Brown calls relaunch 'wonderfully disconcerting'

NEW YORK — “It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” said newly installed Talk magazine editorial director Robert Wallace of the redesigned magazine’s February issue, which hits newsstands this week.

Gone are the three-picture cover, the crowded, text-heavy page design, and an unfocused layout strategy that paired short profiles with long features. Now, there’s one large cover photo of Leonardo DiCaprio (thank you, Harvey Weinstein), an easier-on-the-eye page design balancing photos and text, and a better organized book.

Call that evolution. But wait, the changes on the masthead are even more dramatic. Roughly a third of the staff that put together the glossy magazine’s premiere issue last August is gone, citing creative differences with editor in chief Tina Brown and mental fatigue from closing nights that one current staffer calls “slightly more stressful then your average air raid.”

Brown calls the magazine’s launch “wonderfully disconcerting” in her February editor’s letter. “Fallout from that experience is perfectly natural,” she adds. “It is all part of the process. We are very indebted to all those who took the ride.”

Now Brown hopes Wallace, the former top editor of St. Martin’s Press, will stem the exodus.

“Tina hired me to make the production process run more smoothly,” said Wallace, who took the Talk job less then 24 hours after resigning from St. Martin’s to protest publication of J.H. Hatfield’s unauthorized biography of George W. Bush, “Fortunate Son,” after Hatfield turned out to have a past conviction.

“The deadlines here had been truly chaotic, and while I did not find that morale was low, I did find that people here really wanted more leadership,” Wallace said.

Restaffing

For Wallace, who spent his 15 years at Wenner Media before moving to St. Martin’s, the first goal was staffing up again. Last week, he and Brown poached longtime Vogue editor Charles Grandee to serve as features editor and unofficial architectural adviser for their new Chelsea office space. And they brought in Vibe’s Sarah Min as managing editor.

Overseeing the redesign is a new creative director, Oliviero Toscani, the brains behind the Colors From Benetton inset that comes packaged with the February Talk. Toscani effectively replaces art director Leslie Vinson, the architect of Talk’s much-maligned European tabloid look, who resigned two weeks ago.

The word is good so far on Toscani’s redesigned Talk. “At least I can read it now,” a Conde Nast editor said. “Layoutwise, the first issues were about as dense as a car owner’s manual.”

The Oprah factor

Now comes a renewed focus on content. After catching lightning in a bottle with Linda Frank’s profile on Hillary Rodham Clinton in the maiden issue, Talk’s subsequent cover stories on Elizabeth Taylor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robin Williams generated little buzz, and industry players are looking elsewhere.

“Right now everyone is excited about Hearst’s Oprah Winfrey startup, which will launch in the spring,” said McCann Erickson media consultant Roberta Garfinkle. “There hasn’t been a lot of talk about Talk.”

Wallace hopes that in the February issue Franks will work her magic again with an expose of sex among 12-year-olds. Aaron Latham’s DiCaprio profile focuses on the star’s relationship with his father, while politics is covered in Hanna Rosin’s profile of Al Gore’s daughter Karenna — and in a photo of Donald Trump’s girlfriend lying half naked on the floor of the Oval Office. (Trump has already broken it off with the 25-year-old Slovenian model.)

“Putting out a good magazine is a balancing act,” Wallace said. “I found when I got here that the balance was uneven, but getting better. It is always easier to do short, photo-driven pieces. But now we are concentrating on building a well of long-reported pieces, pieces that people will really talk about.”

Miramax musings

Will all of the changes be enough to silence Talk’s critics? Probably not. As with previous issues, February features a number of Miramax-related articles — including an Erica Jong interview with “Holy Smoke” helmer Jane Campion and a travel piece based around “The Talented Mr. Ripley”– that will continue to raise questions about whether the mini-major has undue influence on the magazine that it is financing. (Weinstein has said he kept his hands off Talk and that the numerous editorial changes there were as much a surprise to him as to anyone else.)

For now, Wallace isn’t too concerned. As anyone who remembers the relaunch of Vanity Fair knows, magazine startups often take months to find their look. Moreover, they take years to turn a profit.

“I have been around too long to be concerned with the media writing our obituary,” Wallace said. “Our financial outlook is excellent, and we have a solid plan editorially, which is to provide real estate for quality writing.”

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