As Talk magazine takes its final vow of silence (well, that's the
obligatory pun out of the way, ho ho), publishers around the world will
be wondering what the lessons are.
Is this the end of celebrity-driven titles? Has New York finally fallen
out of love with Tina Brown? Are top-end fashion, travel and luxury
goods advertising budgets really in that bad a shape? (Brown certainly
seems to think so, blaming Talk's demise on a sudden decline in
advertising revenues post-11 September.) To which the answers are: no;
probably; and not necessarily.
When Talk launched, a golden future looked assured. The combination of
Brown, plus the sprinkling of Hollywood magic dust courtesy of the
tie-up with Miramax, seemed unbeatable, a unique fusion of West Coast
celebrity and East Coast hipness that was so of its time. This was
August 1999, you recall, a period we can now see as the very zenith of
the dotcom boom. Of course Talk had nothing to do with the dotcoms, but
they infected the mood to the extent that even the most level-headed
individuals would take outlandish risks. As one economist dubbed it,
this was a time of "irrational exuberance" - a phrase which perfectly
sums up the zeitgeist. It was this "anything can happen" feeling that
probably caused many people to swallow their initial doubts about Talk,
perhaps even its backers.
Certainly I blame the mood of the time for an editorial proposition that
looked flawed from day one and which, in the end, may have been the root
cause of the title's closure. On the half-dozen times I read Talk from
cover to cover, I never felt less than irritated and disappointed by its
combination of high seriousness and low celebrity worship. It was as if
Hello! had suddenly decided it had to be serious too and bolted on long,
wordy features about the auteur theory of film-making. Even Talk's
coverage of celebrities was schizoid, with it seemingly unable to make
up its mind whether it was an upscale Vanity Fair or the more
Perhaps none of this would have mattered if it hadn't been for the
collapse of the US advertising economy (a process well underway before
11 September), which meant that Talk's editorial flaws could no longer
be glossed over.
When the going gets tough, just as investors pile into gold and the US
dollar at times of economic turbulence, so advertisers flock to safe
havens of established titles with clear propositions.
And that's the simple lesson that Talk holds for publishers. It's got
nothing to do with celebrity publishing per se, Tina Brown or luxury
advertisers, and everything to do with having a clear proposition. And
if you want an example of a title that got it right with readers and
advertisers, arguably from a significantly less promising position in
terms of timing, look no further than Glamour.
- Claire Beale is on maternity leave.