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Failure Is Hot!

Talk, which saw itself as a great new vehicle of mythmaking, ended up becoming the embodiment of hype deflation. In an age of dashed expectations, Tina Brown is right on pulse.

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Why does the shuttering of a magazine that never had much of a following, that couldn't ever define itself, that wasn't particularly talked about, and that by some substantial consensus was expected to fail, attract so much interest?

What an anticlimax.

You could fairly say that Talk magazine had been destined to close ever since its second issue was published two and a half years ago. But I think the slow-motion, you-saw-it-coming-from-a-mile-away sense, with everyone playing a part in the debacle (the magazine held two big-buzz, we're-so-cool parties in its final weeks), with the operatic levels of denial and umbrage and soldiering-on, and then the inevitable shuttering anyway, are all part of the attraction.

While Talk never managed in its pages to summon the Zeitgeist, or find the tone of the time, or create the heat that its editor, Tina Brown, was famous for creating, it did manage to mirror the real thing that was happening in the culture, which was that every big-deal thing was failing. Indeed, it was just at the time that Talk was launching that all of the boom-time expectations that had been raised -- the new economy, the new media, the new earnings multiples -- began to crumble.

Talk became the perfect expression of dashed expectations. The magazine, which envisioned itself as a great new vehicle of promotion and mythmaking, became the embodiment of hype deflation. On the subject of failure and unrealizable expectations and the undoing of invincibility and celebrity, Talk was something like performance art.

Talk failed publicly and unself-consciously (it was not aware enough of what it was doing to be self-conscious) and instructively. It was a detailed primer on how not to publish a magazine.

True, it worked overtime to create the illusion of success. But unlike, say, the Enron corporation, which snookered the stock market and the media (not to mention President Bush), Talk's illusion seemed to work mostly on the people working at Talk (although Talk seemed to have snookered the Clintons -- Chelsea even became one of Talk's name writers). Talk got the trickery backwards. Talk worked its magic on the wrong people. It fooled itself.

For the rest of the interested world, it was an absolutely transparent enterprise. There was the thickness of the first issues and the thinness of ensuing numbers; there was the constant and well-documented turnover of the staff (writers and editors were always rolling their eyes about their Talk experience); there were the article miscues (a steady stream of over-the-hill or irrelevant actors and actresses on the cover); there were the damning newsstand sales (it was widely reported that Talk was selling only 20 percent of its newsstand distribution); there was the sniping from Hearst, a partner with Miramax in the Talk venture; indeed, there were the disparaging remarks from Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein himself (likewise, the Talk people disparaged Harvey).

And yet, at the same time, there was the apparent belief at Talk that this was normal. Tina was always going on about what it takes to get it right. Great magazines require great suffering, she seemed to be saying. She appeared to have convinced herself that Talk's dysfunction, and, for that matter, her own dysfunction (her legendary inability to make a decision; her breathless calls to writers and editors in the middle of the night; her amazing out-of-it-ness -- "Why don't we profile . . . Barry Diller!"), were somehow the building blocks of success.

In fact, it was not hard to see that one of the key problems of Talk was Tina herself. In a logical enterprise and a rational universe, she would have been fired (as a succession of editors acting in her stead were replaced). Except that she was the only reason for the magazine's existence. Who would have wanted the magazine without her? She was the value proposition. All the goodwill was bound up in her. She was the asset -- and she was rapidly depreciating.

There was, vividly, over the past two and a half years, the transformation of Tina Brown from princess of the media-celebrity-market-power culture to one of its dispossessed (at the same time, her husband, Harry Evans, was also sliding down the power ladder). There was even a visual morph, from sexy, glam, high-style power babe to dowdy, bad-hair, no-style lady (she who had raised superficiality to perhaps its highest expression was suddenly complaining that she was the victim of sexist stereotyping). She began openly, albeit awkwardly, to express her hurt and anger. It was all downward spiral.

She seemed to become something other than the real Tina. She was a hoax. Or, cruelly (she is right that people were cruel to her), she started to seem like a nut-house version of Tina Brown. She was someone claiming to be Tina -- with the other patients and a kindly hospital staff humoring her.

There was a lot of pretend (and bizarre) behavior.

The Talk party to celebrate the Golden Globe awards, held the night before she and publisher Ron Galotti told the staff the magazine was closing, was either grand denial, fiduciary irresponsibility (they should have been retrenching months ago -- kill the parties!), or pathetic pretense: We must put on a good face for the stars.

Over the course of Talk's two years, beginning with her famous Statue of Liberty bash, there were always the parties. Tina as media hostess. Tina as celebrity arbiter. Tina as she was when she had all that Condé Nast money and power behind her. It was Tina pretending to be who she no longer was.

Strangely, trying to imitate successful business magazines that hold conferences where attendees pay thousands of dollars, she inaugurated a series of Talk conferences called "Innovators and Navigators" (the first one was held last year in California, the next was scheduled for this spring at West Point). She invited celebrities and opinion-makers and anyone who was anybody -- but, neglecting the key element, and no doubt fearing she'd be stood up, she didn't make anybody pay. It was, in other words, just a costly illusion. You have a conference but not a conference business.

There was, finally, no value to Tina's ability to attract celebrities (the Talk staff would sometimes desperately argue that this was of great value to Miramax -- that the publicity itself was worth it, that Talk was a legitimate marketing expense for Miramax and its movies).

Tina has always had a reality-distortion field around her. Things became larger around her, more interesting, more important. But in the end, she was standing alone in that distortion field.

Actually, she was not quite alone.

I know lots of people who went to work for her. Up until the end, they were still going to work for her.

Was this infinite innocence or willful ignorance?

There is about Tina, and there was about Talk, an odd determination -- childlike, even: Let's put out a magazine!

"There is no possibility that this magazine can survive," I said not long ago to a friend at Talk.

"Well, maybe it can," said my friend.

This was something different from a collective misjudgment. It wasn't Enron or the dot-com syndrome. Going to work for Talk was, in a way, marching into the Valley of the Damned. Everybody knew what was going on, knew what was going to happen, but did it anyway. (Tina, her people took to saying as a way to explain why they stayed with her, has a lot of vulnerability.)

Possibly its very lack of reality-minded professionalism was attractive. The way its let's-put-out-a-magazine spirit flew in the face of magazine rules and logic and bean-counting was an attractive fantasy.

"But who is this magazine for?" I said recently to another friend there, asking the same question I've been asking for two years.

"It's for hip and intelligent urban sort of people," my friend said eagerly.

"No," I said. "That's not how this works. A magazine has to define a particular and valuable audience and have something close to an exclusive relationship with it. It can't just be for who you want it to be for. That's not the way to put out a magazine. There has to be some method here."

"Well, I think a magazine can be just for hip and intelligent people," my friend said stubbornly and wishfully.

There is, let us admit, a frisson of pleasure at Talk's demise.

This is partly about the complicated emotions involving Tina (she reached too far, she snubbed too many), and it's partly about accepting reality and just getting on with it, but mostly, I think, it's because we've been so engaged in this story, and it's teased us so relentlessly, that we're all just participating in the dénouement.

It's satisfying. We knew it would happen, and, well, it did.

In some sense, what Tina has always done is involve us in the drama of her own career and aspirations. It has really been about her rather than about her magazines.

The magazines have been only the accompaniment, the program notes. The career is the art.

"There is nobody more boring than the undefeated," she told the New York Times grandly, though not quite believably, shortly after she had fired her staff. "Any great, long career has at least one flameout in it," she further said to the Times, repeating this to Matt Lauer on the Today show.

This is my story, she was saying. It is my drama. And just in case failure is, well, hot, she's going to grab it for herself. (In case it is not hot, there was the sudden spin that it was the Talk book business that really mattered, and that the magazine was just a diversion, and indeed that the book business would, improbably, make up for the $50 million or so that had been lost on the magazine -- they will say virtually anything at Talk Miramax.)

We are, of course, her co-dependents. Failure is riveting. It may be that we spend so much time and attention promoting and pursuing the successful just to see them fail. Failure is the payoff. All that money she was going to get, all that equity she talked about when she started the magazine (although it was never clear where her equity was coming from), all that brand value she talked about having built. Losing all that is the story -- possibly a great one.

It is unlikely, however, that this is the end of the Tina Brown story -- although that has crossed my mind.

When last month she began to write a regular column for the Times of London (at a rumored $350,000 per year), I thought: That's it -- the parachute. She and Harry are bailing out and going home. It felt like the end of magazines and of New York for Tina (indeed, you rise to a certain level in New York and then, invariably, you get taken down).

But by most dramatic conventions -- you get something, then it is taken away from you -- this is just the second act. You just have to get the failure over with -- and get as far away from it as you can.

And then, after a decent interval, you put your finger back in the wind.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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