Blame death of 'Talk' on lack of big idea, not the recession

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It's ridiculous, cowardly even, to blame the collapse of Talk magazine on the events of 9/11, as Talk's principals have done. Long before then, it was clear Talk investor Hearst Corp. didn't have its heart in the venture and that Mira-max Films, the magazine's other backer, was involved in a business it didn't understand and didn't belong in. If it proves anything, Talk's failure shows a celebrity editor isn't enough; that if there's no idea behind a product, eventually there's no product. Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein knows how to package and promote films, but he never understood this basic tenet of branding.

Yet even those who love to hate her should give Tina Brown her due. There's one brilliant magazine being published today (The New Yorker) and one pretty good one (Vanity Fair) that wouldn't exist if she hadn't stepped in to save them. In each case, the editors who followed her-David Remnick and Graydon Carter, respectively-took the titles to another level. But neither of them would have had the opportunity if she hadn't first estab-lished the magazines' basic brand identities. Tina Brown has probably edited her last U.S. magazine, but don't be surprised if she ulti-mately lands in a position where she con-tinues to reflect and influence popular culture in the U.S. I'd be shocked if she and husband Harry Evans retreated across the pond.

Though the weak ad climate hastened Talk's collapse, it would be wrong to paint the magazine merely as a victim of the media recession. Talk never had a reason for being. It was instead a blend of ego and ambition together with a misguided attempt at corporate synergy. Harvey Weinstein saw the opportunity to create a promotional vehicle for his films and was infatuated with Tina's celebrity status in glossy circles. He never asked, apparently, whether she had a burning idea for a new magazine that would fill an actual marketplace void.

Tina Brown doesn't seem to have asked herself this question either; instead, she was seduced by Weinstein and by the dream of being an owner rather than a wage earner. Hearst sought sex appeal by association, but didn't have Si Newhouse's cast-iron stomach for Tina's profligate ways. Besides, once Hearst had a clear winner with its O,the Oprah Magazine, it seemed to lose all interest in Talk.

Those who say editors have no business being celebrities miss the point. For the most part, editors who become stars, Tina Brown included, do so because of their talents. Where it goes bad is when celebrity substitutes for an idea, as it did with Talk. Oprah's magazine is different in two ways. First, Oprah Winfrey is a celebrity in the public sense of the word (with consumers, not with the trade). Second, her magazine tapped into an unfilled need.

Forget, too, the phony depictions of Talk Media, the company Ms. Brown and pub-lisher Ron Galotti created, as some sort of grand experiment in cross-fertilization. It gives the venture nobler strategic goals than it ever actually held. Talk was a great platform for promoting Miramax books and films, but that had little to do with the flow of creative ideas across product lines. In any case, Talk wasn't the first modern media venture found-ed on this premise; that honor belongs to Martha Stewart, who carried a brand concept across a wide variety of consumer products.

In the end, Talk's death should not be mourned as an ominous harbinger, but celebrated as an assertion of the free market.

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