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Sept. 18, 2014, 10 a.m.
Business Models

The New Inquiry: Not another New York literary magazine

For New Inquiry publisher Rachel Rosenfelt, building cultural significance was easy — building a sustainable business is the hard part.

The New Inquiry started as a Tumblr in 2009. Rachel Rosenfelt, the magazine’s publisher, created the account with a group of friends who quickly found that their voice had an audience.

TNI logo“At the time, Tumblr was was considered social media, and we were doing longform writing on it. It was a photo platform. Because we were early on it, we got a lot of followers,” she told me. “It became really interesting to me to figure out how authority was conferred and how something became culturally significant.”

The cultural significance of The New Inquiry has grown since then — today they have around 25,000 followers on Twitter and the same number of likes on Facebook. “What we seemed to be doing felt original and felt vital,” says Rosenfelt. As she recruited new writers via social media — many of whom were figures on the periphery of academia in the pre-Occupy Wall Street days — confidence in the magazine’s editorial mission grew.

Rosenfelt funded the building of an independent The New Inquiry website out of her own pocket. As on Tumblr, the content — which includes longer essays, a few short web features a day, and a handful of blogs — is free. But revenue had to come from somewhere, which was how The New Inquiry-as-magazine was born. For a “micropayment” of $2 a month, Rosenfelt conceived of a monthly edition, delivered to subscriber inboxes in PDF format.

“There’s a joke somebody made — I wasn’t there, but I heard that somebody was doing a parody of The New Inquiry saying, ‘Give us $2 a month for what we already give you for free and we’ll send you a Word doc every month,'” Rosenfelt laughs.

TNI PDFHaving regular issues to plan and design helped the ragtag band of geographically diverse New Inquiry writers solidify their understanding of what the publication was all about. Moreover, the premium product model — the magazine is not quite print but more than a web page — helps The New Inquiry strike a delicate financial balance. “The subscription is actually quite expensive for a PDF,” Rosenfelt says. “24 dollars a year is what you would pay for print. As a business decision, I think it’s a bad idea to charge more for that product.”

When The New Inquiry hit a thousand paying subscribers, Rosenfelt quit her day job. With $2,000 a month in revenue, she was able to pay contributors $50 a piece; in total, she says the magazine spends around $1,000 per issue on writers. As growth continued, more volunteers were able to join the paid staff. Today, although Rosenfelt didn’t want to disclose circulation numbers, the magazine is able to pay a few bloggers and employ a full-time editor (Ayesha Siddiqi), a creative director (Imp Kerr), a managing editor (Joe Barkeley), and a few other part-time staffers, including senior editor Max Fox. Adds Rosenfelt: “It’s a little silly to call them full-time considering what they get paid.” (Rosenfelt herself is no longer on The New Inquiry payroll, having hired Siddiqi and taken a job at Gawker Media in June. She’s since left Gawker but returns to teaching at The New School this fall.)

TNI masthead

Changes to the masthead have been accompanied by equally remarkable financial shifts for the magazine. This summer, The New Inquiry secured an anonymous donor who agreed to match individual donations if they could raise over $25,000, which they did. Rosenfelt says the cash influx will support some new writer talent, but will most importantly help to secure the magazine’s future and stabilize their finances. “That money is there to ensure as we hit bumps in the road, which happens with every little magazine, that we don’t turn around from our commitment to paying contributors first and that I don’t put the staff in a vulnerable position,” she says.

Part of that past instability results from the fact that, over the years, The New Inquiry has said no to more potential revenue streams than it’s said yes to. For starters, there are no ads. At first, Rosenfelt eschewed banner ads because she didn’t want the website cluttered up. Now she says she’s happy to have created an editorial environment untethered from concerns about traffic, Facebook’s algorithms, social media gaming, and Chartbeat.

“There are lots of ways you can shift priorities if traffic does somehow connect to revenue,” she says. “It’s not that we have an ethical problem with advertising as such. There’s no money that comes from somewhere great. It’s not a matter of being against advertising ethically. It’s more about the practice and the internal mechanism of The New Inquiry.” (Rosenfelt declined to share figures on web traffic, which she says she rarely checks.)

Elsewhere, the magazine has met with challenges. Echoing concerns at n+1, Rosenfelt says getting grants for the magazine — an inherently collaborative and ever-adapting project — has not been easy. “It makes it harder for us as a nonprofit to make the case for why it’s a humanitarian cause to give money to us rather than Save the Whales,” she says.

In addition, the magazine has failed to profit from putting on events — the cost of organizing and hosting in New York City often outweighs the value. Rosenfelt will assist Nathan Jurgenson with the next iteration of the Theorizing the Web conference, which Jurgenson co-founded with PJ Rey, in the spring — but in general she takes issue with the exclusivity implied by the publisher-as-convener model.

“We want The New Inquiry to feel to people anywhere like an accessible magazine. It’s not a New York literary magazine where you’re in New York City and there are these parties and if you’re not at them you’re not part of it,” she says. “Our focus is: How do we make The New Inquiry feel, in both form and content, for everybody like a local magazine with a global reach?” It was for similarly semi-financial and semi-structural reasons that The New Inquiry stopped renting office space — the staff felt it was important that everyone, New York-based or remote, have the same working experience.

The relationship between form and content is an important one for Rosenfelt. She feels strongly about magazine’s ongoing mission to explore what’s possible with digital publishing. “The way the magazine operates, to me, is as important as what the magazine publishes,” she says. For that reason, thoughts of publishing New Inquiry anthologies or charging more for a print edition haven’t yet come to fruition.

misandry tote“Ultimately, I’m still hesitant to put out a print product. The amount of labor it takes to put that together, to distribute, to promote…if that amount of energy was put into being more innovative with what we can do on the web, I think that’s actually a better bet,” she says. “I would rather put my mind on that and let the print product idea be something that’s more of a luxury item once we’re able to have a really stabilized system of revenue from our digital products.”

Accordingly, the magazine’s web store is minimally stocked — “We only sell tote bags.” As far as new publishing projects, Rosenfelt says she’s more interested in looking into an app than into print. But it’s more likely that the next strategic move for the magazine will be a sponsorship or brand partnership announcement. There are more mundane but equally important projects in the offing too, like figuring out a way to make it so the magazine doesn’t lose a quarter of its subscribers every year as credit cards expire.

“It’s very challenging to think in the form of what it actually means to run an Internet magazine, versus what it means to run a magazine that you put on the Internet, too,” says Rosenfelt. “What is formally different and what is different in the DNA of the thing is something I think about all the time.”

Illustration by Jon Han.

POSTED     Sept. 18, 2014, 10 a.m.
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