to have the feeling of the voices of the Web."

"The Web?" The Web -- with its lack of packaging, organization, and snobberies -- and Tina Brown formed quite a disjunction for me.

"Of course we want it to be accurate," she said.

Given the difficulties of getting an e-mail address for her -- I shoulde-mail her assistant, I was told, who would make sure Tina, who did not quite yet get her own e-mail, would be given the message -- I assumed comparing Talk to the Web was just part of the process of building the pitch (I had heard that Galotti was comparing Talk to Time's hugely successful InStyle too); it wasn't to be taken literally.

She proceeded to hit the buttons that are customarily hit when editors describe a vision for a new and trendsetting magazine: It would have a European feel; it would be reminiscent of the German magazine Stern or the French Paris Match; it would be "ruthless," she added, "about what's interesting." She is, she said, in the tradition of Harold Hayes and Clay Felker. There are particular readers she keeps in mind -- specific people she wants to startle and excite (she cited her husband and Martin Amis). It's true, I thought: On top of her literary talents, her innate stylishness, and her eye for social trends, she has that Fleet Street sense, born of class and drinking establishments, of knowing your audience -- of understanding how to appeal to a smart set -- which in turn amplifies the buzz and gets it airborne (in that sense, there is a similarity to the Web).

Then she said, portentously: "I believe heat is quality."

I was surprised that she would acknowledge this.

"Many people," I said, "would say that the problem with Tina Brown is that she believes heat is quality."

She looked uncomprehending for a second. Then stricken. "No!" she said. "Quality is heat."

She seemed annoyed that I might hold her to her slip, and our talk ended shortly thereafter. The next day, her assistant followed up with an e-mail from Tina trying again to undo her formula.

If you were starting Talk at Time Warner, or Condé Nast, or Hearst, it would be, at this point, an inchoate and probably harrowing venture, too. But when you do it from nothing, just as an act of will, even defiance -- having on your own to raise capital, build an organization, arrange distribution, placate partners, and create a product -- you are truly in the primal muck of a start-up.

In all likelihood, she will fail. There is almost no way she can succeed. Except for her own talents -- and you could argue that those talents rank with Spielberg's, or even, hell, Michael Jordan's -- she doesn't have an appreciably greater advantage than most start-ups.

Except . . . one of her most interesting talents is that she has always managed to make success a variable notion. She has made success something larger than making money. Her success is that people need to know, to be close, to be part of what she does. A success d'estime is where her money is (where Harvey Weinstein's money is, too, come to think of it).

And that, most of all, is why I think media people want to put the hex on Tina and Talk. Because the world of magazines is a world of fixed positions. If I succeed, someone else must fail. If my magazine attracts an advertisement, then someone else's magazine must lose it. If my two primary competitors are magazines that I have created (or re-created) -- Vanity Fair and The New Yorker -- and I create a newer, hotter magazine, who's the fool?

Heat is quality. In this business.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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