Tina's the talk of New York again, but now it's all bad news

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The Independent Online

Tina Brown threw a party on Monday at Elaine's, the famous eatery favoured by the posh and the pretentious on the Upper East Side, to launch a new book about The Producers, the Mel Brooks creation that is now on Broadway.

Surrounded by stars, Ms Brown was in a familiar position as a journalist who has known only success in a long magazine career first in London and lately in New York. She was editor of Tatler in Britain by 25. In 1984, newly married to Harry Evans, former editor of The Times and The Sunday Times, she arrived in New York in a blaze of glory to take over Vanity Fair, where she pioneered celebrity journalism before moving to the more highbrow New Yorker in 1992. When in August, 1999, she launched her own creation, Talk, meant to fall somewhere in between those two magazines, Vanity Fair's glamour and the New Yorker's depth.

But on Monday night, alas, the talk was mostly negative. Word has begun to circulate that Hearst Magazines, which backs the magazine in an equal partnership with Miramax Films, the company responsible for Shakespeare in Love and Trainspotting, has lost patience with its continuing losses and wants out. If Hearst were indeed to walk away, that would force Talk to find alternative investors. That may be hard these days. On Monday morning, an article prominent on the front of the business section of The New York Times probed the troubles at Talk. The piece was, unsurprisingly, mostly gloomy about the magazine's prospects. The relationship between Ms Brown and Hearst was "beginning to look like a busted romance", it said.

Hours before taking her limo to Elaine's, Ms Brown and the president of Talk, Ron Galotti, sent a bitter letter of complaint about the journalistic ethics of The New York Times to the paper's executive editor, Howell Raines, and posted it on a popular industry website, mediagossip.com.

Attracting attention to herself and her magazine is one of Ms Brown's greatest talents. She does it often with parties such as Monday's. The launch of Talk was brilliantly promoted by one of the glitziest parties New York has seen, on Liberty Island, under the statue, with a picnic and fireworks from a barge.

Even just a few weeks ago, when everyone in the magazine industry was pondering the catastrophic impact of the 11 September attacks and the downturn of the economy, Ms Brown invited guests to a soiree beneath canvass in the garden of the townhouse she shares with her husband Harry Evans. The party was for Shimon Peres and guests included Bill Clinton, Robert De Niro, Kathleen Turner and Richard Holbrooke.

But quite a few in New York have been waiting a long time to see Tina Brown fail. Perhaps because she is British, or perhaps because she has had so much success as editor of Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and then of Talk, she has always drawn a wide circle of ill-wishers. But neither Ms Brown nor Mr Galotti wanted to speak to The Independent yesterday. Her proprieters have been dropping dark hints. Cathleen Black, the chief executive of Hearst Magazines, has for a long time pointedly stayed away from all Tina Brown and Talk-related functions. Her statement of reassurance last week provided little comfort.

"We are proud of the efforts Tina and Ron have made on behalf of Talk," it said. "The continued rise in ad paging and in circulation reflect a growing acceptance of the magazine though the pace of that growth has been held back by a very tough newsstand and economic climate. That happens to be true of even the most established media properties.

"We are aware Talk is seeking additional investors for the property. We support those efforts although as of now there has been no change in our relationship with Talk. We, at Hearst, expect we will have a continuing relationship with the magazine."

Tales of woe can be found in the editor's office of almost any magazine in New York. Advertising and newsstand revenues have slumped, and the cost of newsprint and distribution has continued to rise. Conde Nast recently shut down Mademoiselle altogether, and Rolling Stone sacked 60 people, cutting staff by a third. Nobody should be surprised if there is blood on the floor of Talk also.

But the viability of Talk has always been a puzzle. The losses last year were reportedly $25m (£17.6m) and Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, is said to have invested $40m to keep the venture afloat. At least for Miramax, the monthly provides useful synergy by promoting the studio's stars on the front (see Gwyneth Paltrow in the current issue). For Hearst, the logic for staying the course is less obvious.

Editorially, the magazine was viewed as a disappointment, but three major overhauls later it has been getting more favourable reviews. Ms Brown sometimes makes headlines with content. This month's issue has an essay by Chelsea Clinton about the events of 11 September that got media play around the world.

But praise has been far more consistent for the publishing arm of the business, Talk Miramax Books. Aside from the book about The Producers, the imprint has recently hit gold with books including Icebound by Dr Jerri Nielsen and Christopher Rice's A Density of Souls. It also scooped the competition, at high cost, by securing the rights to the memoirs of Rudolph Giuliani, the outgoing New York City mayor.

Ms Brown's fate probably rests in the hands of Mr Weinstein. Last week, he also felt obliged to say something, if only a few words, about the magazine and Ms Brown. "Miramax is fully supportive, has been and will be," he said.

But The New York Times insists there is tension in the Brown-Weinstein partnership. Mr Weinstein apparently did not like what he saw after 11 September when he had to abandon his own offices near the World Trade Centre and to pitch tent at the magazine's base in the Chelsea district. The paper said he lost patience when late editorial improvements led to a last-minute delay in the November issue.

"I don't understand why you can't get this magazine together," he bawled at Ms Brown and Mr Galotti, claimed an unidentified staff member in the newspaper. "I don't know what you're smirking at. I could run this magazine better than the two of you".

The article, co-written by Geraldine Fabrikant and Alex Kuczynski, attempts to detail what appear to be discouraging financial realities at the magazine. It reports that its advertising revenue was down a 39 per cent for the October issue and only 20 per cent of the copies sent to newsstands actually get sold. The industry average is about 35 per cent.

In their letter, Ms Brown and Mr Galotti call the article "misleading and damaging". They say it, "pointedly ignores the many positive trends in Talk's economic and editorial performance in favour of highlighting erroneous information with a negative bias". They say advertising in October, year on year, was down 9.2 per cent.

If Hearst does pull out, Ms Brown may have two choices: find an investor more interested in the buzz of the magazine than its prospects of making money, or walk away from it before it is too late.