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The Queen of Buzz Goes Silent? Doubtful

Both respected and reviled, Tina Brown ponders the next phase of her career.

January 25, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She has been lionized and demonized, hailed as the most brilliant editor on either side of the Atlantic and denounced--usually off the record or in stage whispers--as a frosty perfectionist with a rare talent for self-promotion. Yet few would deny that, wherever she has gone, Tina Brown has made the clubby, inbred world of magazine publishing a more colorful, unpredictable place.

Now there will be a new chapter in Brown's life story, after the suspension last week of Talk magazine, where Brown was founding chairwoman and editor in chief. In a move that made national headlines but surprised few media watchers, the 2-year-old general interest monthly announced that its February issue, currently on newsstands, would be its last.

Talk's abrupt collapse has left dozens of staffers in New York and Los Angeles looking for work, while across the country a Greek chorus of commentators has arisen to pass judgment on its fate. Was Talk the last gasp of the '90s, the inevitable comeuppance to a decade of glitzy shallowness and celebrity worship, as some are asserting?

"Talk was Tina Brown reductio ad absurdum. Talk was style without substance, and Tina Brown was the poster girl" for that, said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research and public educational organization that studies the news and entertainment media.

Or was Talk, as Brown and her supporters say, an experiment in cutting-edge journalism and creative multimedia marketing that simply ran out of time and money? "Don't be fooled by some of the snarkier people who have written about us in the last period," said Brown, stealing a few minutes between engagements for a cell phone interview from her car in Manhattan on Wednesday. "The fact is we were getting offered terrific pieces, terrific first serials."

The news of Talk's demise was made public Friday by officials with Miramax Films, a unit of Walt Disney Co., and Hearst Corp., which had backed the magazine to the tune of an estimated $50 million. Just hours earlier, Talk had hosted a pre-Golden Globe Awards bash at the SkyBar in the Mondrian Hotel on the Sunset Strip, where guests sipped apple martinis and munched on crab cakes and tuna tartar, and Brown circulated as if nothing were amiss. The shutdown, which Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein and Brown blamed largely on the national advertising slump since Sept. 11, came as the magazine was boosting its circulation to a hefty 670,000 and, some thought, finally beginning to find a voice and visual style distinct from those of Brown's previous editorial charges, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.

It may take awhile before Talk's legacy can be separated from the intensely mixed feelings of admiration and antipathy, gratitude and resentment that Brown has aroused throughout her working life. Meanwhile, the 48-year-old Brit is pondering the next phase of a career that has not only taken her to the Annapurna of her profession but turned her into a member of the very velvet-rope crowd she covered.

Sounding more determined than regretful, Brown said that Talk had "left an appetite" for "a new, sophisticated outlet for writers and photographers who had something a little more counterintuitive to say." "I know that that need is [still] there," she said. "All the writers who were writing for me are calling me and saying, 'I don't know where to place my piece, I don't know where to call, because there is no place to place my piece.'"

But did those individual pieces add up to a coherent identity for Talk? "I felt the magazine very much had a voice," Brown replied. "It's amazing the kind of response we've had in the last 24 hours. I talked to a publisher who said to me, 'The incredible thing was, Talk was the magazine that the media buyers read. Even if they didn't buy it, they read it.' You know what I'm saying? And that's how I began at Vanity Fair. It takes time. We were two years in. It took four years for 'Seinfeld' to get an audience."

Launched amid stratospheric expectations and not a little hyperbole--one British writer declared it "the media event of the year, if not the decade"--Talk was touted as a perfect union of transatlantic journalistic moxie and Hollywood big bucks. With Brown as its aggressive, well-connected editor and Disney and Hearst's deep pockets, Talk looked primed to profit from the financial and creative synergies of two multimedia giants. Star writers were hired to do articles that, it was hoped, might someday morph into books, movies and other intellectual properties. A Miramax spokesman said that three Talk magazine articles had been optioned for Miramax movie deals.

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