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Condé Nast has declared war on us!" At least that was the word last week from an insider at Tina Brown's new magazine, Talk, which is scheduled to debut in August. Brown's editors have spent the winter scouring Condé Nast magazines, The New York Times and beyond for talent, raising hackles everywhere they go. But this week, now that Brown has announced her staff writers, the question is whether the sniping will get louder or just taper off.
And sniping is not too strong a word. One freelance writer who would like to write for Brown recalls that his New Yorker editor "asked me if I intended to write for that magazine. He couldn't get the word Talk out."
Meanwhile, over at Condé Nast headquarters, some freelancers have picked up a subtle message from editors: if you do an assignment for Talk, don't expect to stay on our good side. The idea that a Condé Nast editor like Graydon Carter would deliver an ultimatum against Brown strikes some as a fantasy, but then again, says one Condé Nast insider, it's the kind of thing that actually "could have been said in a moment of fierce competitive spirit." Another Condé Nast source calls the practice of defending freelancers "business as usual."
"There's no sense of panic," says the first Condé Nast source, "but there's certainly an awareness that [Brown] is gearing up and that some attention has to be paid."
Just how much attention is yet to be seen: Brown's hires, while respectable, lack flash. They are occasional New Yorker contributors Lucinda Franks (legal) and Dr. Abraham Verghese (medicine), Science's Jon Cohen (science), Slate's James Surowiecki (business), The Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson (politics), the Times's Constance C.R. White (fashion), and British TV critic Ian Tucker.
Si Newhouse will no doubt be pleased that not one of his stars has flown the coop to the new venture, which is jointly owned by Hearst Publications and Disney's Miramax. Indeed, the threat to Condé Nast reached a head in February, when Brown tried to hire Vanity Fair photographer Harry Benson. In response, the editors of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and GQ put together a six-figure, two-year deal to keep Benson, as reported in the New York Post.
When it comes to spurned offers, Benson is just the tip of the iceberg. Sources say that Brown and Talk executive editor David Kuhn have "approached everyone," including a number of New Yorker and Vanity Fair writers who were happy to stay where they were. Two Timeswriters, Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeffrey Goldberg, who were courted for staff jobs, both said no. For the first time, Brown seems to have known she was making an offer that might be refused.
In anticipation of rejection, Brown and company were hedging their bets. "Some of her approaches were done in oblique ways," says a Condé Nast insider, "so if she got turned down, she could take the position that she wasn't [turned down]."
One writer who didn't bite says the Talkapproach was not, "We want to hire you," but "If we offer you something, would you come?"
A Condé Nast writer whom Brown approached with a one-time assignment became nervous after several discussions. "She said she had a great idea for me, but she never said how much she would pay."
The most frequent reasons cited for declining a Talk offer are that Brown was not offering enough money, and that she wanted to own part of the rights. A Talk source denies that rights have ever been a dealbreaker, because every writer can negotiate a tailor-made contract.
Carping aside, Brown and her editors have made progress with freelance writers in recent months, assigning pieces to former Spin editor Michael Hirschorn, author Gerald Posner, and Tony Schwartz, who cowrote the biography of Disney chief Michael Eisner.
"I couldn't be happier to be writing for the magazine," says Schwartz. Other writers said to be waiting for an opportune moment to write for Talk include New Yorker contributors Fredric Dannen, Edward Jay Epstein, and Lawrence Wright.
The contents of Brown's magazine will be not unlike that of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, including features, celebrity profiles, and first-person pieces. Former Legal Times editor Tom Watson is in charge of investigative reporting, while former New York Observer editor Lisa Chase has the delicate task of assembling essays on sex.
But detractors are not impressed with specific story ideas they've heard so far. Gerald Posner is said to be writing a story on Princess Di, while editors are pursuing a story on Formula One racing. (A Formula One story ran in the Wall Street Journal in December.) And the sex essays may not be that much different from those of say, Candace Bushnell: one writer was asked to write a column about how being married to another writer had affected his sex life.
Miramax publicist Andrew Stengel declined to comment on specific writers or assignments, while issuing the following statement: "Those who say do not know, and those who know do not say."
Meanwhile, many writers who have worked with Brown continue to keep the faith. "If you're going to put money on a horse," said one, "I would put it on Tina's horse."
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