'From day one Tina and Ron didn't want to put out anything that was me-too or puff, and they've delivered on that. I think it's improved in its consistency and focus.'


Buyers: Geez, we
like Talk magazine

Enough doom talk. We think Ron and Tina have it.

By Jeff Bercovici

In the media world, appearance and reality often have very little to do with one another, and this is never more true than when the subject is Talk magazine.
    One might believe from the current hubbub that Talk is all but dead.
    According to recent news stories, including a New York Times story yesterday, both of the magazine's backers, Hearst Magazines and Miramax, are thinking of pulling their support from the magazine, dissatisfied over the title's continuing losses.
    But how bad off is Talk as a business proposition, apart from the largely negative--and almost entirely unsourced--stories about its principals and backers, Tina Brown, Ron Galotti, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax and Cathy Black of Hearst?
   The answer: Not bad at all, and in fact doing quite well.
   Consider the two key indicators, circulation and ad sales.
    Overall circulation was up 22.5 percent to 650,660 in the first six months of the year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. 
    Single-copy sales were way down, falling 27.9 percent to 110,273, but in the dismal newsstand environment that now exists, that's not as unusual as it sounds. Moreover, given the huge uptick in subscriptions, the falling newsstand numbers probably reflect at least in part first-time readers who have been converted into subscribers.
    Advertising sales have been strong this year, even with the industry as a whole slumping badly. Through October, ad pages were up 2.8 percent to 521.6, and revenue was up 34.4 percent to $27.3 million, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
    Ad sales are up for a simple reason. After a rocky first year or so, Talk has won the respect of media buyers.
   This is the single most critical factor in a discussion of Talk's longer-term future, whether new investors will be brought in, and whether either Hearst or Miramax will pull out.
     "They've got a powerful sales machine in the form of Ron Galotti and his team, and as far as Tina is concerned, her editorial prowess is legendary in the market," says Paul Benjou, vice president and director of media services at Mediaplex and a former top media buyer at Draft Worldwide.
    "I'm not quite sure that either of these companies, whether it's Harvey Weinstein or Hearst, is willing to pull the plug, and if they do I think it's very short-sighted."
    "I think for the literati and the glitterati it is a top read," says Tyler Schaeffer, senior vice president and director of media brand planning at FCB New York.
    "It's a great product because it pulls in the quality demos as well as the right attitude and mindset. That's hard to find in a media property."
    Schaeffer also has good things to say about Talk's content, which he says is somewhat stronger now than to begin with.
    "From day one Tina and Ron didn't want to put out anything that was me-too or puff, and they've delivered on that. I think it's improved in its consistency and focus."
    One criticism that has been consistently leveled at Talk is that it is insufficiently different from Vanity Fair, which Tina Brown more or less resurrected during her tenure there, and thus somewhat redundant.
    Carol Karpa, president of KDM, disagrees with this assessment.
    "I don't think it's superfluous at all," says Karpa. "Talk has a different voice which is unique and special--smart and intellectual, but not so intellectual as to not be embraceable."
    Her only real criticism of Talk is that its marketing plan seems to consist largely of getting lots of press, a strategy that has so far resulted in only mediocre newsstand sales.
    "It needs to continue to grow its base from an advertising point of view."
    A harsher appraisal comes from a media person who asked not to be identified.
    "It's one of those publications that's well-written but may not be able to survive on its own because of a tough economic climate and an inability to find its niche," he says. "The problem they're going to struggle with is that it's not endemic to anything."
    The sophisticated writing that endears Talk to intellectuals may have the effect of alienating media buyers, who are on average considerably younger than the magazineís median reader, he notes.
    As for the rumors that Miramax is already looking for someone to pick up Hearstís half of the tab, heís got a theory about that, too.
    "They're looking for someone to pay Galotti's paycheck and bonuses."

December 4, 2001 © 2001 Media Life

-Jeff Bercovici is a staff writer for Media Life.

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