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Oct. 28, 2016, 10:31 a.m.
Business Models

New York magazine turns a history of shopping recommendations into a new online revenue stream

Making money from $195 fitted sheets and Japanese women’s facial razors.

“Service journalism” got renewed attention this week with the news that The New York Times shelled out $30 million for The Wirecutter and The Sweethome.

But shopping recommendations obviously aren’t limited to dedicated review sites. At its launch in 1968, New York magazine included a column called “The Passionate Shopper.” (From the May 6, 1968 issue: “If you like fresh sausage, and want to meet some of the men who make sausages, First Avenue below 14th Street is the place to go.”)

“Service journalism is part of New York’s DNA,” said David Haskell, New York’s deputy editor. “The idea over its entire history is that the city is vast and thrilling and overwhelming sometimes, and there’s a lot of usefulness that can come from smart, direct, witty advice about how to navigate it properly.” Over the past decade, that content has been housed in a section of the magazine called The Strategist, which has “trained a whole generation of editors here to be very good service journalists.”

Speaking of vast and overwhelming things: the Internet. “We realized that there was an opportunity for the same kind of service journalism we’ve been perfecting and focusing on for decades to be applied to internet shopping,” Haskell said. This month, New York launched The Strategist, “a new site for helping you shop the internet”:

It is edited by people (not robots), and is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Most online shopping advice comes in the form of not particularly helpful roundups and slideshows. Our hope is to find the stuff out there that is actually worth buying — products that are really good and that we fully believe in.

The Strategist is one of the first initiatives from Pam Wasserstein, who was named CEO of New York Media in April. (She was previously the company’s co-chair and head of strategy.) Wasserstein is looking at new revenue models for New York, and The Strategist, with its business model built around affiliate revenue, is one of them. (A premium membership program featuring events around the city is also in its early stages.)

“Since we had already been dipping our toes into affiliate e-commerce revenue for a few years, we knew there was untapped potential if we really put strategic thinking and resources behind it,” Wasserstein said. In those early experiments, New York had seen strong clickthrough and conversion rates.

The team had two models in mind as it began thinking about The Strategist. One, of course, was The Wirecutter. “It’s on one side of a spectrum,” said Haskell. “It doesn’t publish as often as others do, but it is incredibly rigorous and deep in its reviews of every item.” On the other side of the spectrum, he said, was Gizmodo, which posts about tech deals much more frequently. “We found ourselves interested in being somewhere in the middle and then applying qualities of our journalism. We try to be as authoritative as we can in pieces where we want to really drill down and discover the best, but we also value writerly flair and wit.”

And so you’ll find $195 fitted sheets, nail cream meant for horses’ hooves, and tiny Japanese razors that remove women’s facial hair. “The selection of our products is probably more driven by aesthetics and other reasons for having it around your apartment,” said Haskell, “not just whether it scores best in a Consumer Reports kind of way.”

New York’s affiliate shopping program doesn’t rely quite heavily on Amazon as The Wirecutter and Gizmodo do, since many of the more luxury items it recommends aren’t sold there. For stuff sold on non-Amazon sites, New York is using an affiliate program called Bam-X, which aims to “connect retailers with organic stories on premium publishers in a scalable, optimized way,” and Skimlinks. Haskell stressed, though, that editorial decisions are made without influence from the business side, and “if our editors fall in love with an item that’s outside of that [affiliate revenue] universe, we’re still going to write about it. We only think there’s a strong and enduring business here if we can be 100 percent behind every product we recommend.”

Photo by Yvette Wohn used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 28, 2016, 10:31 a.m.
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