“If the Reader Comes Back, You’ve Got a Business”

Graydon Carter’s parting words.

From Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s last Editor’s Letter in the February 2018 issue.

All good things—certainly in my case this month—eventually come to an end. This is my final issue of Vanity Fair. I won’t bore you with the details of my complex emotions right now, but I will say that being the editor of Vanity Fair may well be one of the most extraordinary professional experiences there is. I will have been here for more than a quarter of a century, which, in magazine years, is more than a few eternities. It’s 9,200 days of covering presidential terms (eight of them) and countless terrorist episodes, foreign wars, financial meltdowns, weather disasters, and societal upheavals.

What have I left out? Oh yes, Washington scandals, Wall Street scandals, Hollywood scandals, Silicon Valley scandals, Westminster scandals, and Kremlin scandals. Plus Deep Throat and Caitlyn Jenner. I could go on. (On a more personal level, Vanity Fair paid considerably better than my previous jobs, the result being that I had the wherewithal to afford to have more children, and was blessed with the addition of two daughters to the brood of three sons I had coming into the job.)  . . .

Magazines—certainly ones like Vanity Fair—are expensive propositions, and we endeavored to give Si (and you) value for his money (and yours). With the bounty provided, we produced hundreds upon hundreds of big, muscular stories on politics, international affairs, business, and the environment, ripping disaster yarns, as well as tales of great characters with outsize visions and epic lives. I believe that the best magazine articles have at least two—and better if three—elements to them: access, narrative, and disclosure. That is: on-the-ground reporting; a story arc with a beginning, middle, and end; and revelations that move the scholarship forward. A great magazine article must also always have at its core a measure of conflict. We never did studies as to what our readers wanted. My simple philosophy was that, if we found something we were interested in, you might be interested in it as well. . . .

I have no real management expertise or vision other than that I want to produce quality journalism and I don’t want to bore the reader. I do believe that great magazines, if they are to last over time, are created with a consistency in staff. If you are a student of mastheads—as I was, growing up—you will notice an astonishing consistency in ours. Indeed, the names atop the Vanity Fair masthead are not appreciably different from those a quarter of a century ago. Close staffs that have worked together for a long time develop a creative shorthand that just makes the enterprise a whole lot better—and a whole lot more enjoyable. My feeling is, if you’re not having a great time in journalism, get out of it. You’re certainly not in it for the money. Also, I’m a big believer in hiring young and then training and promoting, as opposed to always bringing in outsiders to fill the top spots. I like working with people I can trust and who have been through the same wars. I always say that about 75 percent of the time an editor knows pretty much what to do. As for that other 25 percent, a wise one will surround himself with smart, experienced colleagues who can help steer him toward the best possible decision. And it’s that final 25 percent that makes the difference between success and failure. . . .

I have a large planning wall in my office with categories running down the left side (“World Affairs,” “Literary,” “Business,” “Scandal,” and so on) and, along the top, column headings for the next six months of issues to fill. Stories that don’t run for a year are generally taken off the board. With one notable exception. In the last issue, there was a story about Oskar Speck, a 25-year-old German who escaped his country in 1932 as the Nazis were coming to power and, without much in the way of money or a plan, set off in a foldable kayak, on a journey that took him halfway around the world for more than seven years. It was written by William Prochnau and Laura Parker. We all loved it when it came in. But for one reason or another it just never ran. Month in and month out, it moved its weary way along the planning board. The story had no news value to speak of, but it was a terrific tale and told perfectly. Bill was 64 when he wrote the story. He was 80 when we finally ran it. That’s what we call playing a long game. . . .

It’s no secret that much has changed in the magazine business over the past quarter of a century. The exponential growth of the Internet and all its capabilities, together with the 2008 financial crisis, dealt a near deathblow to magazines. The weeklies were hit hardest, but even the monthlies have begun to wobble. Journalism isn’t going away, but the means of paying for it have changed and will continue to change. Great journalism doesn’t come cheap, and increasingly, if slowly, readers appear to be willing to step up and pay for it—through apps, subscriptions, paywalls, and whatever else someone is inventing right now.

Magazines have certainly been hurt by the downturn in advertising pages. But it’s not just that. Newsstand circulation, once a measure of a magazine’s vitality, has all but vanished. Remember the days when you got on a transcontinental flight and the passengers boarded with a bundle of magazines they had picked up at the airport newsstand? You don’t see much of that anymore. There used to be a newsstand on every major street corner in New York and in the lobbies of most office buildings. They’re pretty much all gone now. The ones that survive sell lotto tickets and gum. I passed by a newsstand in Los Angeles that had once stocked out-of-town magazines and papers. It now sells flip-flops and tanning lotion. The building downtown where Condé Nast is the major tenant is one of the largest office towers in the country. The lobby doesn’t have a newsstand. I suspect it’s because nobody thought to ask for one.

The culture has certainly coarsened over these past 25 years—and that hasn’t helped magazines like Vanity Fair. Tabloid culture has become the culture. The coarseness and vulgarity in our society happened gradually—and then, during the presidential campaign, all at once, like bankruptcy. Short of an Oval Office sex tape—I shudder at the thought—it’s hard to see how things can devolve any further than they already have.

I envision a magazine as a pyramid. Along the bottom are the photographers and writers who head out into the world and bring in the goods—the stories and the pictures. Then editors and art directors, fact-checkers and copy editors and production staff, turn copy and images into magazine pages. Our advertisers—our silent partners—help fund the effort and dress up the magazine with their very expensive spreads. At the top of the pyramid is a single reader. If we can make that one person feel that the cover price and the time spent with the magazine are worth it, she or he will come back the next month. If the reader does come back, you’ve got a business.

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