debra goldman’s Consumer Republic

Is Talk the future of publishing or just what we deserve?
When I mentioned to a friend I was going to write about the debut of Tina Brown’s new buzz factory, Talk, she was nonplussed. “Aren’t you going to wait to read it?” she asked.
How quaint, I thought. If Tina has taught journalists anything, it’s the importance of focusing on what’s next. Talk has been what’s next in the magazine business since last summer, when Brown left The New Yorker and hitched her brand to Miramax’s star. In a world where events “happen” before they actually occur–a phenomenon Brown helped create–Talk is a success.
This week, we’ll find out whether the magazine is half as fabulous as the party, although a cover featuring well-worn subjects such as George W., Hillary and Gwyneth Paltrow is not too promising.
Of course, there’s a little irony in the fact that Talk, a magazine about the “American conversation,” as a discarded tagline put it, debuts just as the millions of musings about John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death fade away. (Still, Brown stopped the presses at Talk to make sure the obligatory “Johnny, we hardly knew ye” riff was part of the premiere issue.) Indeed, Brown and JFK Jr. had something in common: They were editors as brands.
Kennedy’s monthly is known as George, though its de facto title, as both readers and advertisers knew, was always John. Brown calls her book Talk, but its de facto name, as no reader or advertiser is ever allowed to forget, is actually Tina. In a world of niche audiences, the best hope for the general-interest magazine is an editor of general interest.
If only Kennedy’s death had been better timed, the story would have made the perfect Talk subject, scoring the irresistible Princess Di trifecta: celebrity, wealth and violent death. He was the apotheosis of the tautology of celebrity culture and devotion to which Brown has contributed so mightily.
JFK Jr. was famous for being famous, an observation made by so many eulogists that in the wake of his death we can now say he is famous for being famous for being famous. Beyond this, there is nothing illuminating to say, which didn’t stop everyone with a word processor from trying. That list includes an elite corps of New Yorker scribblers led by John Updike, who vainly tried to squeeze meaningful rhetoric from this mute stone of a story in last week’s issue. At least you can’t blame Tina for that.
Or can you?
A lot of people do, which is one reason why so many in the chattering classes are hoping that Talk dives into the black hole of publishing. When Tina Brown was tearing up pages at The New Yorker, looking to land that one-two punch of who’s hot and what’s next, opinion was divided as to whether she was a cause in a celebrity-driven, short-attention-span culture or merely a symptom of an inexorable trend.
At Talk, with its grand vision of synergy, she moves definitively into the “cause” column. The magazine’s backers are betting that Brown has become a tautological celebrity herself, one who creates fame because she is famous for creating fame.
But before anyone roots for Brown to fail, consider the other face of the future of general-interest magazines: Joe. Joe isn’t another cult-of-personality magazine editor known to the masses by his or her first name alone. “Joe” is coffee, or rather the spirit of the coffeehouse, or maybe it’s that the name represents the feeling one gets sitting around drinking coffee.
Frankly, I’m not sure who or what Joe is, but you can try figuring it out for yourself by picking up a copy at a Starbucks near you–and needless to say, there is a Starbucks near you.
The chain’s ubiquity is the rationale for the existence of Joe, a product of Time Inc.’s custom-publishing division. Joe’s first issue, centered on trust, resembles an extremely ambitious high-school literary magazine. If it’s a choice between a magazine whose big idea is its audience and one whose concept is a celebrity editor, I’d opt for the editor every time.
The main obstacle to creating a great magazine about the “American conversation” is, unfortunately, the American conversation itself, which based on what we hear in the movies is mainly conducted in farts and belches. Is it possible to write anything but a “celebrity profile” about George W. Bush, a candidate whose coronation as presidential candidate for the GOP was designed to forestall any messy discussions about political issues?
Is there a mind so deep, a pen so sharp that it can draw meaning from the sad but meaningless accidental death of a notorious son? What is there to talk about when a subject is
inexhaustible–not because it is so rich in incident and repercussions but because it is so bereft of them?
No magazine editor is so good that she can create a “thought leader” without an audience. Soon, readers will discover whether Talk is any good. But sight unseen, we can be sure of one thing: It’s the magazine we deserve.