Talking heads

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Snapshots from Talk's celebrity-studded launch party on Liberty Island in August, 1999-as preserved on the title's original thin and now yellowing paper stock-depict a boom-time bash that seems as long ago and far away as a new Led Zeppelin concert tee.

Nearly two years later, in Talk's stylish Chelsea office-itself a throwback to dot-com loft-luxe-the deja vu continues, as Talk Media's Chairman Tina Brown and President Ron Galotti entreat yet another reporter with fresh news and seek to convince of its current and future success.

Paper stock will be upgraded-again. (Only at Talk do paper changes make news.) The size is shrinking-again-to handle ad inserts more easily. "As far as I'm concerned, the September issue is the way I always dreamed it, on brilliant, glossy paper," said Harvey Weinstein, co-chair of Miramax Films, which publishes Talk in a partnership with Hearst Magazines, "as a luxury goods magazine, which is what I think we should have been all along."

In September, courtesy of just-arrived, highly regarded Editorial Director Maer Roshan, comes a new front-of-the-book. "The Informer" is "shorter and crisper ... more irreverent," he said. (The less politic internal watchword is "younger.") Leaving an implication hanging, the 33-year-old Mr. Roshan said, "I felt like I could make this magazine great."

After almost two years, the world still needs convincing. Circulation at yearend was 619,259. Mr. Galotti indicates the circulation guaranteed to advertisers will be at 650,000 in early 2002, although he had previously said the magazine would attain that by spring 2000.

Mr. Galotti now pegs long-term circulation goals at around 775,000. But another insider said an internal goal is 1 million, matching the target of Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines.

Ms. Brown "has got the right kind of reader," Ms. Black said. "She just needs to find more of them." She added "a million circ, 1,300 ad pages. That certainly would be a goal."

Getting there in the current circulation climate-the ugliest in memory-won't be easy. Further, the sell-through-percentage of copies delivered to newsstand that actually sold-for Talk last year was just 19%, according to the magazine's postal statement, half the industry average.

Circulation concerns lead Mr. Weinstein to say he would consider another partner in Talk Media. "I am always interested in a partner who can bring power to the company. Not money, but someone who can take us from 600,000 to 1 million. Once we get to a million, we are a very profitable magazine."

Publishers Information Bureau figures through May, covering four issues of the 10-times-a-year title, show Talk notched 279.9 ad pages, down 6.7% from last year. Mr. Galotti noted that in February 2000 the magazine ran a one-time 100-page "outsert." Through the June issue, ad pages are up 1%, he said, adding that they would be up 36% if the outsert is not counted.

Mr. Galotti expects the magazine to hit around 700 ad pages this year, up from 618 last year. An 82-page gain in this ad climate is admirable, and 700 ad pages in a magazine's second year would be respectable.

Still, "The problem with a magazine like this," said a non-competing industry executive, "is they are in the magic area around half a million [circulation] at which no one can make money, especially if you are doing a Tina Brown magazine-if you have high expenses. Your ad rates can't be high enough." Talk is winning over some doubters. "They turned a corner. They look like a real magazine now," said Gene DeWitt, CEO of Optimedia International, New York.

But Talk's losses, according to one informed observer, will exceed $20 million this year. Mr. Weinstein characterized losses as "significant," but not that high. While losses are expected for any start-up, Talk suffers at Hearst when compared to joint-venture grand slams O The Oprah Magazine and SmartMoney. Talk is "right on plan," Mr. Galotti said. "We believe it will be a very successful enterprise," Ms. Black said. "We have been a very supportive partner."

Ms. Black and Mr. Galotti refused to comment on any specifics of the partnership behind Talk Media, although Mr. Weinstein referred to a five-year plan. Ms. Black denied the possibility of changes in the partnership structure: "Don't go down that line."

That aside, Talk remains neither a resounding success nor a resounding failure. The trouble is its need to show continued growth in a time when it's a struggle to simply stay afloat, in an era of cost-cutting at companies public and private, and with a clock ticking on the partnership that birthed it.

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