SPEAK MAGAZINE MAKES A QUIET EXIT

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One of the ugly unfairnesses of life is that the skills needed to excel in a job are often different from the skills needed to get that job. Every day, success becomes even more about hype and self- promotion than about quality.

The latest proof of this condition shouts from the pages of Speak magazine, a pop culture quarterly out of San Francisco that is breathing its last on the few newsstands where you can find it. The 21st, and final, issue is full of cleverness - of thought, photography, design, and conception - but what it lacked, apparently, was good promotion.

One way for me to know this is that in the five-plus years of its existence, several of which I've spent scouring magazine racks to contribute to this column, I've never heard of it. But even better, several members of its family say so, in a quirky, rambling, oral history that leads the issue.

Founder, editor, and publisher Dan Rolleri is described as "modest and insecure," and he himself says that "I was never satisfied enough with the magazine that I even wanted it to be seen." It's easy to see how that might have resulted in a devotion to excellence bordering on perfectionism, but they are hardly traits that would have helped Speak to be heard.

The oral history is too long, and it takes a while to figure out that it is a postmortem, or even that the magazine has gone under, but it's fun and revealing. So is Jeff Plunkett's report from the Harris Ranch, a vast cattle operation in California that overcomes the overpowering odors of farm life to succeed as an inn as well.

There's so much to like in the issue that it almost makes me want to buy a back-issue set. Luckily, 623 sets are available, according to a two-page color spread near the back. Perhaps if they could promote it just a little bit more, they'd sell out.

Inventing stories

Beyond the realm of Speak, of course, there is an overabundance of overstatement, a fact contributing to two stories in the April Brill's Content.

Mark Boal writes about Dean Kamen, the New Hampshire inventor who has been (a) behind or (b) a victim of one the most notorious hype outbreaks of recent times.

What's so fascinating about this case is that practically none of the hundreds of publications participating in it know what they're hyping (including the Globe, of course, which since Feb. 1 has published a lengthy profile and a Page 1 story). It's a scooter. Or a hovercraft. Or a breakthrough power source.

What can be said with certainty is that it is a source of rampant speculation, and has been since the Web site inside.com raised the subject Jan. 9 after it got wind of a book proposal. Boal reports that the week of the Super Bowl, more Web surfers asked Lycos about Kamen's device than the game.

Inside.com, and its print counterpart, Inside, have been back to the well several times, including what the magazine trumpets as an exclusive in its March 20 issue, and its relentlessness is a motivation of Brill's story. Boal says inside.com had a niche audience among media types but saw in this story a chance "to reach outside its narrow readership."

An almost unavoidable danger in writing about hype is becoming part of it by adding one more story to the pile. But Brill's avoids that by succeeding where so many others have failed: Boal went to the source and got an interview.

Kamen gives him plenty, and it's fresh. He comes off as self- effacing, and someone who feels hurt that good men like Jeff Bezos and Steven Jobs have been wrongfully pulled into the story; they were both quoted extolling the device in the first stories. Kamen says he's called to apologize. Regarding the quarry of all this attention, Kamen says it is nowhere near completion. Whatever it is.

Also in Brill's is a catch-up on Outside magazine's breathless account in November of four climbers who were kidnapped by rebels in Kyrgyzstan; J.D. Heyman covers some of the same ground in the March/ April National Geographic Adventure.

Outside advanced its story, presented as a real-life adventure on the level of Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," with great fanfare, offering prepublication copies to the press to maximize coverage. (And, in this case, it succeeded; I wrote about the story Oct. 4.)

The story climaxes when one of the climbers pushes their captor over a precipice to his death, an incident that lends the story its "moral weight," Kaja Perina writes. Within minutes, it seemed, the story brought a book contract, and a movie deal soon followed.

Those agreements are still in place, even though the story's central moments are in serious question. The Kyrgyzstani rebel, Rafshan Sharipov, has been found to be alive by Nancy Prichard, a writer who couldn't get to the climbers because of the book deal's exclusivity clause.

Also in question is whether they had to escape at all. When the episode unfolded in August, Perina says that three news services reported that the Americans "said they had been abandoned by their captors" (emphasis by Brill's).

Outside returned to the topic in March; Greg Child, who wrote the original story, said, "all four climbers saw Sharipov go over the edge and believed that he could not have survived the fall."

Perina says that Outside editor Hal Espen stands by the original tale, blaming the difficulty of reporting in a remote region, rather than a rush to publish, for the failure to learn of Sharipov's survival. Yes, it's difficult, but Prichard, reporting from Oregon, appears to have shown it was possible.