New York Times Invests Millions in Sunday Magazine to Lure Advertisers

Print, Digital Redesign Coming Feb. 22

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The New York Times Magazine.
The New York Times Magazine.

Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, and Andy Wright, its publisher, have visited 10 cities in the last two months to tell CMOs and agency execs about the changes they're bringing to the magazine.

"Depending on the city," Mr. Silverstein said, "we say we're either Starsky and Hutch, Bonnie and Clyde or -- "

"Jake and Elwood," Mr. Wright interjected, referring to the Blues Brothers.

"We were in Miami yesterday, so we were Crockett and Tubbs," Mr. Silverstein added. (They didn't dress the part -- "Miami Vice" detectives.)

The buddy routine between Messrs. Silverstein and Wright comes as the New York Times Co. invests millions of dollars in its Sunday magazine, a nearly 120-year-old bastion of long-form journalism. A redesign of the print magazine, including a thicker paper stock, is scheduled for Feb. 22. Mr. Silverstein declined to describe the new look in detail, but said, "There will be more change than continuity." Already, he's rearranged portions of the magazine and killed two sections that appeared in the front, "The One-Page Magazine" and "Who Made That?"

"A year from now, I want to see it as an unquestioned must-read for everybody," Mr. Silverstein said. "If you're going to have a successful conversation with your friends that week, you'll have to have read it."

George Janson, managing partner and director of print for media-buying agency GroupM, said he's already seen "a noticeable change for the better since Jake became editor."

"I do think if the editorial team can break news and offer compelling, thought-provoking storytelling much like The New Yorker, New York Magazine and big-sister New York Times newspaper, advertisers will follow," Mr. Janson added.

Advertising declines
The Times Magazine is among the most-read parts of the Sunday paper, according to Mr. Wright, citing internal research. Despite the reader interest, the last several years have seen a decline in advertising dollars. Through September of this year, ad revenue for the magazine is down by a percentage in the low double digits compared with the same period last year, Mr. Wright said.

"If they closed the Sunday Times magazine, readers would revolt, but few advertisers would notice," a former Times executive said.

Some of that may be a problem of the Times' own making: Luxury advertisers have decamped to T: The New York Times Style Magazine, which has seen sharp gains in ad dollars. And during the 2008-2009 economic downturn, the Sunday Magazine also lost a chunk of its luxury real estate advertising, according to former Times executives. Real estate and finance remain the two biggest ad categories in the Sunday Magazine, Mr. Wright said.

The new investment in the Sunday Magazine will partly look to lure advertisers back to the magazine. Mr. Wright, a 17-year veteran of the Times, is charged with steering the business side of the magazine. In July, he was named publisher -- the first time someone has held this title at the magazine -- while continuing in his role as senior VP-advertising.

"We expect new luxury advertisers to be in the magazine," he said. "It's going to be a big, fat magazine." In September, the magazine saw a 25% bump in ad revenue, according to Mr. Wright, who attributed the spike to Mr. Silverstein's early efforts.

Layoffs at the mothership
Spending on the magazine also come as the Times looks to trim costs elsewhere, including buyouts and layoffs expected to claim more than 100 positions. Revenue at the Times as a whole edged up 0.8% during the third quarter to $364.7 million. But ad sales fell slightly -- 0.1% to $137.9 -- due to weakness in the print advertising market.

Jake Silverstein, editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine.
Jake Silverstein, editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine. Credit: Earl Wilson for The New York Times
Andy Wright, publisher of The New York Times Magazine
Andy Wright, publisher of The New York Times Magazine

The Times does not break out revenue for the Sunday Magazine, but Mr. Wright said the title generates about 90% of its revenue from print ad sales. The magazine does not cover its costs through ad sales alone, according to former high-ranking employees. However, Times executives said the magazine is in the black if you include revenue from newsstand and subscription sales, because some readers buy the Sunday Times largely for the Magazine.

That kind of analysis of the magazine's bottom line is "conjecture because we simply don't look at our business that way," Mr. Wright said in an email.

Through the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2014, the Times' average Sunday print circulation was down 3.5%, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, which tracks newspaper circulation. Neither the Alliance for Audited Media nor The Newspaper Association of America had comparable figures for the entire industry.

Digital redesign
A digital redesign will accompany the print reboot. Currently, magazine stories look nearly identical to other Times articles online. But the new site will be "magazine-y," according to Mr. Wright, with "rich, beautiful display." And the editorial staff will aim to publish a handful of stories online each day in an effort to "be a daily part of the web conversation," Mr. Silverstein said.

"We're not going to be a high-volume website," he added. "Our game is high quality, lower volume."

Mr. Silverstein has hired eight people -- including three in new positions at the magazine -- since arriving at the Times in May following a six-month period in which the magazine was without a leader and its future uncertain. Hugo Lindgren had left as the magazine's top editor and Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the Times, had put the magazine under a three-month review to determine its course.

"I had imagined I'd come in and people would be pretty dejected from that six-month experience, but in fact they were ready to turn the page and do something new," Mr. Silverstein said.

The magazine is also planning to introduce an event series, including festival-style events every three months, as well as smaller monthly gatherings that delve into the magazine stories.

"The Times Magazine has yet to put all the pieces together and imagine itself as a multiplatform sub-brand of the Times," Mr. Silverstein said. "And that's what we're really talking about doing."

This commitment is encouraging, said Andrew Essex, vice chairman at creative agency Droga5. "There was a clear sense in the advertising community that the magazine was not being properly nourished," he added. "A healthy and vital New York Times Magazine is very good for the culture. You want more first class organizations with first class journalism and first class advertising."

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