Serious journalism in Vanity Fair


Carr ♥ Graydon Carter. Carter has just poached Cullen Murphy and

William Langewiesche from the Atlantic; they’re only the latest in a long list

of big-name journalists at Vanity Fair, from Christopher Hitchens to Todd Purdum.

Gushes Carr:

Beneath Vanity Fair’s louche exterior lies the beating heart of a well-financed,

well-edited enterprise that has managed to break news as a monthly at a time

when the news cycle is frequently measured in minutes.

Wonderful amalgam or cognitive dissonance? However you view the current cultural

conversation, some of the blame can be traced to Vanity Fair. We are either

a vacuous people who can occasionally be seduced by a big narrative about

the Asian flu or we are a serious people who occasionally need to read about

what Gwyneth really thinks. Either way, Mr. Carter is editing a magazine for

both sides of the brain.

What Carr doesn’t mention is that VF is actually a very bad home for serious

journalism. Carter can run 20,000-word articles on the run-up to the Iraq war

all he likes, but serious journalists will never dream of having their work

published by Vanity Fair in the way they dream of being published by the New

Yorker. Instead, their dream is much more prosaic: simply being paid

by Vanity Fair, with its legendary budgets and expense accounts and contracts.

Carr hints at this:

[Carter’s] magazine, the top earner at Condé Nast, spends like a pirate,

madly assigning and killing stories and buying up contracts of every writer

it fancies — an impunity that seems quite retro in a threadbare age.

In other words, Carter behaves a bit like the artist Francis Bacon, who used

first-growth Bordeaux as cooking wines. The long pieces of journalism in Vanity

Fair might pay very well indeed, but they’re still a lot cheaper than the cost

of commissioning a photographic portfolio of minor European royals. And they

never get any respect within the magazine.

While the New Yorker or the Atlantic will lead with a long, well-reported story,

Vanity Fair always leads with celebrity fluff. More to the point, VF has never

bothered to work out how to make long-form journalism readable. The New Yorker

is much smaller and lighter than VF; that makes it physically much easier to

hold and to read. And long stories in the New Yorker never do what long stories

in Vanity Fair always do, which is jump all around the magazine. A story will

be "continued on page 227"; once you’ve found page 227, which isn’t

always easy, because most of the pages don’t have numbers on them, it might

have two or three different stories on it, making it that much harder to work

out which one you’re in the middle of. By the time you’ve managed that, you’re

pretty much guaranteed to have lost the train of thought leading up to the sentence

you’re putatively in the middle of. And this can be repeated 8 or 9 times or

even more: jumping around reading one column on one page and then the next column

on a page 20 pages further back.

Vanity Fair also refuses to put any of its journalism online, where it can

be read by news consumers around the world.

In other words, Vanity Fair doesn’t seem to care about the readers

of the long-form journalism for which it pays so handsomely. It cares about

the writers, whom it looks after very well. And it cares about the prestige

they bring. But my impression of Vanity Fair is not that it’s a magazine which

wants to serve me with great journalism, so much as that it’s a magazine with

so much money it can run great journalism just by throwing its checkbook around.

When VF starts discovering promising new voices and giving them space, when

it runs fascinating articles about non-important subjects that you never thought

you might be interested in, when it stops introducing every article by telling

us how important and wonderful it is – then I’ll start taking

it seriously as a journalistic enterprise.

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