At a time when magazines are everyone’s whipping boy, Graydon Carter offers evidence to the contrary. It’s not for nothing that he has the distinction of being the only editor to be named AdweekMedia’s editor of the year twice (1997, 2003), while Vanity Fair has been on the Hot List nine times. The Conde Nast monthly is widely regarded as one of the best magazines around. So we asked Carter: What does the future hold for magazines? Here’s his answer.
It’s become fashionable to proclaim that print is dying, as if a medium that has been around for more than five centuries might, like a guest who has overstayed his welcome, suddenly glance about the room, see his hostess nodding off in her chair, and realize it’s time to call it a night. I have my doubts about the all-encompassing scope of the so-called digital revolution, but as the father of five children, I can certainly see what all the fuss is about. Kids have a zillion ways of finding out just about anything they want, when they want, but the smart ones—historically, the magazine subscribers of the future—still read. The reading business is not the same as the search-and-find business, and if you’re in the print version of the latter, on either a daily or a weekly basis, you have reason to be anxious. The rest of us have a fair chance to survive and perhaps even thrive.
As the monks who were put out of business by Gutenberg’s printing press could have told you, technological innovation is nothing new. The telegraph put the Pony Express out of business after just 19 months of operation. There used to be a piano in most middle- and upper-middle-class homes. Once the record player and the radio came into being, the business of making pianos for home entertainment crumbled. E-mail is hurting snail mail. But not every media revolution ends with one combatant lifeless on the ground, blood trickling from his mouth. Television didn’t kill radio. It just changed it.
Television had a similar effect on the movie business. During the three decades after World War I, Hollywood enjoyed an unrivaled hold on the nation’s imagination. In the years after World War II, when affordable television sets threatened to turn every living room in America into a mini movie theater, the studios’ first response was an instinctive one: panic. They forbade actors from appearing on TV, in the vain hope of strangling the upstart medium before it truly took hold. But Hollywood eventually figured out that since TV wasn’t going away it might as well learn how to make money off of it. Stations and networks eager for content were happy to pay for old films that had been left to rot and for new series that could be shot cheaply and quickly on the studio lots. Today, the major studios all have profitable television production arms. But here’s the part I like about this analogy: after trying every gimmick in the book—3-D, Cinerama, even Smell-O-Vision—the studios discovered that the best way to save their core business was to keep making great films, a mission they have had sketchy success at.
Like those moguls who ventured into TV once they realized there was no turning back the clock, we at Vanity Fair have learned to navigate the digital waters with a lively Web site that I like to think of as a younger, more irreverent sibling of the print edition. We post a dozen or more items each day on our main blog, VF Daily, and routinely make news with our original content—everything from an edited and fact-checked version of Sarah Palin’s resignation speech (it almost made sense by the time we’d finished with it) to video of Christopher Hitchens being waterboarded (a lot of Republican traffic for that one).
But don’t expect us to turn into the Huffington Post anytime soon. Americans have taken to inhaling their news in catch-as-catch-can fashion from whatever screens they happen to have at hand: televisions, computers, cell phones, even those little TV sets in elevators. But in this age of constant information availability, it’s important to take a step back every now and then—once a month sounds about right—to immerse ourselves in the stories that define our times. At Vanity Fair, our writers continue to do what they’ve always done, ferreting out everything there is to know about a given subject and then pulling it all together in a gripping, satisfying narrative. A good Vanity Fair story should have at least a couple of the following elements: access, narrative arc, friction and disclosure. A great one has at least three and a truly great one has all four. Additionally, our stable of world-class photographers continue to find creative, visually arresting ways to reveal truths about our subjects in images that will stand up to any thousand words you throw at them.
The fact is that people still want great, well-told tales. We see it on vanityfair.com, where our longer articles routinely top the Most Popular list. We see it in the fact that our print circulation (both newsstand and subscriptions) is emphatically up at a time when everyone tells us it is supposed to be down.
Commercial television is six-and-a-half decades old, the magazine is nearly 300 years old, and the printing press is five-and-a-half centuries old. But the art of storytelling is millennia older than all three. So if print journalism’s business model is changing, our only move as editors is to double down on delivering what our readers have always wanted from us: compelling stories and iconic photographs. And it won’t matter if they’re read on a laptop, a cell phone, or on paper.
You could argue that the magazine is as brilliant an invention as anything Apple will come up with. We take glorious stories, combine them with arresting photography, illustration and design, along with stunning advertising images, and bundle the whole thing into a package that is inexpensive, easy to use and available almost anywhere. (We’ll even deliver it to your door.) It can be passed on afterward or recycled. And you don’t need instructions or batteries.
Photo credits: Nigel Parry