Back in August, New Yorker editor David Remnick assigned writer Nick Paumgarten a profile on Eliot Spitzer’s rocky first year as governor. In late September, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter assigned writer David Margolick a profile on Eliot Spitzer’s rocky first year as governor.
Mr. Paumgarten had his first conversation with Mr. Spitzer two weeks after Labor Day—the first of six conversations they’d have by around the time Mr. Margolick first approached the Spitzer camp. In the end, Mr. Margolick would meet with Mr. Spitzer only once.
Neither editor claimed knowledge of the other’s assignment, but once they found out, there was a bake-off between the two magazines—just one floor apart in the Condé Nast building.
Mr. Remnick, asked by Off the Record whether news of Mr. Margolick’s piece affected Mr. Paumgarten’s deadline, said: “Of course, of course.”
“Certainly it lit a fire under my ass,” Mr. Paumgarten, who once served as a reporter at The New York Observer, said. “But there were other fires.”
Of course there has been lots of news since August to hook a Spitzer piece on, like the radioactivity of Mr. Spitzer’s driver’s license plan. But the Vanity Fair effort, and even a front-page New York Times profile by Nicholas Confessore, published on Nov. 27, heated things up.
“Too bad it’s not going to be six months working in Albany,” Mr. Paumgarten said he told himself about his pushed-up profile.
The competition (and Spitzer’s elevated Q-rating) would have pushed both pieces up to the first week of December, but Mr. Carter beat that deadline, too, publishing Mr. Margolick’s 8,500-word profile on Nov. 29.
“We had planned on putting the Spitzer article on the Vanity Fair Web site before our newsstand date anyway,” Mr. Carter wrote in an e-mail. “When we found out The New Yorker was also working on a Spitzer story, we decided to put ours up a few days earlier.”
And in response, Mr. Remnick bumped up his online pub-date, too. “It seemed foolish and self-defeating to hold it,” he said. “There was no need to keep it to Sunday and preserve it in amber for those extra two days. It was closed on Thursday night.”
“[Vanity Fair author] David Margolick is an excellent reporter, and it would be foolishly showing no respect to ignore their presence,” he added. “I like to publish wonderful pieces, but where it’s appropriate, I’d like to win. And why not?”
The New Yorker piece had far more access—six meetings, including one over a drink in midtown—whereas Mr. Margolick was limited to one interview. Mr. Paumgarten’s piece was a closer portrait of Mr. Spitzer—detailing, in one part, how it appears he wears eyeliner—whereas Mr. Margolick’s was more argumentative (“As soon as he reached Albany, Spitzer set out to destroy Bruno …”).
Mr. Remnick said that the Spitzer profile wouldn’t have been pushed if it wasn’t ready, but Mr. Paumgarten had “hit it out of the park,” so he was able to indulge in a bit of a contest with Mr. Carter.
“It was a nice thing to be relatively quick vis-à-vis Vanity Fair,” he said. “But I don’t think it was the most important thing.”