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Jan. 6, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
Business Models

Under its new CEO, New York Magazine is branching out into more “voice-y news products”

“We’re making sure that we’re appropriately marketing directly to consumers and really selling subscriptions at full price.”

New York magazine will be 50 years old next year, and though in that time it’s suffered a couple bumps and bruises — its print edition went biweekly in 2014 — it’s often come out stronger on the other side. (It got more honors than any other publication at the National Magazine Awards last year.) pulled in 28 million monthly unique visitors in November, a new record for the company and up 80 percent over the (non-election-year) 2015.

Last April, Pamela Wasserstein became New York’s CEO. Wasserstein, who had led strategy at the publication and, before that, run corporate development at Tribeca Enterprises, is the daughter of the late Bruce Wasserstein, who bought New York for $55 million in 2004.

“The magazine has been on fire,” Wasserstein told me. “I imagine that part of the reason that writers like Rebecca Traister and Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich work with us is that it’s relatively unique to have the opportunity and flexibility to respond immediately to news, to sit back for two days and think about something and then reach an audience, or to spend a few months tooling around on something and have it be our cover story.”

Wasserstein and I spoke about New York’s newly launched membership program, its e-commerce initiatives, and what’s coming in 2017. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: When you moved from head of strategy to CEO, what did you identify as things to work on right away?

Pamela Wasserstein: The Strategist was one initiative. Early in 2016, we started actively tapping and closely analyzing that kind of affiliate-focused service content.

Branded content was another area that just makes so much sense for our brand in particular. We’re doing a video project for Guinness using our Science of Us brand that talks about the properties of liquid nitrogen. [Jeopardy champion] Ken Jennings worked on it with us; it’s just kind of fun and educational. In the spring, we worked with IBM to highlight their partnership with Marchesa, the fashion brand, for the Met Ball, when Marquesa designed a dress that was powered by [IBM’s] Watson.

Owen: You also just launched a membership program, for $9.99 a month or $99 a year, in November.

Wasserstein: It’s an effort to serve, primarily, our New York City-based audience that turns to New York for discovery of what’s new, what’s next, what’s cool, what’s insider-y in the experience of living here. It’s oriented toward unique experiences — either ones that we are creating ourselves or, often, ones that we’re curating and arranging for special access for members.

We have a couple hundred members. It very, very soft-launched in mid-November, and it only got a homepage and some on-site promotion [in December]. We initially promoted it just to friends and family and some percentage of email newsletter subscribers, to start building up a test group. We’re going to keep it pretty small and intimate, at least for a few months, to make sure we’re getting the programming mix right, and then probably market it more broadly. Part of the value proposition is that there is a sense of community to it, so we want to be careful about scaling it too quickly.

We’re trying to think about how we can provide unique value in creative ways, adding little nuggets of value. We have a private Instagram account for members. We did an Ask The Strategist thing, where The Strategist can solve your local shopping needs.

Owen: What’s your strategy for email newsletters? Are you thinking about doing original newsletter content?

Wasserstein: At the moment, our newsletters are principally a curated set of links and easy digests of what’s in the news, and you can either read the headlines and be in the know, or hopefully go back and get the full story on our site. We have experimented a little bit with more written-through newsletters, and I think in 2017 you’ll continue to see us playing with some of those concepts. I’m sure your experience is similar to mine, where I get so many newsletters in the morning at this point — we just want to make sure that if we’re putting something out there, it’s providing something different and filling a need. I do think there are some more voice-y news products that we might put out that could achieve that. But there’s a high bar.

Owen: How are you thinking about the verticals? How are you deciding which new ones to launch?

Wasserstein: This year we launched Select All and The Strategist. They came about in different ways. Technology and the intersection of technology and culture, the subject matter of Select All, has been an area of interest for a long time, and technology had felt like a bit of a hole for us. There’s also an endemic advertiser base there, which is not everything but is a consideration. Initially, we did it as a popup blog under a different name that was a sponsored thing, and that gave us a chance to experiment a little bit and see what specifically in that content area was really resonating with our audience. That content did seem to connect in a pretty compelling way. So we came back two months later and formally launched it as a full-fledged site.

The Strategist was a little bit different. That was about bringing more service content and creating a home for the product curation that we were already doing organically across our verticals, developing a destination for that kind of content.

Owen: Which of your verticals is the largest in terms of traffic?

Wasserstein: Vulture, and The Cut is really right next to it. The Cut has seen enormous traffic growth this year, in particular this fall, largely due to political and news content, which is pretty exciting. They have a wonderful authority in politics while also having a distinctly female outlook, and given the state of politics and culture today, I think that that’s a really important perspective that there are many people hungry for. So looking toward 2017, that space is going to be an area that we’ll be investing in and focused on — both digitally and probably with live events, as well.

Actually, just around news and politics, it’s been a pretty stellar year, audience-wise. In November, we hit nearly 28 million on comScore across all our verticals. That was up 80 percent from the previous year.

Owen: How are you thinking about the print magazine these days? You said recently that digital would make up around 60 percent of total ad sales in 2016.

Wasserstein: Yeah, it’s about 60. On the magazine side, the revenue mix is moving more toward the consumer base — we have a pretty strong ad base as well, but we’re making sure that we’re appropriately marketing directly to consumers and really selling subscriptions at full price. The magazine has been on fire. It was just named magazine of the year by AdWeek.

Not to put words in their mouths, but I imagine that part of the reason that writers like Rebecca Traister and Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich work with us is that it’s relatively unique to have the opportunity and flexibility to respond immediately to news, to sit back for two days and think about something and then reach an audience, or to spend a few months tooling around on something and have it be our cover story. Having all those channels is important for our talent and for our audiences, and for our stature in the cultural ecosystem.

Owen: Do you ever think about putting some of the magazine content, like the features, behind a paywall?

Wasserstein: Of course, over the years, we’ve thought about paywalls. But we only publish [the print magazine] every other week. If there are three or four features in an issue, so six to eight in a month, taking only features behind a metered paywall would probably be tough. Our features are often some of our biggest digital audience drivers. There’s continuing to be innovation in payment for digital content, and it’s something we watch, but we don’t have an immediate plan for it.

Owen: You have two podcasts right now, Sex Lives and Vulture TV. It seems as if there might be room for expansion.

Wasserstein: Frankly, we probably haven’t been as focused on developing a full, deep lineup of podcasts as others. But there are potentially more podcasts in the works, in part guided by the interests of our writers and editors, which is a great way to do it because if someone’s passionate about creating something, it’s more likely that the product is going to be wonderful and connect with audiences well.

Owen: What about distributed publishing? Are you on Facebook Instant Articles, for instance?

Wasserstein: Daily Intelligencer and Science of Us are on Instant Articles. The Cut, Vulture, Grub Street, and Select All are not. We’re looking, in part, at what’s the impact in revenue and traffic of being on Instant Articles. I don’t think we’ve seen a big difference either way.

Certainly, we’re very committed to Facebook overall as a source of traffic. That said, we’re also committed to our on-site experience. We’re not looking to be a fully socially distributed kind of company. We have pretty robust direct homepage traffic; there’s a real audience there for whom we, specifically, are a destination. Of course people love our content, but it’s gratifying to see that they also really love us and seek us out.

Photo of New York Magazine building by Barry Malone used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 6, 2017, 9:30 a.m.
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