Thriving New York solves the cash question. Can others follow?

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New York magazine has always puzzled me. In an era of death spirals for traditional city news magazines, it not only avoided financial ruin but become a top-shelf reporting powerhouse that sometimes rivals the New Yorker. What did it do to flourish while others teetered?

This week, Advertising Age has a good account of how New York became a profitable online success story. The article explains how an early embrace of digital is helping New York outstrip others:

Consumer magazines draw only about five percent to fifteen percent of their ad sales from their digital operations, analysts and insiders say. New York‘s digital properties, by contrast, account for forty percent of the company’s total ad sales.

The publication is pouring these new revenues back into reporting and has created a virtuous cycle in which high-quality journalism attracts high-quality ads. As Ad Age explains, New York’s high profile reporting has helped it reach beyond a regional audience:

New York Media sites drew 4.8 million unique visitors, according to ComScore, providing the scale that large marketers require. And with nearly 80 percent of its online audience coming from outside New York, the publication gives star political writers Frank Rich and John Heilemann a national platform.

The magazine’s new prominence has also succeeded in attracted valuable luxury brand advertisers like Bergdorf Goodman.

It’s a nice story but New York may be an outlier and not a model for other city magazines. One reason is that New York invested early enough to turn the digital corner before print revenues started their dramatic decline; it may be too late for others to do the same. The magazine may also be a special case because the size of its regional market provided a big enough base to scale into a national audience. It seems unlikely that city magazines in Philadelphia, Seattle or even Chicago could do the same, no matter how great their writing.

For now, the future of city coverage may belong to specialists like Curbed Media which, like New York, has pulled in major marketers (see our profile on Curbed here). It do so by offering high-quality reporting on local niches like real estate and food under a common brand. Perhaps city magazines can work out a similar strategy.

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