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Jan. 17, 2019, 9 a.m.

How New York magazine thinks about having one paywall across multiple verticals

“We wanted to take these three different segments and treat them differently and be flexible enough to really target the people who are most likely to convert, rather than have a blanket rule across every site, every user, and treat them all equally.”

Editor’s note: Atlantic Media publishes a weekly newsletter called The Idea about “everything new and innovative in the media industry.” This week’s edition featured a Q&A with Daniel Hallac, chief product officer at New York magazine and its various online tentacles, which I think has been doing some interesting product thinking recently. (It also named a new editor-in-chief yesterday.) Here’s an expanded version of that Q&A.

Mollie Leavitt: Tell us about what you do.

Daniel Hallac: I joined New York Media about a year and two months ago from Bloomberg, where I was head of product for Bloomberg Media’s digital properties. Before that, I worked on a startup in Bloomberg doing wealth management. My background is very much digital, but not a long career in media. I’ve done everything from my own startup to fintech to social networks, e-commerce — the gamut of digital products. It’s really only been the past five-ish years that I’ve been applying that to media.

As CPO at New York Media, I primarily focus on our digital properties and our digital experiences. My organization includes product management, product design, data science, engineering, business development, and parts of consumer marketing, now that we have a subscription product.

Leavitt: Tell us a bit about the subscription product and the dynamic paywall. What was the product development process behind that?

Hallac: New York Media is made up of six different verticals: New York Magazine (our most famous), Intelligencer (our politics, technology, and business vertical), Vulture (entertainment and pop culture), The Cut (women’s issues), Grub Street (food), and The Strategist, which is our e-commerce affiliate marketing service.

When we were thinking about how to build a paywall and what it would look like, we went through a lot of discussions internally. Do we build a different paywall for every vertical? Do we build a paywall across all the verticals?

We decided the bundle of our entire suite was the right thing to do based on our users and our readers and their behaviors. We realized that not all users are the same, and as you go across different verticals, different readers had different behaviors.

As we started digging into the behaviors, we saw three signals that led to the propensity to subscribe. One was quality of content: a big long feature scored higher than a quick simple blog post. The second was depth: an obsessive reader of Vulture scored higher than a passive reader. The third factor was breadth: someone who reads across multiple verticals.

As we looked to design this product, we wanted to take these three different segments and treat them differently and be flexible enough to really target the people who are most likely to convert, rather than have a blanket rule across every site, every user, and treat them all equally.

Leavitt: What is the strategy behind having these verticals set up like this, rather than separate publications or all being the same publication?

Hallac: All of our verticals were born out of New York Magazine, which has been around for 50 years. It has always been a general interest magazine, and about 10 years ago, before my time, there was a realization that general interest doesn’t really work on the Internet. The leadership at the time said: Let’s take the different sections of the magazine and create vertical destinations on the Internet.

Our food section became Grub Street. Our culture and entertainment section became Vulture. Our fashion and beauty became The Cut — The Cut is so much more than fashion and beauty today, but that’s where it started out. Our politics became Daily Intelligencer, which eventually expanded its scope into technology and business as those became bigger categories, and was rebranded into Intelligencer. Our shopping recommendations section was called The Strategist and that became our e-commerce recommendation site, The Strategist.

Leavitt: Moving into 2019, what are the product team’s main priorities?

Hallac: The way we look at our priorities is much of the last two years have been about building a diversified portfolio, not just of products, but of revenue streams. That’s something that everyone in media is trying to do, and we’ve been quite successful at it.

At this point, we really have four different businesses. The advertising business is still the largest slice of the pie, but we now have a direct consumer business, which is the consumer paywall but also includes live events, and we have some membership programs like the Vulture Insider, that plays into that. We have a commerce business with The Strategist, which is one of our fastest growing sites over the last year. We also have two consultancy businesses. One is New York Stories, which is our brand agency, and the other is Clay, our CMS licensing business.

It’s really about growing those four different businesses and realizing that there is always tension between those four, and making sure we can balance out the interests of all.

Leavitt: What do you see as the company’s business challenges in 2019?

Hallac: The biggest challenge for me, from the lens of a CPO, is always executing with quality. When there’s so many things we can do, so many directions we can take, just being thoughtful, making sure that our products meet our high standards, and really solve a user need and a business need at the same time.

Leavitt: What do you see as user need? How do you pitch to users that New York Media content is something they need to pay for?

Hallac: I always think that it starts with content. We have to produce amazing content that no one else is producing — and we do. That content, depending on the vertical, has to serve a different need. The different verticals and different content types have to meet different needs based on their missions and their users’ needs.

As a product person, you have to make sure you’re delivering a great customer experience. We don’t do popups, we don’t do overlays, we care very much about the design and experience and feel that that’s an important piece of making sure that our users enjoy reading our sites. Reducing the friction of getting to our content, making sure that the content can shine without annoying our readers — otherwise they may not want to pay.

Leavitt: Do you ever worry about subscribers reaching paywall ceilings?

Hallac: I think it’s a concern for the industry, but I think we’re a couple years before that will really be a concern. I feel that if we do our job properly, we hopefully will fill a need, and our users will feel that they get value from subscribing to us.

We’re super excited and bullish about The Strategist, our e-commerce site. It’s been growing over 300 percent year-over-year and has found a very engaged audience around our recommendations there. It’s an amazing addition to the portfolio of what we do.

Leavitt: What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in media recently from an organization other than your own?

Hallac: Dotdash makes a very interesting case study. Historically, it has been near impossible to turn around a consumer internet property, which they did. It is also interesting how they did it — by being true to their mission and values and not by chasing the trend of the day. I am always fascinated by companies that have achieved success by charting their own course.

Mollie Leavitt is a strategy research fellow at Atlantic Media.

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2019, 9 a.m.
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