All the News That's Fit for Print

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?

Diane Westfall, a professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, said that working with the Web that way could result in successful cross-promotion. "A great way to sell magazines is to let the news part of the story out on the Web and say 'for more information, go to our magazine,'" she said.

Friend said, however, that it comes down to priorities: "Getting the magazine out is what's important. ... I was more interested in getting the magazine out than [getting] the Web out."

[ Cue stunned silence from the bloggers ]

But wait. Maybe that's not such a radical statement in 2005. After all, it seems fitting that a fat, monthly mag like Vanity Fair would rely on a 30-year-old media strategy to solve the biggest mystery of 1974. It is a magazine, not a Web site, and magazines by nature operate in a different way than the breathless Internet.

Or maybe not. It is admirable that publications like Vanity Fair continue to support longform journalism, telling interesting stories that are allowed to unfold at their own leisurely pace. But when that story is one that has bewitched, bothered and bewildered the nation for decades, you would think the magazine would want to tout its coup in every way possible.

After all, the day's most-read story before Vanity Fair broke its news was Paris Hilton's engagement. People magazine, which had the exclusive story, broke it on the Web on Monday afternoon and, I daresay, will not suffer a slump in newsstand sales because of it.

As more people start digesting even super-sized stories on the Internet, they will demand this of their favorite publications. If they don't get it, they will go elsewhere. The Internet does not abhor long, well-researched stories; it's just another publishing medium, and there's no reason why the magazine couldn't have come up with a strategy to publish the story online in the two years that it was in development -- the fact that vanityfair.com didn't launch until last October notwithstanding.

Encyclopedia Immediata

Wikipedia's many volunteer editors weren't napping on the job as the W. Mark Felt story broke on Tuesday. A new entry (created yesterday, in fact) on the former associate FBI director and bona fide Deep Throat went up with great dispatch. A glance at the entry shows a clean, dry biography on Felt along with the circumstances of his involvement with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the Watergate series. It is not the first time that Wikipedia has tried to function as a sage tome of encyclopedic knowledge on breaking events, but it almost certainly is one of the most prominent, at least on its English-language site.

And here's a little something you won't find in editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (or on the Britannica Online site which has not updated its Watergate references): A note at the top of the Wikipedia page says: "This article or section contains information about a current or ongoing event. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses." The entry on " Deep Throat" also was updated a few hours after the news broke.

New Jersey Tries to Ban Online Auto Sales

More than half of all late-model used-car seekers are using the Internet somewhere in the buying process, according to J.D. Power & Associates, but that's not stopping New Jersey from trying to ban online automobile sales. The Star-Ledger reported that the state's Motor Vehicle Commission could adopt the ban by June 13 as one of several rules changes to crack down on fly-by-night used car salesmen.

"To prevent salesmen from operating at 'phantom' locations where dissatisfied buyers cannot track them down, the state has crafted reforms that require auto dealerships to set up offices equipped with phones, furniture, electricity and even air-conditioning and heating," Star-Ledger transportation reporter Joe Malinconco wrote. "The proposals also would prohibit dealers from using cell phones to make sales outside their offices, require safes for storing motor vehicle documents and impose tougher insurance requirements." The Associated Press said that dealers would have to spend at least 20 hours a week in their place of business and conduct most of their telephone business from a landline at that location.

Lawyers and lobbyists representing hundreds of used car salesmen protested the regulations at a hearing yesterday, saying that the regulations will hurt their businesses. But making a quick buck through dirty-dealing in the car business is not difficult to do in New Jersey, the Asbury Park Press reported: "Typically, said witnesses, a rogue used-car dealer might secure a car at an auction, slap dealer, or temporary, plates on the car, then hand the keys to a buyer, who is told by the trickster to meet at an address in a week or so to gain the title. But witnesses said the buyer may find no dealership at that address, setting off a lengthy and costly process for the buyer to try to get the vehicle's title."

Even if the DMV manages to pull off its shortsighted attempt to ban online Internet sales, it still needs to figure out how to operate its computers. The Press of Atlantic City reported that the agency suffered what it's calling its biggest "customer inconvenience" in recent memory after a computer glitch caused problems for up to 10,000 people trying to get their digital drivers' licenses. "Not only was (Tuesday) the last day of the month, it was also the day after a holiday, which is usually very busy for us," DMV spokesman Gordon Deal told the paper.

The Star-Ledger reported that the agency produces 7,500 licenses on a typical day but only processed a few hundred on Tuesday. Deal told the Asbury Park Press that the DMV would not offer any amnesty to people whose drivers' licenses expired yesterday and would be forced to drive with those licenses today. The version of the story that ran in the Bridgewater Courier-News contained a quote from Deal urging any drivers pulled over to remind the troopers of the glitch and essentially ask for a free pass.

Maybe it's part of a secret plan to make the state more deserving of its nickname.

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

That doesn't describe telecom mega-giant SBC Communications, not at least in my eyes. But it does describe their latest offer of high-speed Internet service for $14.95 a month. I don't normally devote space to free advertising for bloated corporations, but in this case it's pretty interesting. The Wall Street Journal reported that the move severely undercuts cable broadband prices, which typically start around $40 and move up -- way up. The price also sails below America Online's standard $23.90 monthly charge.

"Cable companies officials said yesterday that they don't need to respond to price cuts by the phone companies because they say cable broadband service is faster and more efficient than telephone broadband service," the Journal reported. "'If price were the only thing that mattered to everyone, we'd all be driving Yugos,' says a spokesman for Cox Communications Inc., the country's third-largest cable operator." Yes, but not everyone requires a Mercedes.

Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com.

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