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  How Mark Felt Became Deep Throat | Felt's Two Lives | Special Report  

All the News That's Fit for Print

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 1, 2005; 9:11 AM

The message on the Vanity Fair reader forum asked the question at 11:47 a.m. ET Tuesday morning: "Where can we access the info about this being 'Deep Throat'?"

The phrasing was inelegant, but the message was clear: Every major television station and news Web site in the nation was broadcasting the news at warp speed: Vanity Fair might have broken Washington's best-kept secret. But you couldn't find that news on vanityfair.com.

The magazine's marquee piece, in which former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt tells John D. O'Connor that he was the secret source that helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein crack the Watergate scandal, will show up in the magazine's July issue. It is supposed to hit newsstands on June 8 in New York and Los Angeles, and the rest of the nation on June 14.

When I called Vanity Fair Tuesday morning to find out how their editors would handle the story on the Web, I got a junior member of the public relations department who said it would show up online the same day that the magazine hit newsstands; in other words, check back with us in a week or so.

But later in the day I was told the junior flack got it wrong. David Friend, who edited the story and runs the Vanity Fair Web site, said in a mid-afternoon interview that the story ought to hit the Web within a few hours.

Yes, but why didn't it show up when the news went out to the networks? Friend said the story spent two years in development and its existence was known only to approximately 15 people, all of whom signed non-disclosure agreements. He opted not to brief the Web staff, which runs the site from parent company Conde Nast's interactive wing, Conde Net.

"There are 12 people at Conde Net who [would have] had to look at it -- the web designer, editor, etc.," Friend said. "None of us wanted anyone in the building to know about it until it had gone out."

As a result, the Web site updated several times during the next few hours to reveal goodies such as "Sith Happens," a gallery of Annie Leibovitz photos shot during production of the most recent round of Star Wars films, and " The Finer Points of Rock Snobbery." Both packages are adept at hooking readers -- this one at least -- but neither contained the news that the overwhelming majority of people visiting vanityfair.com yesterday wanted to see.

The site finally published a link to the piece -- two lines of copy reading " V.F. EXCLUSIVE: JOHN.D.O'CONNOR ON 'DEEP THROAT,'" at 3:45 p.m. ET. I can't say what the original Web publication plan was, though in the Internet age, waiting more than four hours for a sign of life from the original source feels like buying a ticket to the Jurassic-Cretaceous double-feature.

That sort of thing doesn't work well in the 21st century, said Don Ranly, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "If they're going to release it, what sense does it make not to release it on their own Web site?" he said in an interview we conducted before the article was published online.

A glance at the frequently asked questions page shows that Vanity Fair understands the value of its Web site in promoting Web-only content, forums, reports from the blogosphere and the rest of the cyber-shebang. And Friend said that the site will publish an article next week by Christopher Hitchens exclusively for the Web.

Still, Ranly's question seems all the more relevant in light of Vanity Fair's monthly circulation of 1.6 million copies. Even though the folks who run the magazine's printing press signed non-disclosure agreements, there are still plenty of people on the press run who could filch a copy. What's one among one-and-a-half million? And if, as Friend said, knowledge was limited to 15 people (and an unknown number of assorted production crew), why not clue in a few people elsewhere in the Conde Nast nest?


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