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How the Sunday magazine redesign at the New York Times could benefit its readers and bottom line

Josh Macht, group publisher of the Harvard Business Review Group, analyses the reinvention of New York Times' Magazine.

The world probably does not need another column, or even tweet, about the New York Times Magazine’s redesign. So much has already been said. But I’d like to take a slightly different approach and discuss what this reinvention tells us about the company’s strategy.

This is my first installment at what aims to be a monthly opinion piece about how the world of management ideas — which I inhabit as group publisher of The Harvard Business Review – relates to the world of journalism and publishing.

Rigorous management thinking has never really had a place in the newsroom or among the creative forces that have driven great magazine making, as far as I can tell. Applying “best management practice” or even attempting to introduce management ideas to an editorial team always seemed about as comfortable as an ill-fitting pinstripe suit cloaked upon a free-spirited artist.

But that might be changing. One reason may be because magazines are under intense pressure to survive, and they’ll look to just about anyone for advice. Why not turn to management thinkers for useful instruction and clear-eyed insights about what ails so many publications?

Something else is different. We live in a post-Jobsian world, and by that I mean that life changed after Steve Jobs, who certainly had his techie-artistic side, but at the same time grew into the role of manager and executive who makes tough choices, tries to motivate the masses, and looks for the best return on every dollar. Whether you love him or hate him, Jobs learned to manage the creative process and grew into a great management thinker.

Surely then, magazines can also grow to appreciate ideas like strategic focus, capital allocation, and – dare I say customer satisfaction. Gasp! I’ll give it some time before I dive into needs based segmentation. I don’t want to lose all of you at once. 

But now let me return to the Times’s redesign and the strategic thinking behind it. Possibly the toughest part about forming a strategy is defining who you want as a customer. This gets even further complicated for magazines because we typically have two – and possibly three – types of customers: the advertiser, the reader, and lets not forget the writer. All three are served by a publication. But attempting to cater to all three can overstretch and dilute an organisation’s focus and make it nearly impossible to be the best at any one thing.

In Stress Test Your Strategy: The 7 Questions to Ask, Robert Simons, a professor at the Harvard Business School, talks about this idea of the “primary customer.” Simons makes the case for why a business must have one strictly defined customer who it can focus upon with all its might to please and delight. 

The relevant example here is Home Depot, the massive retailer for home improvement supplies. Simons explains how the company began to cater to professional contractors in the early 2000s, fearing that the consumer business had become glutted. But the business faltered, and it took a new CEO to rededicate itself primarily to the average consumer before it could re-gain its footing. 

Simons’s point is that "many companies resist choosing just one customer. Executives often attempt to avoid the adjective 'primary' by announcing, 'We have multiple customers.' This is a sure recipe for underperformance. Allocating resources to more than one customer results in confusion and less-than-optimal service."

While many have commented on the raft of ads in the Times’ new magazine, I was more impressed by how the editorial appeared to be re-dedicated to the reader. The new fonts and cleaner design are meant to improve the reading experience, and while the story selection hasn’t changed dramatically, it feels as though the new columns, with the addition of items like Poetry, are even more focused on a particular reader. Looking at the new magazine gives you a clear sense that the editors are producing the publication for a particular type of person who is probably of a certain age, urbane, and yearning for a deeper view of not just timely ideas but culturally substantial thinking.

That laser like focus on the reader — and a relatively narrowly defined reader — could pay huge dividends down the line, as the deeper engagement with a potentially well-read, well-paid, intellectual and influential audience may lead to higher ad sales.

That’s the good news. Now for the tougher part. 

The challenge for the Times is to come up with the same clear sense of audience and purpose when it transposes itself to the web. And that means maintaining a more meaningful relationship between the print publication and its digital presence.

Right out of the gate, that relationship still seems strained. The magazine points to the website for more articles (written daily in fact) or more ethicist column (in podcast form online, to show that they are in vogue). But these elements are referential and not dynamic – meaning, they substitute a similar experience, rather than interweave two experiences that are richer when taken together.

The goal for the Times magazine team, and pretty much all of us, should be to create a dynamic flow between web and print that pulls the reader back and forth much like counterpoint in a symphony that naturally leads the listener back to the major theme.

Simply put, even the best magazine in the world won’t survive without a digital presence that enhances and complements its print product. But so often we still think of the magazine redesign as an isolated activity apart from the web. And that’s why we still end up with fairly rudimentary references from print to web – even though we know that these references really aren’t that satisfying.

Instead, there must be a concerted effort to design the digital and print versions as two experiences that can be consumed separately, but which are ultimately more satisfying because they complete one another. It may not be the most sophisticated example, but television has done a decent job on this front. Talent and reality shows encouraged viewers to vote for their favourite contestants by tweeting for them. This is a simple but powerful way of getting the customer to participate on two platforms not by duplicating efforts but by letting one mode reinforce another. 

If the Times can’t find innovative digital ways to bring the reader deeper into its publishing efforts, it may find it increasingly difficult to support the kind of print journalism that it does so well. That’s because the Times’s Magazine isn’t competing against other weekly magazines. It’s up against something much bigger—which is really a slew of fragmented ways in which we consume media on any given Sunday morning. To compete and win, it must invent new and more stimulating connections to its digital presence.

Do you agree? Write to me to share your thinking. 

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