The era of the celebrity magazine editor is widely assumed to be over, a casualty of shrinking media budgets and the decline of print. It’s surprising, then, that media types have spent the last few weeks talking about Graydon Carter, one of the titans of that bygone era when magazine editors had big budgets, household names, and signature looks (for him: a buoyant swoosh of white hair).
Carter stepped down as editor in chief of Vanity Fair in 2017 after 25 years. (Before that, he cofounded Spy.) He’s in the news again now because of a 2003 VF profile of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, which journalist Vicky Ward has accused Carter of bowdlerizing to remove a credible accusation of sexual misconduct. Another former VF reporter wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that her pieces for the magazine had been “nipped and tucked and altered for reasons that seemed to have nothing to do with journalism.” Carter then sat for a long and frank interview with the New York Times Magazine’s David Marchese last week, in which he disputed his writers’ accounts and made comments about diversity, power, and “the system” that inspired a fresh round of criticism.
All of this was either good or bad publicity for the venture Carter has been attempting to promote this summer: Air Mail, a breezy weekly email newsletter that Carter hyped to the New York Post as “international in flavor and easy on the eyes,” and to the Times as “the weekend edition of a nonexistent international daily.” A subscription is $50 annually or $15 quarterly. Its first issue landed in inboxes this weekend, sent by “Graydon Carter, Air Mail” with the subject line “Graydon Carter here…,” a reminder that for now, the editor’s name looms much larger than the brand.
Email newsletters are popular right now in part because they offer writers and publications to engage more intimately with their readers. Newsletters are set apart, ever so slightly, from the distractions of the open web. They are typically fairly brief, though they might consist of one longer essay or interview. But they tend to be digestible in one sitting, because who wants to return to the same email over and over to finish reading it?
Air Mail readers, if Carter is lucky. The first issue of Air Mail includes more than 20 separate pieces, not including cartoons and art, and a 900-word introductory essay from Carter in which he writes that Air Mail will have even more “bells and whistles” in the future.
But what more could it have? Here’s just a smattering of what the first issue of Air Mail contains: There’s Cazzie David on the performance of suffering in Instagram, a brief profile of British actress Cam Spence, and a long reported feature on a NASA-related philately scandal. There’s a travel advice column (“I want to go on holiday to Morocco, but my wife thinks it is too dangerous…”). There’s a list of long-time Vanity Fair photographer Jonathan Becker’s favorite swimming spots on “the Med.” There’s a gag letter from “Eric Trump” and a Trump cartoon from Barry Blitt. (Politics is otherwise mostly missing. Carter told the Times earlier this year that Air Mail was “designed to live in a Trump-free world,” but the cartoon was enough to annoy former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who tweeted huffily that he has already unsubscribed.)
Air Mail, in other words, is a lot. This is not a breezy note from an erstwhile editor loosed from the constrictions of the print magazine world. It’s a fat glossy magazine folded awkwardly and crammed into your inbox. You couldn’t possibly read it in one sitting. Financial backing for Air Mail came from a private investment firm, and Carter has evidently found ways to spend it. He has 15 full-time staffers, and a masthead of 31 that includes co-editor Alessandra Stanley (late of the New York Times), cartoon editor Bob Mankoff (late of the New Yorker) and several former Vanity Fair staffers (late of Vanity Fair).
It would be foolish to bet against Graydon Carter’s Rolodex and his 31 experienced team members. Air Mail may find an audience. But in the meantime, it’s a suggestion that whether or not the era of the celebrity editor is permanently past, this particular celebrity editor has only one editorial mode. Translating that product for a cluttered email inbox strips it of much of its glamour, not to mention its cohesion. (For one: It’s frustratingly difficult to know if you’re clicking through to a long original feature, a reprint, or the equivalent of a magazine sidebar.) Many of the pieces in Air Mail are enjoyable, offering that mix of envy and scorn that is the eternal pleasure of reading about the ultra-rich. But none of them feel urgent. And all of them would be more fun to read with your toes dipping in the lake and your phone left back at the dock, perhaps—I’m spitballing here—printed on shiny paper and bound together in a soft cover with an attractive celebrity on the front.