The Media Equation
10 Years Ago, an Omen No One Saw
By DAVID CARR | The New York Times
Ten years ago Sunday, on an island off an island off the coast of America, something impossibly glamorous took place. Partygoers took boats from Manhattan to the home of the Statue of Liberty to plop pashalike on pillows and blankets and munch on lamb chops while Macy Gray sang, their faces illuminated with multicolored Chinese lanterns and fireworks curated and narrated by George Plimpton.
“That was a silver-flanged fleur-de-lis,” said the voice, highly recognizable but disembodied by darkness.
This was the Talk magazine launch party on Aug. 2, 1999 — simply called The Party at the time — and it seemed as if a new era of media fabulousness had been christened. The Hearst Corporation and Miramax, owned by Disney, decided to finance a new general interest magazine led by Tina Brown, fresh off her triumphs at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, that would lead the national conversation.
It was all kicked off with the kind of lavish party that would seem unthinkable in the current context.
Sponsored liquor flowed, women teetered about on heels in deep grass, and the A-list guest list — Mr. Kissinger, please meet Miss um Ms. uh meet Madonna — was a testament to the power of the synergized word. Content was king and Ms. Brown was its queen.
“Now you’re not exactly the tired masses, the huddled masses, but then again, I’m an immigrant who toiled here on the Concorde,” she said to the crowd after being introduced by Queen Latifah. “But I just want to say, here’s to Lady Liberty tonight.”
Too bad nobody saw the sharks circling in the harbor. Rather than the culmination of a century of press power, the Talk party was the end of an era, a literal fin de siècle. Flush with cash from the go-go ’90s and engorged by spending from the dot-com era, mainstream media companies seemed poised on the brink of something extraordinary. But that brink ended up being a cliff.
“It seems like that happened in the 18th century,” said Ms. Brown by phone last Friday.
Magazines are on pace to book little more than half of the advertising pages that the industry did 10 years ago, and dozens of longtime titles have disappeared. The last big magazine introduction — Portfolio at Condé Nast Publications — flamed out this spring after two years at a cost of more than $80 million. Now even Condé Nast Publications, the world headquarters of printed luxury, has brought in the bean counters from McKinsey with an eye toward further cuts. There may never be another large magazine launch ever, and certainly not one that was accompanied by the fanfare of Talk.
I’m still ashamed to admit that I wasn’t one of the lucky 1,000 people invited to the party — old prerogatives die hard — so I was trapped on shore, covering it secondhand with a nose pressed up against the glass. But it is worth thinking about how this future, or lack of one, arrived so unforeseen.
Ten years ago, journalists, long the salarymen of the publishing economy, began gorging on big contracts and options from digital start-ups like shrimp at a free buffet. With coveted writers commanding $5 for every typed word into magazines that were stuffed to the brim with advertising, there was a fizziness, some would say recklessness, in the air. The industry was drunk on its own prerogatives, working a party that seemed as if it would never end.
Peter Kaplan, the former editor of The New York Observer, attended the party and oversaw coverage of the event.
“Tina, for all the excellence of her antenna, was scratching the air, and like many of us, was unable to pull in the new signal,” he said. “She failed to see that it was probably already over and that there was something slightly hollow about that event.”
Most of us who covered media did not fully understand the implications of the new technology that could publish and distribute information at zero marginal cost. The Web was viewed as a niche, as a way to supplement and enhance the printed product, certainly not a threat that would make many of those publications obsolete.
“Most of the talk at the Talk party was about the party itself,” said Kurt Andersen, a novelist, radio host and founder of Spy magazine. “It was weird and interesting because you were sort of wandering around in the dark out there and bumping into people. There was a meta quality to the thing, a self-consciousness, that in retrospect was probably telling.”
At least Ms. Brown did not compose a rap ode to the new magazine. That fell to Mr. Big, Ron Galotti, the former Condé Nast publisher who managed to get a flock of advertisers to buy the hype and commit to the first four issues of a magazine they had never seen. After Talk closed, Mr. Big quit Manhattan media and moved to a farm in Vermont. Maybe he knew something we didn’t. (He did not return a call.)
“It was the end of something extraordinary, but none of us knew it at the time,” Ms. Brown says now. “What followed was a very turbulent odyssey, not just for me, but for all of us. There has been a volcanic realignment that none of us foresaw.”
After Talk closed early in 2002, Ms. Brown hosted a television show on CNBC and wrote a book about Princess Diana. Demonstrating a nimbleness that has characterized her entire career, she is now running The Daily Beast, a scrappy but promising digital media site owned by Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp.
She pays her writers, increasingly an exception these days, but there are no huge contracts or boat rides to sylvan lawns full of impossibly famous people. The Daily Beast has 1.5 million unique visitors a month, according to Quantcast, and has kicked up some notice, but its opening party of a hundred or so took place at the very much land-locked Pop Burger on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. There was no Sarah Jessica Parker, no Robert De Niro and no Hugh Grant in attendance. There were a lot of bloggers instead.
Modern media success is enabled by brutal cost control and using hard, fast numbers to convince advertisers they will get a return for their spending. Once stalwart magazines like BusinessWeek are up for grabs and entire formerly lucrative categories have been wiped out. The magazine canard of associative glamour, of selling aspiration by the bucket-load with page after page of pricy merchandise, is all but dead but for a few exceptions.
Ms. Brown once wrote the book “Life as a Party” and on that night, it was.
“I was aware it was a historic night,” Ms. Brown said. “We were on a boat and I was with Natasha Richardson. We were talking and laughing, looking at the lights of the twin towers. And then a big wave came over the side of the boat and soaked us both. Now Natasha is gone, the towers are gone. It’s very, very sad, but I am very excited by this new world we are heading into.”