How The New Yorker found its digital groove

When past presidents and other luminaries of a more civil time in Washington turned John McCain's funeral a month ago into an elegy for bi-partisan political courage, I wondered, as a loyal New Yorker reader, what the magazine would have to say when it hit my mailbox a week or 10 days hence.

No need to wait. The magazine's website had coverage from a young reporter followed by a commentary from veteran journalist Susan Glasser, posted that same Saturday afternoon.

More of the same was in play when Newyorker.com published Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow's account of accusations of sexual misconduct from Yale classmate Debbie Ramirez against Brett Kavanaugh.

The sensational story went up on a Sunday night, dominating Monday's news cycle — but did not and will not appear in the print magazine.

Not all of Newyorker.com's exclusive content is heavy duty.  Food critic Hannah Goldfield had a piece not long ago on how to make ice cream in a plastic bag — not exactly a fit for the print New Yorker.

In all, editor Michael Luo told me, NewYorker.com generates 10 to 15 pieces a day for internet eyes only, as well as including all the contents of the print edition in daily servings through the week.

The site didn't burst from nowhere; it has been growing for over a decade. But it seems to be hitting on all cylinders, both journalistically and as a business, over the last 18 months. And this is at a time when troubled legacy magazines (the New Yorker not among them) have been struggling to find the right digital iteration.

Luo took over in February 2017 from Nicholas Thompson, who left to become editor of Wired. Reporting breaking news is a capacity the site is trying to build, Luo told me, but "commentary is still why people come to The New Yorker...(that) and being part of a broader progressive community."

So the most typical piece may be a short take from an established writer like Glasser, Jeffrey Toobin or John Cassidy — not instant analysis, but ready hours, not days, after the event or news break.

The New Yorker has plenty of company in the quality magazine digital space, most notably The Atlantic. Spokesperson Anna Bross told me The Atlantic site publishes 35 to 40 pieces of fresh digital content daily. And much more is on the way as The Atlantic staffs up with majority owner Laurene Powell Jobs' commitment to up to 100 new hires, most of them focused on digital content.

Luo also counts Slate and The Ringer as competitors. Then there is Politico, which, as I wrote last year, has established a weekly digital magazine presence (The Friday Cover) to supplement its exhaustive daily coverage.

New Yorker spokesperson Natalie Raabe provided these statistics on the site's performance:

  • Digital-only paid circulation is 167,374, about 13 percent of the total of 1.27 million. Both are up from a year ago, the digital-only share by 10 percent, a print-digital combo by 30 percent. Pricing  drives potential subscribers to print-digital at $120 per year, just $20 more than digital-only.
  • Newyorker.com had 22.5 million unique visitors in September, a 27 percent increase compared to September 2017.
  • According to ComScore, the average monthly time per visitor in July was 6.8 minutes, up 113 percent from July 2017.

The site's home page and individual articles mimic the typography and design style of the print  magazine. Ads are sparse — typically a single sponsor for the home page. In recent weeks, those have included The New York Times (a subscription offer), Google Chrome and Starbucks.

In July 2014, The New Yorker phased in a paywall, supplanting a confusing system of "locked" and "unlocked" articles.  After a free get-acquainted period, the meter was set at six free articles a month, since reduced to four. (My digital expert colleague Ren LeForme tells me that standard workarounds cannot circumvent the wall.)

This year print-only subs are being phased out, though not every reader activates and uses the digital option.

It's Luo's goal to make the digital side a must-read, at least for those hooked on The New Yorker. His staff, Luo said, is up to roughly 60 people including dedicated copy editors and fact-checkers.

He was hired from The New York Times in late 2016 as an investigative editor but rotated quickly into the digital editor job.

"We're still a pretty young operation," Luo said. Hires on his watch include a reporter covering immigration (Jonathan Blitzer) and another based in Atlanta, covering the South (Charles Bethea). Glasser, the editor and later a featured columnist for Politico, was a recent catch who is writing for both the site and the print magazine.

There also is a growing volume of lighter fare: a crossword puzzle, a daily cartoon and daily "shouts" humor pieces. And the site is home to a few (but well-executed) videos; recent topics included a vivid feature on tornado chasers and an interview with Robert Redford on his last acting role.

Variations of the NewYorker.com paywall system are now being tried at other Conde Nast titles like Vanity Fair and Wired. Conde Nast still has room to improve its metrics, Luo said, to get more sophisticated in identifying "signals that lead to subscriptions" — steps along the way from sampling an article or two to an eventual order.

I first encountered Luo last December while doing an annual piece on Chartbeat's compilation of best-read articles from its clients in 2017, measured by total engaged minutes (The Atlantic's first-person piece "My Family's Slave," won by a wide margin).

Newyorker.com is a Parse.ly rather than Chartbeat client and compiles its own list. Luo told me that four stories, led by Ronan Farrow's Weinstein expose, later a Pulitzer Prize Public Service Award winner, would have finished in the top 20.  And the late-in-the-year "Cat Person" short story (about an internet flirtation and date gone wrong) had even more traffic in engaged minutes.

To my mind, Newyorker.com and competitor sites have meaningfully expanded the body of smart reporting and commentary. And since digital sites have unlimited space, there is no reason that this relatively recent home for good journalism cannot keep expanding.

Furthermore, The New Yorker rolled the dice when it converted to a strict paywall and seems to be proving it can maintain traffic and drive reader revenue as the climate for traditional print magazine advertising — or digital — deteriorates.

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