A month has passed since Donald Trump gave Vanity Fair the social-media equivalent of a middle finger by firing off a tweet about its “poor numbers” — “Way down, big trouble, dead” type of numbers, according to the President-elect.
It’s been observed that one of Trump’s 140-character outbursts can cause financial damage, or, at least, temporarily harm the stock of publicly traded companies like Boeing or Lockheed Martin.
But in this instance — an apparent schoolyard retort to Vanity Fair’s brutal Trump Grill takedown the previous day — the tweet actually had the opposite effect. Vanity Fair capitalized on the publicity with a flash sale. “’THE WAY DOWN, BIG TROUBLE, DEAD!’ MAGAZINE TRUMP DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ,” declared a promotion on vanityfair.com, advertising a one-year print-digital subscription for $5.
Thirteen-thousand people took the bait within 24 hours. Since then? Another 67,000 new subscribers (total circulation tends to hover a little over a million), the majority of them at the standard annual rate of $15 per year, according to a spokeswoman for the magazine. So you could argue that, with nothing more than a few impetuous thumb-taps on his Android, Trump probably made Vanity Fair at least a million dollars richer.
The Trump bump happened to coincide with a broader upswing for the 103-year-old Condé Nast glossy. Vanity Fair was never really on a downswing, but nor has it been entirely immune to the pressures facing the magazine industry at large. In recent months, however, as it has fortified its digital presence with a new flagship web vertical, this publication of record for the power elite has felt especially relevant, and it’s numbers are apparently in fine shape.
“We’ve never been more profitable,” long-time editor in chief Graydon Carter told POLITICO during an interview recently in his office at 1 World Trade Center, where Vanity Fair occupies the skyscraper’s 41st floor. (Since Condé Nast doesn’t disclose company financials, we’ll have to take his word for it.) “I think 2016 might be our best year.”
Revenue aside, the increased buzz can be attributed in part to Vanity Fair’s singular perch in the firmament of Trump media coverage. Carter, whose name has topped Vanity Fair’s masthead for nearly 25 years and seven presidential administrations, has been one of Trump’s most caustic chroniclers for three decades and counting. And while Vanity Fair is hardly unique for being a news organization in Trump’s cross-hairs, the target on its back is more personal than most. In these strange new times for media, that is seen as a good thing.
“No magazine benefited more directly from Donald Trump’s anti-press zealotry than VF,” the trade publication Folio wrote in naming Carter one of its 2016 “winners” in magazine media. “If this was gamesmanship (which it was),” Folio continued, referring to the Trump Grill review (“Trump Grill Could Be the Worst Restaurant in America”), “score one for Graydon Carter.”
Trump and Carter’s on-again-off-again animus (right now it would appear to be very much on) dates back to the 1986 origins of Spy magazine, in which a then 40-year-old Donald Trump — bawdy and ostentatious and ripe for lampooning — became a favorite target of Carter and Spy magazine co-founder Kurt Andersen. Today, the duo’s mockery of Trump as a “short-fingered vulgarian” is the stuff of media legend. “No journalists have followed Trump more closely. No journalists have angered him more often,” NPR’s David Folkenflik said when introducing Carter and Andersen in an interview last year.
During the campaign and the transition, as carnival-barker Trump became serious-candidate Trump became President-Elect Trump, Carter found himself with more material to work with than ever before. Look no further than his biting editor’s letters over the course of the past year.
November’s 1,960-word opus was particularly nuclear, if understandably misguided in its prediction of what would happen on election day. “He is a mad jumble of a man,” Carter wrote, “with a slapdash of a campaign and talking points dredged from the dark corners at the bottom of the Internet. I don’t think he will get to the White House, but just the fact that his carny act has gotten so far along the road will leave the path with a permanent orange stain.”
Trump won on that one very important point, but Vanity Fair comes out with a prize too: a reason to keep writing about the man, to the great pleasure of a growing audience.
February’s cover belongs to actor Chris Pratt, but make no mistake, this is a Trump issue, as five of the eight features promoted on the cover would seem to suggest. (Trump’s Dec. 15 tweet also makes an appearance, right there on the front of the mag.)
On Jan. 6, Trump and Carter found themselves up close and personal — for the first time in as many as 10 years, according to Carter — when Trump paid a visit to Condé Nast to meet with the company’s top editors and executives. As Carter told POLITICO the previous day (the scheduling of our interview was a happy coincidence), he offered to sit the meeting out: “I went to Anna Wintour,” the Vogue EIC, Condé Nast artistic director and Hillary Clinton supporter, “and I said, ‘listen, I don’t want to make him feel uncomfortable.’” (In a followup, Carter wouldn’t say anything about his interaction, or non-interaction, with Trump, because the meeting was off the record.)
If the two of them didn’t have all this history? “I actually think [the coverage] would be exactly the same,” Carter said. “He’s just the most unusual president we’ve ever had, at least in most of our lifetimes. It’s this constant outflow of either erroneous information, or negative information, or semi-truthful information, and the press reacts to that. Ignoring him completely is the only other way to go. If you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound.”
Back in June, as press coverage of Trump’s campaign marched inexorably toward its apex, Vanity Fair launched The Hive, a section of vanityfair.com covering the corridors of power in Manhattan, Washington and Silicon Valley. Star Vanity Fair writers like Sarah Ellison, William D. Cohan and Nick Bilton found a natural home there, churning out juicy web exclusives in addition to their work for the print edition. The Hive also has nurtured up-and-coming reporters like Emily Jane Fox and Tina Nguyen, whose Trump Grill piece put her on the map. With more than 1.4 million readers since Trump’s retaliatory tweet last month, it was The Hive’s top-performing story of 2016.
In November (peak election-season), The Hive accounted for about 6 million out of a record 20 million total web visitors that month, according to Vanity Fair. Along with two sister verticals — HWD (entertainment) and Vanities (celebs, royals, etc.) — it also helped notch up web revenues by 74 percent last year, a spokeswoman said, with blue-chip advertisers like BMW, IBM and Goldman Sachs signing up to get a digital piece of Vanity Fair’s high-net-worth readership.
“It was profitable from the day we pressed the button,” said Carter. “There was a period where we just completely thought we were f–ked and that the best thing was to realize how f–ked we were, and the business at hand was to get un-f–ked. And we did get un-f–ked, both by a vibrant [events] business … and then through The Hive, which is the essence of the magazine but – boom! boom! boom! – in a daily form.”
What next? An expansion of The Hive, for starters, with plans to add more editors and reporters to the current staff of about 10.
As for Carter himself, he said his contract is up sometime this spring, but he was coy when asked if he plans to renew. “I don’t know, we’ll see.” (Suspense!)
Of course it’s hard to imagine Carter not being the editor shepherding Vanity Fair’s coverage of the Trump administration. “Assuming he lasts four years, it’s a very attractive proposition,” he said.
“Anybody who’s a part of the press,” Carter continued, “if they’re not worried about the next four years, they’re not paying attention. It’s gonna be a bumpy road. … But you might as well just hang up your spurs if you’re intimidated by this stuff. He’s gonna have problems on his hands that are bigger than a review of one of his restaurants.”