Graydon Carter Thinks We’ll Fail (but is still a lovely man)

September 3rd, 2003 by Larry Smith

Notes on a meeting with the inimitable editor of Vanity Fair.

SMITH contributing editor Riza Cruz (of which Graydon said “She’s the Man”) used to work at Vanity Fair, and being the woman of the year that she is, set up a meeting for us. Graydon wore almost red pants and what I believe was a fanciful plaid short-sleeved button down shirt. He was just back from Brazil or some such place and soon rushing off to Princeton with a Lizzy McGuire DVD in the car, though he told the person on the phone that he would be fine to “just do nothing in the car.” I wore green Armani suit pants and what I contend was an olive shirt. Piper asked me why I never wear undershirts. I told her I associated them with dotcom guys for some reason, but that I hoped I didn�t look dumb or worse, sweaty, without them. She assured me I did not. Riza wore a blue dress with the stitching sort of on the outside, which was at once confounding and elegant.
The VF office is on the 22nd floor of the Conde Naste building. Graydon’s office is in the corner and, I learned, was designed by the same guy who designed his house in the West Village. Elegant, a bit sparse. He can, of course, smoke in his office (unlike everyone else in New York City). He offered us water but not a cigarette, which was kind of disappointing (especially for Riza, who smokes). The office is large with lots of nice wood, bound copies of VF lined up immaculately, and many chairs which pull up to his big desk like bar stools. He’s got the required classic manual typewriter in the office, and uses an Apple Laptop, probably a G4.

I thanked him for once writing me a note back after I had sent him a note with Yahoo Internet Life’s 9.11 issue (I heard he liked YIL) and that he had the nicest stationary I had ever seen. He said it�s from England, I told him mine�s from Brooklyn, which he thought, probably worked out well. (It does).

He quickly wanted to know “How did you get Robert Priest?” (When I called Robert to tell him about the meeting, the first thing Robert said was, “How did you get to Graydon Carter.” I told Robert Graydon said the same thing about him, to which Robert said, “How did you get Robert Priest?”)

Graydon opened things up by asking about the mission, he thumbed through the business plan, he said, “The design is terrific. The concept is very good. I think you will fail.” He loved the logo. He looked at the competition constellation and said, “Ah, I see you have us [Vanity Fair] on the same line as Radar?”). He later referred to Radar as “that magazine done by that guy downtown.” He liked the name. He mentioned WigWag magazine, which Terry McDonell also mentioned. Need to find old issues of WW.

He said the reason to exist/mission needs to be clearer. “Spy’s was ‘afflict the comfortable.’ ” He liked “Everyone has a story” but said that slogan needs to be under every SMITH logo throughout our materials. “The only thing a magazine has to be to work is necessary.” He felt the magazine also needed a stronger point of view.

Then he seemed to feel bad. But, he explained, “If you raise enough money to do this very very cheaply, you might get a year’s worth of issues (4), and you’ll have a great (and sometimes miserable) time, and then you’ll do something else. I have had a lot of magazine failures.”

“Why,” he wanted to know as he lit another cigarette and warmly greeted a former intern and now editor at Cargo who strolled in, “don’t you launch this on the Web. I don’t know a single editor who wouldn’t launch on the Web if they were starting up right now. We would have launched Spy online if we could have.”

“Because,” I countered, “blah blah blah print print print.”

“You just want to have a magazine, which is understandable, but that’s like saying people generations before us saying, ‘We want to keep writing on tablets when Gutenberg had invented the printing press.’ ”

The Web is understandable for a guy who already has a print magazine, sure. Still, as he mentioned, most of what we have would translate well online. He didn’t realize there would be at least one large piece of narrative nonfiction per issue, I think, because I don�t show more than four pages for any piece in the prototype.

He asked if I had talked to people at The Believer, to print like they print (high end and with a cult following), which I told him I had, though I asked Graydon how I would pay writers with this model. His suggestion was a point system where a writer gets a certain amount of points per word and if we ever make money they trade in the points for cash (Terry M did a similar thing with stock options when he launched Smart; it all seems a bit silly, but who knows?).

He said, he could see where there is a definite reader. A guy around 30, a little green (in like three senses of that word), a little left of center, sitting at a Starbucks around 11am, thinking about his job, what music he wants to buy, glancing at the Times, pondering Wesley Clark. Sounds like The Starbucks Loser to me, but he’s not far off … and he meant well.

Anyway, after about 50 minutes (which I’ve now written about the meeting for nearly as long as the actual meeting) Graydon Carter had to get in his private car, with or without a Lizzy McGuire DVD, and go to Princeton. I privately worried about him leaving midtown at rush hour (as I would worry about anyone) and publicly thanked him for his time. He shook my hand and said “My pleasure, now I can tell people at a cocktail party that I met the editor of SMITH magazine.” I like that guy.

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