From Vanity Fair to South of France — and Backing a News App
Posted January 14, 2018 10:08 p.m. EST
Graydon Carter, the former editor of Vanity Fair, was preparing coq au vin in Provence, France, the other day when he picked up a telephone call from back home.
“We’re just cooking,” Carter said, affably, as the sounds of family chimed in the background.
This is what semiretirement looks like for Carter, a bon vivant who is taking what he has called a six-month “garden leave” in France after 25 years as one of the United States’ most influential magazine editors.
He keeps up with the news in the London dailies, has found himself bombarded by Johnny Hallyday tributes in the French press and started reading Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” before giving up halfway through.
“It was too depressing,” Carter said. “It’s what I got away from.”
He is not, however, staying idle. Carter, who has produced films and opened restaurants, said he was exploring a suite of new ventures — the first of which is set to debut Monday.
Zig, an app that aims to simplify users’ consumption of news, is Carter’s first public project since he left Vanity Fair last month. It resembles an Instagram of news: a feed of photographs culled from stories around the web, with the material tailored to a user’s interests.
The idea, said Joshua James, one of the founders, is to deliver useful news without making readers slog through a dozen sites. “I had been going to the same 15 websites for years, and they never knew what I wanted when I got there,” he said.
Carter offered advice — when the founders considered changing their logo, Carter said he liked the old one, so it stayed — but his most significant contribution was financial. He is one of several high-profile investors in Zig, along with music producer Quincy Jones, Hollywood mogul Ron Meyer and concert giant Live Nation. Zig declined to disclose how much it had raised.
James and a co-founder, Adam Platzner, pitched the idea to Carter at a tech-industry conference hosted by Vanity Fair in 2016. (The third founder is John Tornow.) At the time, Carter was mulling the state of news; he recalled an assistant pointing out to him that millennials “think in more visual terms, than in textual terms.”
“That sort of sat with me for a bit,” Carter said. “And then when Josh and Adam came in and saw me and explained Zig, I thought this goes right to that.”
James worked in the music industry, selling a digital startup to Warner Music Group. Platzner worked briefly at Condé Nast before investing in media ventures like The Infatuation, a restaurant recommendation site. He is also a founder of Dream Water, a liquid soporific meant as a kind of reverse Red Bull.
Over lunch last week at the Lamb’s Club — once a popular dining spot for Condé Nast brass — the founders said that the presentation of news in Zig matched the smartphone habits of a younger generation steeped in Instagram. “For millennials, we’ve built a delivery system that is familiar,” James said.
The photos that appear in a Zig feed double as links to the underlying articles, a referral system that the founders say could lead to revenue-sharing agreements with news sites. Users can also flip through dozens of photos inside the app, an ad-free way to quickly consume pop culture slideshows from sites like TMZ and PopSugar.
The app was originally designed for entertainment news, but Carter suggested that the founders broaden the scope. “People follow Kellyanne Conway the way they follow Kim Kardashian,” James said, recalling a lesson from Carter.
Each user’s feed is customized, with the mix of subjects (politics, pop culture) and celebrities (movie stars, members of the Trump administration) determined by his social media activity. Users can also share articles with friends, superimposing a photograph of themselves reacting to a story — a thumbs-up for a Time’s Up pin, for instance.
While honing the idea, the members of the Zig team received coveted invites to last year’s Vanity Fair Oscar party in Beverly Hills, California. “It’s been fun,” Platzner said. “Graydon’s been good to us.”
Carter said that the founders “have a very good chance of creating something that has lasting value.”
But the former magazine editor said that he was setting his own ambitions beyond the media realm.
“This is more of an outlier to what I will be planning over the next six months,” he said. “This is not my life’s work going forward. But I’m willing to help them in any possible way I can.”
Any details about those other projects? Carter demurred.
“I’m still in the planning stages,” Carter said, before excusing himself for his evening meal. “I may wind up running a pig farm here in France.”