WITH 'TALK' SILENCED, BUZZ IS DEAD

Once the Tool of the Media Elite, Spin-Doctoring Gets Democratized

By Published on .

Most Popular
If I may be allowed a few final words on Talk, I would like to suggest buzz is dead.

Buzz was the great buzzword among mediarati in the late '80s and through the '90s. It was the conversation starter at the top of what journalist James Fallows once labeled the "hierarchy of information and attitudes" -- that pulpy stew of gossip, insider information, pointed analysis and wisdom (conventional and unconventional) that marked its distributor as in-the-know.

Because being in-the-know is, in a knowledge economy, essential to success, you might call buzz the intellectual capital of the chattering classes.

Tina Brown's buzz
We owe our modern conception of buzz to Tina Brown, who attributed her revival of a sputtering Vanity Fair in the mid-'80s to her (and her editors' and writers') ability to identify, capture, convey and scale buzz. Ever the good monopolist, Ms. Brown eventually held such a lock on the buzz market that the magazine was able effectively to set the pricing standard for general interest periodicals. Although financially less successful at The New Yorker, she still owned all the rugs in the buzz bazaar; others had to weave their yarns according to her warp and woof.

Talent in extremis

Related Stories:
TINA BROWN'S 'TALK' SHUTS DOWN
Losses Estimated at $50 Million
EDITORS ASSESS A RAVAGED MAGAZINE INDUSTRY
Predict Continued Closings but Express Long-Term Optimism
certainly played a role in Ms. Brown's success. But she also understood buzz was not a natural phenomenon: It had to be created using the arcane tools of the spin trade -- the book party, the third-hand column drop, the downtown PR person, the uptown PR person, the London bypass. Others (P.T. Barnum, Edward Bernays) had long known how to gin up buzz. But in her command of the mechanics of the media-spindustrial complex, Tina Brown was unique in her time (the last decade) and place (the rag trade), which is why everyone paid so much attention when Talk launched and (two front-page New York Times stories!) sank.

Buzz for all
But I don't believe the collapse of Talk was a failure of Tina's talent. Rather, I think buzz has gone the way of most instruments of elite power: Its tools have become democratized.

Face it. Today, everyone knows how to plant the item, stack the party, launch the book. And there are a google of attention-paying outlets. This both devalues buzz and makes mindshare, its product, harder to gain.

I liken the death of buzz to the erosion of differentiation in consumer products, from which the package-goods industry has never fully recovered. Time was when a "new and improved" product really was (an advantage that could last several years and transform R&D into margins). Gradually, technology transfer grew so rapid that actual product advantages disappeared, in category after category. Eventually, consumers caught on.

So, too, with buzz. It's no longer possible to corner the market on chatter. Not for a periodical month nor even a TV day. In a media business generally built on a foundation of buzz, its demise is pulling the pins from the economic underpinnings. If you can't generate buzz, you don't carry a weapon in the battle for mindshare. You'll never get those 25-year-old planners to put you in their cranks.

So do continue to talk about Talk. But remember: When the next monthly sinks, no one may talk at all.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

In this article: