Vanity Fair’s innovative Africa issue

Via a publishing industry press service, I learn that Vanity Fair (not a magazine I read) made singer/activist Bono the guest editor for its July issue. The result: New writers with new perspectives came out of the woodwork, showing how publishers can reach beyond their usual bounds.

The issue is focused on the continent of Africa: its people, its youth, its music, and its small, successful attempts at economic development. Bono is praised by the industry press service not so much for the content (though they like that) but because he turned "beyond the usual suspects" for the reporting and writing, including former Viacom CEO Tom Freston (writing about a Mali music adventure), artist Damien Hurst (writing about a Congolese artist) and novelist Binyavanga Wainaina (writing about her Kenyan generation’s downs and ups), among numerous others.

"When an article about Bono guest-editing this issue appeared in The New York Times, an unprecedented torrent of story ideas — sometimes dozens in a single day — poured in from photographers, writers, and non-governmental organizations," wrote Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter in an editor’s note. "Most of them were substantive and interesting."

According to the press service, all publishers and editors can learn from this modest experiment, which need not be limited to the Vanity Fair or celebrity editor market. Every community has its own "Africa," an area little covered, and it has many local Bonos, people with wide name recognition and strong networks of relationships. The local "Africas " may be communities poorly covered, from barrios to the working poor to immigrant groups to local education issues of many kinds. Such experiments don’t mean relinquishing editorial authority; they mean reaching out to new contributors and in the process many new potential readers, in print and online. One of the distinctive attributes of the Vanity Fair special issue is an online resource bank and interactive map. Nature does a lot of this kind of thing, one example being Declan Butler’s award-winning Google Earth-avian flu mashup, the first of its kind.