The trick to turning readers into a group of frothing hoarders: Tell them they can dive into The New Yorker’s archive and leave with as many stories as their arms can bear. Instead of parents stampeding the aisles of their local Walmart for this season’s Elmo, you get people crawling over one another to snatch up a Junot Diaz, an Alice Munro, or that David Grann they’ve been eyeing for a while.
That’s what happened last summer, when The New Yorker brought down the gates to its archive, making stories dating back to 2007 all free. The free ride was all part of the magazine’s relaunch of NewYorker.com, with the idea of introducing the redesigned site to old and new readers by giving people a chance to wander through the stacks for five months. Not only were there shopping lists of what you should be grabbing from the back catalog, but also lists of the lists of what you should be putting into your delayed reading queue of choice.
measure life in days you have to tell yourself you're going to destroy the new yorker archive before it gets paywalled (60)
— Casey Johnston (@caseyjohnston) July 24, 2014
The gold rush for New Yorker stories was set off both by the talent of the writers and by the novelty of seeing one of the most airtight subscription systems suspended; prior to July, only about 25 percent of the magazine’s stories were available to read during a given week. As editor David Remnick told The New York Times in July, the magazine’s old model had “long since outlived its conception.”
The redesign and the Summer of Free were two ways of attacking the question of future audience growth. The first job was a straightforward one: making a site that’s easy and enjoyable to read, that entices non-subscribers just enough to hand over their money.
And the plan worked. But not in the way they expected.
“It wasn’t a massive increase in readers between July and November. There was an increase, but there wasn’t a massive increase,” said Nicholas Thompson, editor of NewYorker.com. “What’s weird is we launched the paywall, and then there was a massive increase.”
For the month of January, unique visitors to the site were up 30 percent over the same period last year. And, more importantly, the number of paying readers has jumped as well. After introducing metered access — six free stories a month — subscription signups were 85 percent higher than the previous January. (The most recent numbers from the Alliance for Audited Media show total paid circulation for The New Yorker was 1,044,524.)
This year, The New Yorker celebrates its 90th birthday, and that longevity lined up well with the availability of older material. Last summer’s run on the archive showed the appetite for it, but it may also have shown the limits of an all-or-nothing subscription plan. Now The New Yorker is taking steps to expand its audience by analyzing what draws people to its website, what makes them subscribe, and how to build affinity with readers who are just discovering the monocled Manhattanite Eustace Tilley.
“We have a magazine, it’s special and I adore it. I believe it’s the best magazine in the world. And I want the website to be thought of the same way,” Thompson told me in a recent visit.
We were speaking on the 38th floor of 1 World Trade Center, the new seat of Condé Nast’s magazine empire. The space has a “just-getting-used-to-the-new-apartment vibe,” and he was still filling out the bookshelves in his office. His windows offer a view clear through to midtown, which Thompson mostly ignores while working at a standing desk opposite the window.
Thompson’s tenure has involved upping the digital metabolism of the site by encouraging writing that is quicker, more timely, and which expands on the sections people come to know in print. That metabolism is relative, of course; the daily output of NewYorker.com is around 15 stories a day, and Thompson doesn’t imagine it’ll go higher than 20. Andy Borowitz and daily dispatches from writers like John Cassidy on Hilary Clinton’s email preferences, drive persistent traffic, Thompson said. During the Summer of Free, and on into the winter of the paywall, long features, like George Packer’s profile of Angela Merkel, remained popular among readers.
But so did the web-first pieces from the news, culture, and humor sections, Thompson says. Things like Jelani Cobb’s dispatches from Ferguson, Ryan Lizza’s scenes from the wake of The New Republic, and Shouts & Murmurs are drawing lots of readers and pushing people to subscribe, he said. This was surprising to many on the staff who’d believed the magazine’s in-depth features would be the main attraction.
Instead, what readers are looking for is a persistent connection to the magazine and their favorite writers. One early sign of that? Thompson said readers of The New Yorker’s newsletters have the highest likelihood of becoming subscribers.
The metric they’re most interested in right now isn’t unique visitors or pageviews, but time spent reading, Thompson said. They know people spent an average of about 17 minutes reading Ian Parker’s Jony Ive profile. The numbers for the magazine’s collections, bundles of stories from the archive around topics like directors, crime, or love, are even higher: an average of 53 minutes spent reading, according to Thompson.
Optimizing paywalls is no longer a new science for media. Following The New York Times’ introduction of its digital subscription plan in 2011, hundreds of publishers have followed with their own variations on the metered model. For many, the early results are a combination of increased subscribers — at least at first — and in some cases declining traffic.
But The New Yorker wasn’t switching from open to meter, as most newspapers were. Its old access model, with its tiny blue locks denoting which stories were only offered to subscribers, had the effect of hiding much of the magazine’s best work. “We really wanted to expose readers to the great content. When you have an article behind the little blue lock, you couldn’t promote it,” said Monica Ray, vice president of consumer marketing for Condé Nast.
Ray credits The New Yorker’s readership gains to audience research and analysis that took place in the months leading up to the site relaunch and the period when the archive was open. Rather than complicate the paywall by weighing features and blog posts differently, they decided all stories would be equal. Placing the meter at six stories means things like “Diary of The Left Shark” and Adam Green’s profile of master pickpocket Apollo Robbins count the same. “We wanted to find a place where you got enough to read, but we weren’t giving you everything,” she said.
The overall goal, through the redesign and the meter, is accessibility, both in technology and tone. As the rush on the archive proved, there is already a firm, and vocal, audience for The New Yorker. Ray said they need to keep expanding, which means reaching people who either don’t know The New Yorker or have misconceptions about magazine. “I think the ability to promote stories more has helped us a lot, so people are coming to the website,” she said.
It’s all part of a continuing adaptation to the ways readers are interacting with The New Yorker, deputy editor Pamela McCarthy told me. Launching the new site and developing a more digital-friendly New Yorker is a process that requires being “deliberate as we move quickly,” she said. That’s not so much a technical process as an editorial one, as the magazine has tasked parts of its famous fact-checking and copy-editing apparatus with working at the speed of the web. What that looks like, McCarthy said, is a system much closer to how newspapers handle their daily reporting. “We know that our colleagues at the Times, The Washington Post — they get things largely right and they don’t have an army of fact-checkers,” she said.
The payoff has been an increase in readers who look for what the magazine’s writers have to say daily rather than just weekly. “Having longtime staff writers be able to respond to events quickly, and in shorter form, is really important and rewarding,” she said.
As The New Yorker grows, the distinctions between how different people connect to the brand may become less important. There’s a new TV show through Amazon and a growing collection of podcasts. It’s long been a media leader in events with its New Yorker Festival; last month, they held a storytelling event in conjunction with The Moth Radio Hour.
Even as they move in all those directions outside of print, the goal will be to maintain — and translate — the New Yorker identity that people respond to, McCarthy said. “I don’t know where it’s all going. I don’t know. But our goal is to be nimble. And to be able to respond to the next thing that comes along,” McCarthy said.