The Three Musketeers of Condé Nast Ride Again

Graydon Carter, Anna Wintour and David Remnick are having career years — or at least ones that should go down as All-Star seasons on their Hall of Fame plaques.

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Graydon Carter

Photo By Jimi Celeste

NEW YORK — Graydon, Anna and David have their other projects, of course. Graydon Carter, editor in chief of Vanity Fair, has two restaurants, an illustrated children’s book and movie producer credits. Anna Wintour, Vogue editor in chief since 1988, has her three-year-old Fashion’s Nights Out and her fund-raisers for President Obama. New Yorker editor David Remnick is on the board of trustees for The New York Public Library, often writes for his magazine and has his own interest in Obama — his book on the President, “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” was released last year.

For the last few years, these three have been targets of some whispered criticism in the media world: How much time do they actually devote to editing their magazines anymore? Are these editors, a combined 55 years into their jobs, starting to get a little bored? Are their best days behind them?

Apparently not. The three are having career years — or at least years that should go down as All-Star seasons on their Hall of Fame plaques. There’s Wintour, who, despite every trend for fashion titles, has proven that her print version of Vogue still has plenty left in the tank. There’s Carter’s Vanity Fair, which, despite slimmer issues, will have its most profitable year ever in 2011. And then there’s Remnick, whose 86-year-old magazine is Condé Nast’s leading force in tablets, a space that the publishing company is placing a big bet on.

In the last two years, as titles have closed and budgets have been slashed, Condé Nast has lost some of its shine, but these three have apparently lost little momentum.

Let’s start with Wintour’s Vogue. Selling a fashion magazine is a bleak business these days. Every major fashion title that does real business at the newsstand is undergoing some degree of crisis. There are double-digit newsstand losses wherever one looks. Glamour, a cash cow for Condé for years, is down a whopping 17 percent through October. Elle, Marie Claire, InStyle and Harper’s Bazaar are, likewise, all down in the double digits, ranging from 10 to 14 percent, according to data available from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

And then there’s Vogue. The title is up 7 percent through September. That’s roughly 17 percentage points better than the nearest competitor. The magazine was aided by a March Lady Gaga cover but, still, six of its nine covers have sold better this year, according to the ABC (only Harper’s Bazaar comes closest, having sold better for three of its first seven covers through August. Elle, Vogue’s supposed rival for the last few years, meanwhile, is 0-for-8 through August). This isn’t simply because Vogue had a disastrous year last year — it was down 5.5 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, a clip that its competitors would be happy to claim as their own in 2011.

Wintour’s Houdini trick on the newsstand isn’t the magazine’s only success. Behind publisher Susan Plagemann, it is up in advertising by 8 percent through the first three-quarters of the year, the biggest increase among all competitors, which leaves Vogue with the highest ad page total of any fashion magazine.

It certainly doesn’t have to go like this. Wintour’s predecessors — Diana Vreeland and Grace Mirabella — were both unceremoniously sacked by Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. when the magazine’s sales began to sag, even though both editors had become legends in their own rights (Mirabella found out the news of her firing from a Liz Smith gossip report on Channel 4’s “Live at Five”).

Carter’s Vanity Fair is, likewise, enjoying a surprisingly strong financial year. Even though the magazine will finish the year up 3 percent in ad pages, and its 2011 total of 1,475 pages is a far cry from what the title was achieving just a few years ago, it will bring home all-time record profitability, said a Vanity Fair spokeswoman.

“I think we’ve had a tremendous year, we’ve made a number of new hires and, in terms of advertising, there were periods in which we had more pages, but we just weren’t as profitable,” said Carter, adding that “2008 taught us how to put out the magazine with fewer excesses.”

That was the first year that Condé Nast, like the rest of the media world, finally got tripped up and had to slash 5 percent from its budgets — the next year, McKinsey & Co. consultants came into 4 Times Square and hundreds were laid off.

“It operates more like a business than when I first came,” said Carter of Vanity Fair. “When I first came, we didn’t have budgets. You spent what you needed.”

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