THE GUARDIAN, November 17, 2017

The surprise choice for editor has a PhD from Columbia – but can she follow Graydon Carter and steer the magazine through a difficult digital transition?

When news broke last Saturday that Radhika Jones had been appointed editor of one of the world’s pre-eminent magazines, Vanity Fair, the sound of alarmed chatter could be heard above the clinking of glasses in New York cocktail bars, Washington salons and LA dinner parties. The tenor of the conversation could be summed up in two words: Radhika who?

Anyone who scrambled for their iPhone X to look up Jones’s Wikipedia entry would have found four sparse lines noting her senior roles at Time and the Paris Review before her current position as a top editor of books coverage at the New York Times. That merely exacerbated the agitation of the nation’s media, politics and movie elites. Books!

Books are the bedrock of the New York Review of Books and of the New Yorker. But Vanity Fair? Its cachet is far more nebulous, harder to delineate or distill. One insider who was asked by the Guardian to spell out the VF formula put it this way: “Success, optimism, power, glamour – those are its pillars. And style – it has to be done with style.”

Such was the formula that was honed over the past three decades, initially by Tina Brown after the magazine’s 1980s revival (for almost half a century it had been folded into Vogue). In her new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, Brown gives her own definition of the magazine’s magic as “the last word in literary prestige, social glamour and visual ravishment”.


Who is Radhika Jones?

That blueprint was in turn taken and polished to a blinding sheen by the legendary outgoing editor, Graydon Carter. Under his 25-year tutelage, Vanity Fair grew into the social bible of transatlantic elites (Carter is a shameless anglophile), as well as becoming an altar to Carter himself who, with his glitzy after-parties at the Oscars and the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, promoted himself with almost as much vigor as the title he edited.

Which raises a second question about his anointed successor: not only who is she, but does she have what it takes to fill Graydon Carter’s outsized shoes? As the insider put it: “There’s a code to what makes Vanity Fair Vanity Fair. And Jones has to get it, or better still invent her own, and do it fast, or else she’ll screw up.”

“Whip-smart and unassuming, with … an erstwhile fondness for Tetris,” was how a colleague at the New York Timesdescribed the 44-year-old Jones. The “whip-smart” part of that equation is easy to substantiate: she went to Harvard and has a PhD from Columbia in English and comparative literature. She is also well travelled, having lived in Taiwan and Russia, where she launched her career in journalism as arts editor of the English-language Moscow Times.

“Unassuming” also seems appropriate for someone who has been strangely reticent in the only two media interviews she has granted since getting the job. (Jones declined to talk to the Guardian.) When asked to outline her vision for the new Vanity Fair, her less than overwhelming reply to the Times was: “I need to get oriented first – there’s a lot to take in.”

She was scarcely more forthcoming with Vanity Fair itself. “I think I should probably wait and just let it show,” she said.

More bizarrely, when asked by the magazine she will soon edit, an organ that regards itself as the arbiter of all that is urbane and cool, what media she consumed, she replied: “I follow National Geographic so I can see all the animals.” Not since 2008 when Katie Couric asked the then Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin what newspapers she read, eliciting the reply: “Um, all of ’em”, has there been such a trainwreck of an answer.

The uphill challenge facing Jones is not just a product of the formidable Brown-Carter double act she has to follow, it is also amplified by the dire economics of the magazine industry. Vanity Fair’s latest statistics are actually pretty impressive – it has a print circulation of 1.2m and its online version,, reaches 17m unique visitors a month, according to ComScore.

But that cannot disguise the trauma that the magazine world is going through in the digital age. Vanity Fair’s media owner, Condé Nast, is enduring painful restructuring, expecting to see revenue fall by $100m in 2017 over the previous year. As a result, titles such as Glamour and GQ have had the frequency of their print editions reduced while the paper version of Teen Vogue has been axed.

Peter Kreisky, a media consultant who advises publishers on digital conversion, said that Condé Nast as a whole and Vanity Fair within it had been slow off the block in making the transition. He was surprised that the company had opted in its choice of next editor for somebody with no overt digital experience, though he added: “It is my hypothesis that sheer brain power – which Radhika Jones clearly has in abundance – can figure out the digital conundrum.”

For Kreisky, she will need to act quickly and with determination. “It is critical that she connects to the digital natives who see everything and do everything through their screens. She needs to build the Vanity Fair community among digitally savvy celebrity-obsessed fashionistas without destroying the dream – how to be inclusive while still being exclusive.”

So will Radhika Jones’s job be merely to manage a great title in decline, with a depleted salary to boot (she is reported to be on about $500,000 compared with Carter’s $2m-plus)? Samir Husni, who specializes in the magazine industry at the University of Mississippi, sees the appointment of a bookish polymath in a more positive light.

“This sends a message to the industry that the future of magazines lies with in-depth analysis rather than celebrity huff-and-puff,” Husni said. In recent days he’s been poring over the Vanity Fair back catalogue to get a better sense of its inception.

His eye was caught by the November 1933 edition which had a cover story by the French writer André Maurois attempting to capture a moment of supreme threat to world peace. The cover illustration showed a gaggle of political leaders in top hats and tails standing atop the globe which had a burning fuse attached to it like a bomb.

“I was struck by the seriousness of the work, and the depth of its analysis,” Husni said.

Something else about that cover struck him forcefully. With a little bit of redrawing to update the politicians’ uniforms, he realized, it could very powerfully be applied to today.

Which perhaps offers a clue to the Radhika Jones puzzle. Could this relatively unknown and unassuming woman be the editor Vanity Fair needs to hang on to its urbanity and cool while stretching for the gravitas demanded by a darkening and foreboding world?