'City' mag explores quasi-content deal

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Greg Lindsay actually likes airports.

That's why Mr. Lindsay, a Brooklyn-based writer, dreamed up a multi-week tour of international hotspots in which he'd restrict his sightseeing and sleepovers-as well as bathing, dining and day-to-day minutiae-to airports. All of which he'd document via photo-essays, blogs, streaming video and a magazine article.

"No one writes about airports as destinations," says Mr. Lindsay, who knows a frightening amount about, say, airport design and facilities in Kuala Lumpur.

John McDonald, editorial director and publisher of the magazine's world current small-title darling, City magazine, bit on the concept. To underwrite what City's calling "In Transit" and what Mr. McDonald estimates as editorial costs that could hit $100,000-hefty for any magazine, much less one with paid circulation around 85,000-City is approaching marketers with product placement-cum-underwriting program pitch that's part Nascar, part public radio and part reality TV.

content-deal questions

As such, the project promises to bring a new degree of sponsored content into magazines. Marketers sponsoring editorial that's slugged on page with the legend "Special Advertising Section" is common; marketers' underwriting an entire editorial project is not.

Mr. McDonald-a 36-year-old entrepreneur who also owns New York hot spots such as Lever House-says that the "In Transit" magazine piece will be clearly delineated as being advertiser-sponsored. Still, it raises questions about how such moves will be viewed by readers and the American Society of Magazine Editors, which is the sole institutional arbiter of editorial do's-and-don'ts. ASME guidelines do not cover sponsored- about content deals.

`"In Transit' sponsors are not underwriters of the trip. They're characters in it," reads a section of a come-on addressed to marketers. "Greg's carefully edited possessions promise to become his only link to the outside world. He and his audience will get to know them very well."

The approach came together in the wake of the magazine's "Unfold" program from last May, underwritten by Diesel Style Lab and Bombay Sapphire. Nine designers were told to create a collapsible piece of furniture on a budget under $200-and FedEx it to City with "concise instructions" for assembly.

The aims of "In Transit" are larger, and the sponsorships more fluid. Although many program details are still being worked out, all packages essentially involve purchasing ads in City, said Mr. McDonald: "Someone who wanted to sponsor [`In Transit'] but didn't want to advertise in the magazine wouldn't make sense." (An ad page in City costs $12,000.)

`in jail in the airport'

Diesel's interested in "In Transit," said Diesel USA VP-Marketing Maurizio Marchiori. "We're still waiting to see what kind of ideas we can build around this project ... this guy who is-I like to say-in jail in the airport."

Less certain is how "In Transit" will be viewed by ASME. The group's main disciplinary stick is the threat of withholding National Magazine Awards. City's profile was raised considerably by the three National Magazine Award nominations it's garnered in its four-year life span. (It won this year for photography.)

"Disclosure and labeling is often key," says ASME Chairman Mark Whitaker. (Agreed: Mr. Lindsay is an occasional contributor to Advertising Age.)

City's program may not run afoul of ASME, which is studying issues of sponsored content and product-placement. But Mr. Whitaker stressed ASME was early in its deliberative processes. One issue Mr. Whitaker says, is even if "publishers try things like this and it's all disclosed: To what degree does that affect their credibility with readers?"

Mr. McDonald says "In Transit" sponsorships won't involve formalized product mentions. This presumably leaves Mr. Lindsay free to worry about quotidian concerns, like not running afoul of security and maintaining sanity.

"I am curious to see," Mr. Lindsay says, what will happen "once I am no longer self-conscious and totally acclimatized" to living in airports.

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