Vanity Fair 's Big Blunder

I can't be sure why Vanity Fair editors did not put this gorgeous David Margolick piece, about the 50th anniversary of the integration of the Little Rock schools, in their print edition. Margolick is one of their marquis writers, one of the best long-form journalists working. (Full disclosure: I have met Margolick twice, and he went to my high school some years before I did.) Of course, I know what they might have been thinking -- no sooner was I picking an imaginary fight with Graydon Carter than I could hear the chorus of net-dweeb/futuro/techno-geeks: "No, man, it's way cooler to be on the web -- print is dying." But in this case that's dead wrong, and it's instructive to ask why.

First, a piece like Margolick's gains extraordinary resonance from the famous photograph of the black girl, Elizabeth Eckford, being heckled; and photographs reproduce better on VF's glossy paper than on any screen yet invented, which means it's a double shame that VF wasted the opportunity. But there's more to it. It takes nine screens to get to the end of Margolick's piece. That's nine clicks. And the piece is thousands of words long (I didn't count how many thousands), which makes it perfect for beach reading, bathtub reading, toilet reading -- but decidedly imperfect for wasting-10-minutes-at-work reading. In short, few people will get to the end on the web, but most people would get to the end in print.

Web editors have yet to reach consensus on the proper length for a web piece. Slate pieces circle around 1,000 words, sometimes more, sometimes fewer. Salon will go more screens, and so longer; and for their blogs, like Glenn Greenwald's, length is only limited by the furthest reaches of the blogger's obsessiveness (in Greenwald's case, that means very long). Interestingly, bloggers tend to go longer than more traditional journalists on the web, and the lengths are more palatable in the single-screen typepad of Blogspot format -- for whatever reason, it seems less onerous to keep scrolling down than to click to the next page. (The Atlantic bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan and Ross Douthat, now tease some of their longer pieces and require a click-through to read the whole thing; to my mind, this is not an improvement.)

But there is a tension: in this multi-media age, we want more art in our pieces -- more photos, more graphs, etc. -- but that art reproduces better on paper, not on the web. Which means that if, say, photojournalism is involved, then USA Today, not a URL, is the better format. YouTube changes the equation, since we can't get YouTube on a piece of paper. But for photos, screen is decidedly an inferior medium, which is one reason that magazines and newspapers won't die out. Nor will books. Check out a daring mixed-media work like Aleph-Bet, with text by Joshua Cohen and illustrations by Michael Hafftka -- hard to see how we can do that on the web. The illos just won't be the same.

A final thought. Margolick may have submitted his piece too late to run in the issue coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Little Rock. VF works on a long lead time, many months, and sometimes there just isn't time. But only editors care about that. They don't want their editor friends at other magazines to think they're behind the times or out of step. Just as they won't run profiles of anybody who has been profiled in another magazine lately -- they don't want to seem unhip. The thing is, readers don't care. Outside the NYC publishing bubble, readers just want good pieces, no matter this month or next. To use the web as a receptacle for terrific stuff that doesn't meet editors' definition of timely is to betray the readers.

I'm grateful for the web; I'm glad to be posting on Huffington Post. But Margolick's piece deserved better. Like so many works of art, it deserved paper.