'I put all the good stuff in the first issue'

When Tina Brown launched Talk magazine last September, the buzz was huge. Six months on the knives are out and the talk is of a magazine that has lost its momentum. In an exclusive interview with David Usborne, Brown admits to mistakes but says that it will be a winner

Don't tell Ron Galotti that Talk, the magazine he launched last September with British editor Tina Brown, has lost its buzz. He is so tired of hearing it. Why should he care what people think, when they are all completely wrong? Talk is in rude health. A "runaway success" as he puts it.

Equally, it is unwise to relay to Brown the current gossip about her. That as an editor she proved herself a great interior decorator, hence the acclaim she earned both at Vanity Fair and at The New Yorker, but that as an architect, tasked with building something from new, she is lousy. She doesn't care either. "That is one of those smart put-downs by people who don't bother to look at the facts."

Both are bad liars. Of course, they care. They have to. Owned jointly by Miramax, the Harvey and Bob Weinstein-run film unit of Disney, and by Hearst Communications, the magazine, by virtue of its name, begs for buzz. And buzz is precisely what Brown, the editor, and Galotti, the publisher and president, got when they launched it last August with a Liberty Island party in New York City harbour.

Now the talk about Talk has turned nearly to silence. You may hear a short burst again when Tina Brown joins Elizabeth Murdoch as a co-host of a pre-Bafta Awards party this Saturday at London's St Martin's Lane Hotel. But on this side of the water, we hear almost nothing about it - a bad sign. Actually, that's not quite true. If you do hear mention of it, usually it's somebody saying that it seems to be getting a bit better.

Even Brown concedes that the few issues after the launch edition were not quite what they should have been. "I probably made the mistake of putting all the good stuff in the first issue and didn't look forward enough to the next couple." There were so many distractions. "You want to concentrate on content, but for the few issues that came after the launch I was still so consumed with other aspects of the business that the content suffered."

The main distraction was probably the poor critical reception the magazine was receiving. Conceived to fill a perceived gap in the US market between the two magazines Brown had helped burnish - Vanity Fair and The New Yorker - Talk was meant to offer heavy feature writing and celebrity fluff. Brown also wanted it to feel European. What emerged was a magazine that seemed confused.

Tina Brown still stands by the original mission of the magazine. "I think there really is a big gap there," she insisted. "What we are still going for is a magazine of voices of intelligence, good writing, smart commentary about today and I don't think there is a magazine that does that, I really don't." But to achieve it, she has changed much since those late summer days of last year.

Something like half the original staff of Talk is no longer there, new blood having been brought in. Two newcomers at the place stand out. One is Robert Wallace, a veteran of Rolling Stone magazine and ABC television, whom she recruited as editorial director in January, just two days after he resigned as head of the St Martin's Press publishing house. Also at the beginning this year, she hired the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, best known for all those controversial ad campaigns for Benetton, as creative director.

The look has changed considerably over recent issues. The layout is much cleaner. Covers that used to offer a slightly baffling mosaic of three or four faces have now been revamped to the traditional one-celebrity portrait. While Brown wants to keep the magazine thin enough that it can be rolled up and stuffed under the reader's arm, she has gone, since the April issue, for a heavier quality of paper.

And bit by bit, opinion about Talk seems to be changing. Ask Alan Jurmain, for instance, whose opinion, as media director of the large New York advertising house Lowe Litnas & Partners, matters. He agrees that the buzz has "gone flat". But adds: "I do think that Tina's voice is starting to get a clarity and a consistency that will give them a unique and viable position in the market."

At McCann Erickson, Roberta Garfinkle similarly counsels patience. "It takes a magazine a while to find its legs," she commented. "At the same time, I do think that all of our expectations where higher at the beginning than what was finally delivered to us."

For all their protestations of confidence, Galotti and Brown are transparently sensitive about the unkind whispering. "Eventually," Galotti sighs, "everyone will get tired of shitting on us and shit on somebody else." He then suddenly produces a video of snippets lifted from TV and entertainment shows that aired in the US during February. It shows a parade of people talking about what is in Talk. "I defy you," Ron says, pointing to the screen.

Brown (who seems embarrassed by the playing of the clips) says she knew it would be rough. After reviving Tatler in Britain and then moving with husband Harry Evans to New York in 1984 to take on Vanity Fair and later The New Yorker, she has climbed astonishing heights in Manhattan. Heights from which you can really only fall. "I have had three successful magazines and I think people just don't want to give you a fourth."

She recalls inviting her staff for supper before last year's launch. "I said, 'What you're about to face is going to be like a Hell's Angels initiation. Everybody is going to urinate all over us'." She knows, too, that she has enemies in town. "I have a lot of experience, but I have accumulated resentments. I have killed a lot of stories and fired a lot of people."

Something else irritates her - the assertion, made persuasively by The New York Times media editor, Alex Kucynski, several months ago, that the magazine is there in part as a publicity vehicle for co-owner Miramax. Kucynski calculated that half of all the Hollywood-related material in the first four issues was somehow connected to the studio.

Brown insists that she does no special favours for it. "It doesn't factor in for us. What does is that we have the hottest actor at the time and if that happens to be a Miramax movie, I would certainly not count myself out of it."

It was for a sneak preview of a forthcoming Dreamworks SKG film that Talk played host last Thursday evening at the Ziegfield Theater, the grandest cinema still not divided into a multiplex in Manhattan. The evening was a reminder that Tina Brown remains the major power in the New York media monde.

Many of us who attended the screening - of Ridley Scott's Gladiators, starring Russell Crowe of The Insider fame - were forced to assess Brown's wattage beforehand. Because, by some delicious coincidence, we had also received an invitation to another sneak preview (Joe Gould's Secret) on the same night, at the same hour, from David Remnick, the man who succeeded Brown at The New Yorker.

Talk had a swell party afterwards and Tina did her Tina thing. Harry must see her relax sometimes, but the rest of us have not. Events like these are for her to schmooze, massage and cajole. Blond, sparkle-eyed and filled with nervous energy, Brown spent the right amount of time with all the right people. Get on her radar screen, become a person of use to her, and she will charm you. So animated is her conversation at one moment that she slops wine on the floor and quite fails to notice.

It is networking on a plane so high most us would need oxygen. The secret for Brown is to connect the dots - or the stars - and then bring them to the magazine. Take the newest issue, for May, and there is evidence that she is doing exactly that. It has a strong story and cover photograph of Crowe. You may not be surprised also to see a long piece on Elizabeth Murdoch.

So what about the hard numbers? They are all good, according to Galotti. Newsstand sales, he says, are at about 250,000 and with subscriptions, he expects soon to tell advertisers that total sales are at 600,000. He has sold 155 pages of advertising in the last three issues and revenue is at about $19m (£11.9m). "From every measurable sense, this is a runaway success."

There is no way to verify these numbers yet and Roberta Garfinkle reports a disconcerting coyness on the part of the magazine about promoting this alleged track record to advertisers like herself. "You would imagine that they would be out there beating the bushes and saying 'Hey, look at our numbers', but I'm not hearing or seeing that."

So, for now, we must take Tina and Ron on trust. They will tell you Talk will be just fine. (A British edition may even be down the road.) "I feel, as they say, in a very good place now," Tina Brown concludes. "Because we have adjusted very quickly and this is a very good magazine."

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