Former Condé Nast Editor Plans a Vanity Fair for the Substack Era


A former editor at Vanity Fair has been working for more than a year to create a digital publication with a business twist: Its writers will share in subscription revenue.

Think of it as Vanity Fair meets Substack, the subscription newsletter platform that has attracted big-name authors.

The new company behind the publication, Heat Media, hopes to unveil it in the coming months, four people with knowledge of the matter said. The start-up is partly the brainchild of Jon Kelly, a former editor at Vanity Fair who worked under its previous editor in chief, Graydon Carter.

If all goes to plan, the start-up’s contributors would include writers whose contacts include the power elite of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Washington and Wall Street. An annual subscription would cost $100 and could include a daily newsletter, a website and access to events, the people said. The publication does not yet have a name. One under consideration is Puck, the name of an American humor magazine of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Writers have been offered equity and a percentage of the subscription revenue they would generate, the people said. It’s one of the first attempts to align the new talent economy with more traditional media institutions. The publication would rely on an algorithm to gauge how many readers buy a subscription because of a specific writer, the people said. Mr. Kelly has actively recruited some of his former colleagues, the people added.

Another novel aspect is the funding. One of the backers is the private equity firm TPG Capital, which would take three seats on the Heat Media board, with one going to its co-chief executive, Jim Coulter, the people said.

Another investor is 40 North Media, the investment arm of Standard Industries, a company focused on building materials, the people said. David Winter, its co-chief executive, would also take a board seat.

Mr. Kelly declined to comment. TPG declined to comment. 40 North did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Kelly left Condé Nast, the publisher of Vanity Fair, in March 2019 and joined the private equity firm TPG shortly afterward. The leader of the firm, Mr. Coulter, is friends with Mr. Carter, and TPG backed Mr. Carter’s post-Vanity Fair venture, Air Mail.

The start-up’s business model represents an early attempt to combine Substack’s entrepreneurial system, under which writers can make money directly from subscribers, with that of traditional publications.

For TPG, the investment is its latest in the media business. In 2018, the firm joined with a former News Corp executive, Jon Miller, to invest in the “geek culture” website Fandom, which recently acquired gaming website Focus Multimedia. Last year, a TPG affiliate acquired the soccer site, and the firm recently announced plans to acquire a stake in DirectTV.

The cash from the two firms would give the start-up some security at a time when some of the biggest players in digital publishing, such as BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox Media and Group Nine, have stumbled as the pandemic ravaged the ad industry.

Mr. Kelly’s business partners are Joe Purzycki, a founder of the podcasting company Luminary Media, and Max Tcheyan, who helped build the sports site The Athletic, the people said.

Two people who have seen a pitch deck on the company’s plans said that its potential competitors are the Washington news site Axios, the tech news site The Information and Vanity Fair.

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