Just because Graydon Carter bid adieu to the world of corporate publishing doesn’t mean that he’s finished with journalism. After relishing (nearly) a year in Provence, Carter is in full start-up mode with Air Mail, his digital weekly newsletter, which he promises will “unfold like the better weekend editions of your favorite newspapers.” Over afternoon tea at the perennially chic Waverly Inn, the jovial publishing icon reminds us why the world will be watching whatever he does next.
Shall we do this in French or English?
Let’s start with France. Where exactly were you?
A small town called Opio, in the southern tip of Provence. It’s about 20 minutes from Antibes, 30 minutes from Nice, and 30 minutes from Cannes. We’d planned it for a good while. My last day at Vanity Fair was December 13th, and on the 15th, we were on the plane. It was one of the best years of my life. We had a magnificent Christmas — my children all came with their wives, and my wife’s father was there.… And on New Year’s, we stood on one of the terraces in the house, and we could see the fireworks of Mougins, Cannes, Antibes, and Nice.… It was quite magnificent.
Your routine there must have been quite different…
It was very welcome, and I didn’t miss anything, other than the people from Vanity Fair. It was a relief not to have any real responsibilities, so I had time to read and think. I got about 2,000 letters when I left, and I replied to everybody. That took a while, and then I spent two months doing basically nothing — reading and going to the market town every day, drawing…
What were you reading?
A lot of novels set in France — Maigret mysteries, Henry James, Edith Wharton, some Dickens. And all the political books that came out of Washington at the time, and a lot of papers. That would take until 11 o’clock [a.m.] every day.
And after that?
Well, I look like hell, but I have a strong core — I did Pilates twice a week. I quit smoking. And for the past two years, I used to take an Inderal [beta blocker] every day. I stopped doing that.
Back up—you might be one of the few people to move to France and quit smoking upon arrival.
They do make it look awfully good, and you eat outside three – quarters of the year.… I struggled through that. But lots of friends came to visit, and we’d go to Antibes or Nice for lunch. It was pretty wonderful.
So why on earth did you come back?
Well, I always say that you don’t come to New York for the ease of life here — you come because of family and friends. I have five children, two of whom live here, and one of my daughters is in Los Angeles. She came to visit us [in Opio] twice, but I wanted to be closer to her, and I wanted to get back and do something and see all my friends and family.
I was in Paris right after the ’16 Presidential election, and the French were so sympathetic. At restaurants, strangers would approach me and say, “How awful! The shame!”
[Laughs] Yes, quel dommage. Actually, [Donald Trump’s] name never came up the whole time we were there. It was avoiding the elephant in the room, literally. In that part of the world, they don’t talk politics the way they do in the North [of France]. They’re calmer, happier than they are in the North. They’re nicer toward North Americans doing their best to speak restaurant French.
Has your French markedly improved?
Yeah, it has. I can order without anyone peeing in my soup. Well, I’m hoping that’s the case.
Moving on to Air Mail. What inspired this project?
Well, I read the international papers every day, and for 30 years, I’ve been clipping articles and sending them to friends. I wanted to do something that I could run off a laptop, something that I would read, and something that was not read on the news, because I don’t want to be on a daily anything. Alessandra [Stanley] and I had worked together at Time in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and she was the first person I called. I knew she’d worked in Rome and Moscow, so she had an international view and was very sophisticated. I didn’t realize she speaks five languages! We’ve always gotten along, and she was interested right off the bat. She and I pulled together a dummy, just to see what it would look like, and an art director, Angela Panichi, who’d been working off and on for me for 15 years, designed it. I’d send her sketches, and she’d make them better. Air Mail is designed differently than most news things you’ll get on your phone. It has beautiful, magazine-quality design.
I know you’re still hiring staff, but who’s working with you and Alessandra on this?
Bill Keenan is our chief operating officer, and Emily Davis is our chief marketing officer. There are a number of former Vanity Fair colleagues on board, including Chris Garrett, Beth Kseniak, and Julia Vitale. I have an office down the street, but we needed larger office space, as we’re also bringing in a photo editor, a copy editor, fact checkers, and assistants. Nathan King, who was my assistant, is now our deputy editor. Laura Jacobs, whom I used to work with at Vanity Fair, is the arts editor; she’s overseeing our Arts Intel Report, or AIR for short.
What’s that about?
When I was in Europe, there was no central hub to find out what was going on in the artistic community. I was introduced to this incredible engineer, John Tornow, who lives in Dallas, and he built a platform for us — it’s a matrix. Let’s say you’re going to Berlin in June and you love opera — it’ll tell you all the opera performances that are happening in Berlin during the time you’ll be there.
In terms of the business model — it’ll be a subscription fee, plus one weekly luxury advertiser sponsorship?
Yes, one sponsor per week, and they get three or four placements. There’s no programmatic advertising. We’re going to leave that money on the table, because I don’t like seeing an ad from Geico run across the screen when I’m trying to finish an article. It’s one sponsor per Air Mail per week, and there will be a subscription fee—we haven’t zeroed in on the exact amount. It will not be high, but it will be something.
It’s pretty encouraging that subscription models tend to be working.
I think it’s easier for something new to charge than a legacy brand, because if you’ve been giving it away for free, it’s hard to get people to pay for it. Whereas, if that’s the deal right up-front…obviously there’ll be people who won’t want to pay. We’re bringing in social media experts and all the rest to help us find our way.
And any focus groups?
No focus groups, no data mining, no algorithms. I mean, look at me. Do you think I would know what an algorithm is? No. Alessandra and I are very much pure and old-fashioned; we’re providing something and hoping people will like it.
Is print dying, or is it already dead?
First of all, this is an extraordinary time if you’re in journalism. There’s more great journalism being done now than in any time in my adult lifetime. The Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC — they’re extraordinary, and better than ever. The print part is hard; it’s a rough, big, expensive business. It will eventually probably drop off. Having a printed thing will be like having a monocle. It’ll seem studiously old-fashioned in 10 years, because of the ease of getting [digital products] out there.
What’s your schedule like these days?
Unfortunately, it’s a lot like Trump’s. I monkey around in the morning, and I don’t do a lot before 11 a.m. I was reading his schedule on Axios, and I thought, “Goddamit, this is really similar.” Except for the tanning part, whatever that is. But I go into the office, spend three hours there, and have lunch with a friend, usually. And I work every night after we’ve been out for dinner.
You’re a night person?
No, no. Unfortunately, I’m not a morning person, either. I’m a little bit of a late-morning person and a little bit of a late-afternoon person. I’d be usually having a nap around now — I like a 10-minute nap almost every day.
There were rumors that you were interested in buying Vanity Fair. Did that ever cross your mind?
No. At one point, I think we talked to [Condé Nast CEO] Bob Sauerberg about possibly buying Vanity Fair, but they didn’t want to sell anything. They want to hold on to the big magazines.
We loved your exit strategy. Pretty bold!
Beth [Kseniak, former executive director of communications at Vanity Fair] and I did it together. There were a bunch of people at the office involved. I just thought, you know, the Newhouses treated me so well for so long, but I wanted to go out on my own terms. I had dinner with Steve Newhouse the night I announced I was leaving.
So many of us in media have had our spirits crushed at some point.
Oh, we all have.
It seems like yours is still remarkably intact.
No, I’ve been crushed. I had a magazine in Canada that folded… Life is all about a million little failures. You just try to not let them cripple you. I also tell my kids, “The adventure is the journey. The arrival is the relief.” You almost never learn from success. You only learn from failures, and you do your best to make those failures small — and if you can, private.
Any plans to delve into Hollywood?
We have a deal with HBO. The first three Air Mail documentaries we’re co-producing are Alex Gibney’s documentary on Theranos [The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley], which comes out at the end of this month, one I co-produced with Susan Lacy on Ralph Lauren that comes out in May, and another one, about an aspect of the Internet, will come out next spring.
Tina Brown wrote a memoir about her tenure at Vanity Fair.
Oh, did she?
[Laughs] And you’ve written the first chapter of yours.
I had lunch in London with James Fox, who co-authored the Keith Richards memoir, and he wrote White Mischief — he’s a great writer, we worked together for 25 years at Vanity Fair. He sort of gave me some tips on how to do it. He said, “Tell 10 great stories.” Many years ago, I took a year off and spent seven months working as a lineman for the [Canadian National] railroad. I’m writing that chapter now. The Vanity Fair parts will be slightly easier. I’m reading all the memoirs I’ve loved as a kid again, just to see how they did it.
As a father of five, give us your thoughts on American youth and their media consumption.
My kids are atypical. If you asked my youngest daughter [Isabella, age 10] who Moss Hart is, she’d probably be able to tell you. They’re all book readers. In fact, my middle son is the best-read person I’ve met in my life. He’s also a phenomenal video gamer. I don’t know if a book life and a digital life are mutually exclusive. The kids I bump into… I’m incredibly encouraged by their goodwill and their kindness. They’re no more self-involved than baby boomers were, believe me. The baby boomers were the most self-involved generation. In fact, every generation is self-involved. So I am encouraged by them — they’re wonderful people, most young people. Millennials are now 30 and having kids — they’re not gonna be kids on Twitter and Instagram all the time. Because of the exponential force of the Internet, there’s an exaggerated aspect of young people who live for Instagram, trying to show they have a more fabulous life than all their friends. But that’s a small exception; that’s not the rule.
Well, we can’t wait to read Air Mail. You should capitalize on those 2,000 letter-writers—put them on the subscriber list!
It’s funny. We have a landing page [on airmail.news] that invites you to put in your e-mail address to get more information. Right after The New York Times story ran, we had more than 4,000 inquiries. That was a good sign.
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