Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Keep Talking

Beyond the confessions of the First Lady, Tina Brown's new venture shows promise.

By Jim Hanas

AUGUST 16, 1999:  When Bill Clinton finally leaves office in 2001, how on Earth will people launch magazines? This time last year, Brill's Content debuted with around-the-clock press attention, drawn by its controversial cover expose on the media-manipulating tactics of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. This year's model is Talk, a collaboration of former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, Miramax Films, and Hearst Publications, which is getting off to a running start, spurred by a juicy conversation with Hillary Clinton that's got pundits chattering and issues flying off the racks to the tune of 1.3 million copies.

He couldn't help it, Hillary explains with regard to her husband's unseemly habits, a claim that has been lambasted as an indirect, no-fault apologia on the president's behalf. More accurately, the piece is a political whitewash aimed at clearing the air for Ms. Clinton's run for the U.S. Senate, and, well, selling lots and lots of magazines.

But behind the calculated brouhaha, there is a magazine worth reading, the resurrection of a dying breed, really: the general-interest magazine. Aside from Vanity Fair and the rarefied New Yorker, the magazine industry has resorted to increasing degrees of niche-digging in order to cater to advertisers, as mags with no discernible product-placement hook -- the late, great Spy magazine being a good example -- have vanished.

Talk appears to be splitting the difference by balancing pandering with prestige. On one hand, it features ample clothes-horsing and celebrity worship, while on the other, it includes a memoir by playwright Tom Stoppard, a review of Hannibal by Martin Amis, and several long features you'd be surprised to find outside of trust-supported loss-leaders like Harper's. One writer returns to a trailer park he lived in 10 years ago. Another reports on a string of grisly murders in a Mexican border town.

There's some good writing here, if you can find it. The 256-page premiere issue is jam-packed and the layout is a mess. "The Conversation," a section of up-front shorts, is a labyrinth of jumps, a precarious medley of profiles, opinions, and entertainments that seem assembled at random. This may be part and parcel of Talk's slumming, Euro-tabloid appearance, but it's not likely to play well without hype to alleviate the pain.

That will be the test. Brill's Content has been slumping ever since its controversial debut a year ago. The same could happen to Talk in the coming months, or worse, it could dispense with writing altogether and give in to the dark side, represented in issue one by Gwyneth Paltrow in bondage gear.

As Tina Brown observes in her editor's note: "A magazine explains itself over the blur of its lifetime."

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