This weekend marks the arrival of the redesigned New York Times Magazine. It's a very important moment not only for the Times, but for the broader US magazine industry as a whole. The Magazine, which has a circulation of more than a million copies per week, is the single most effective vehicle that the New York Times has for presenting expensive print advertisements to its affluent readership. If it succeeds, it will be proof of the continued importance of print in journalism. So it's worth asking, on the strength of this debut issue: has it succeeded? Let's start leafing through it!
The first thing you notice about this issue is that it's wonderfully, gloriously, thick: 220 pages, or so, depending on how you're counting. It's glossy (glossier than ever, in fact), it's heavy, it's an object to pick up and hold and savor. The magazine has had some painfully thin incarnations of late, and there's something flimsy about them. This, by contrast, feels much more substantial from the get-go. I'm also a fan of the stapled binding, which preserves a sense of newsiness and helps to differentiate the Magazine from T, its perfect-bound style-mag sister publication.
The cover line, "Hello, world", is perfect. It serves well enough to sum up the "global" theme of the issue; it's a cheery greeting from the editors to their readers; and it's a nod to the digital reality in which the latest incarnation of the magazine must live.
The issue has not one but four different covers. (My favorite is the last one, above. Because this magazine doesn't need to move copies at the newsstand, covers can be much more daring than most other magazines could get away with.) This issue presents no particular need for the four-different-covers gimmick, but it's a great way of extracting lots of money from Cadillac, the high-end brand advertiser which has bought the entire cover package, including three inside front covers and the outside back cover.
Cadillac is exactly the kind of advertiser the magazine needs. This is pure brand advertising: the idea is to increase the mindshare of Cadillac in readers' minds, rather than to persuade them to go out and buy a Cadillac tomorrow. Historically, the magazine had quite a lot of luxury-goods advertising, but nearly all of that has now migrated to T.
Immediately, however, the brand advertising comes to an end: the next thing we see, after the fourth cover, is a double-page property ad. This isn't brand advertising, not really: it's an attempt to sell very expensive apartments. Obviously the distinctions do blur a little, but they're still important.
If you're not the kind of person who's likely to spend millions of dollars on a New York apartment, this ad really isn't for you. And that could be a problem, for the magazine. Obviously, the property advertisers' money is as green as anybody else's, if not greener; their cash is very welcome. But these ads don't enhance the reading experience of the magazine in the way that, say, a Louis Vuitton ad enhances the reading experience of T. Fashion books are read as much for the meticulously art-directed ads as they are for the editorial, but there are precious few people who enjoy flipping through ads for luxury condos.
If the ads aren't for high-end permanent accommodations, they're for high-end temporary accommodations. The ads at the very front of the book are the most expensive and valuable ads of all, and they set the tone for the rest of the magazine. And there's an important difference between these ads, on the one hand, and ads for equally-inaccessibly high-end frocks, on the other. The fashion ads are beautiful in and of themselves, and they facilitate aspirational fantasies. When you open up an issue of T, you fall into an impossibly glamorous and perfect world which is fun to dream about.
Ads for apartments and hotels and private wealth managers don't have the same effect. They're services for the rich, which only serve to remind the rest of us that it's the One Percent's world, and we're just living in it. They don't make us feel as though we're in a glamorous presence, they make us feel as though we're, well, poor.
The risk that the ads will end up alienating readers rather than enticing them reaches its zenith with the incomprehensible business-to-business spreads like this one, talking about "real business advantage" and "actionable perspectives".
The actual editorial content begins on page 30, which is pretty much perfect. Too much earlier is a sign that the ad-sales team is having a hard time; too much later is annoying for readers. (It's great that the first page of edit appears opposite a rare luxury-brand ad, but of course the second page ends up running against a wealth-management ad.)
Starting the edit with an editor's letter is a very traditional thing to do, not that there's anything wrong with that. Visually speaking, the layout is also quite traditional: clean, lots of white space, with the first page dominated by a photograph.
Visually, this letter sets a couple of important precedents. Firstly, although it's two pages long, both pages are on the left-hand side of the spread. Readers can't start on one page and then turn it to read the next page: they have to navigate an ad in the middle. Advertisers always prefer to be on the right, and clearly advertisers are going to get what advertisers want.
Secondly, try to find the byline. It's tiny, and placed outside the grid, as part of the navigation elements up top. The editor, Jake Silverstein, is justifiably proud of his contributors, but he's not interested in trumpeting their names. This isn't Vanity Fair, where Graydon Carter turns his contributors into stars in their own right: it's a much more serious book, where the value lies in what is published, rather than the identity of the person who wrote it. That message is underscored by the serious black-and-white nature of the letter, and also by the elegant yet serious tone of the prose.
Four pages of contents? Now that's just excessive: it goes a long way to defeating the whole point of having a table of contents in the first place. I almost can't believe it's deliberate: maybe a bunch of ads came in at the last minute, and this was the way they managed to squeeze them all in opposite edit.
A contributors page! (Actually, two contributors pages.) This is more revolutionary than it looks: as far as I know, the magazine has before never listed its staff on a printed masthead. Interestingly, the printed editor's letter talks about this page; in the online version, that paragraph of the letter has been deleted, maybe because the contributors page, and masthead, does not exist online. (Update: the contributors page isn't online, but the masthead is here.) If you want to know who the magazine's copy editors are, you'll have to buy the printed version.
The second contributors page appears opposite an ad for the Rubin Museum of Art, a museum in New York with very little in the way of name recognition. It's a sign that the relaunch of the magazine is an important cultural event, which will reach almost everybody who matters. Will the magazine be able to retain such non-traditional advertisers beyond the launch issue? I hope so.
Letters pages are hard, in an era when most people respond online, via social media or blog posts, rather than by writing letters to the editor. The magazine has tackled this problem by running an article which summarizes reactions. It's OK, although it does lose a lot of the voice in the responses. And if the letters are now mainly online, why isn't the magazine putting this page online and linking to them?
All of that is redeemed, however, by the wonderful idea of illustrating Twitter feedback. I hope this happens every week, sometimes more than once!
Of all the new regular features being introduced with this issue, First Words stands out the most. It's given pride of place within the FOB (the "front of the book", as this part of a magazine is known), and it's also the only article in the entire magazine which starts on an odd-numbered page. On top of that, the byline is notable for being featured in large type, inside the grid. All the rules governing the rest of the FOB, it seems, can be broken here.
The idea behind this column is that it's "a prolonged consideration of a telling word or phrase"; "prolonged", in this case, is three pages, including the typographic artistry you see above. I like how it works visually, but it is worth noting a disconnect. All the big and prominent type is authorial throat-clearing: it's Virginia Heffernan saying what she's not writing about, before she gets on to the meat of the column. The impression is that there's a little more of a gap between the editors and the designers than you would ideally like.
Jenna Wortham gets the standard mini-byline and left-hand page placement, but her one-paragraph "dispatch from Internet culture" fits beautifully on its own page. I hope she has a lot of fun with this real estate, going forwards.
I really, really like the idea of the Ethicists (as opposed to the Ethicist, singular), and also the idea of making it a podcast. I would have embedded the podcast right here, but the NYT doesn't seem to want to make that possible. Weird.
Having Teju Cole write an illustrated five-page essay on photography is a perfect way of placing the magazine as a place to find visually-stunning highbrow material. But this is where the FOB formula breaks down. This piece, more than anything else in the magazine, demands the utmost care in how it is presented. Instead, it gets shunted onto left-hand pages, across from wealth-management ads, to the benefit of neither. The message received? Cole's photography piece is less deserving of its own space than any of the features are. That's not a good look.
This "Tip", along with the poem, is the only thing in the magazine which takes up less than a full page. The result is that the book as a whole feels very stately — a progression of one thing after another — and lacks the anarchic lightness that makes many of the best magazines a pleasure to browse through. This is a reader's magazine, not something to flick through if you have an idle minute. Does the magazine need more of the "snackable content" that's infesting so much of the rest of the media world? No. But this incarnation of the magazine is maybe a little on the daunting side?
I'll admit this spread made me LOL: Mark Bittman's earnest essay on Neapolitan cuisine opposite an ad for tinned kidney beans. (And I know I might be sounding like a broken record at this point, but with recipes more than almost anything else, people really care who they're reading. If you've got Bittman, you should trumpet the fact!)
And finally here we are: The Feature Well, the heart of the magazine, with its own mini-cover, and no fewer than seven separate features, each of which starts with its own beautiful double-page spread. It starts on page 99, and in one way or another, with all that "Continued from page 178" stuff, it basically continues all the way through to page 192. It's an awesome display of editorial force, and it looks great. The photography-heavy features, especially — the photographs of Sgt. Madot Dagbinza of the Congolese Army, or the portraits of the French far right — are just stunning.
I'll make just one quibble, which is the headline on Gary Shteyngart's piece of stunt journalism, ‘Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth’. If you put a quotation, complete with quote marks, as the headline of a feature, then my feeling is that it has to be a real quotation. "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families", something like that. This, on the other hand, isn't a quotation from anybody but Shteyngart himself. But as I say, that's just a quibble.
OK, I'll allow myself one more quibble. For reasons best known to itself, the magazine decided that it would use all-new fonts for the redesign: apparently none of the fonts in the world was quite right, and so every single letter needed to be designed from scratch. In general, I like these fonts. But I'm not a fan of the numerals in the main body font. If you read a passage like this one which has a bunch of numbers in it, they stand out in a bad way, and make it harder to read: they don't really feel as though they're the same font at all.
Some things, it seems, even a redesign can't fix. Like the thicket of ads at the back of the book for things like hearing aids and needlepoint kits. Or the bizarre convention whereby if you want to finish reading a feature article, you need to flick forwards dozens of pages.
The crossword is unchanged, too; there's even three brand-new puzzles.
The back page is a very important piece of real estate in any magazine: it's a large part of how the magazine defines itself. In the new New York Times Magazine, it seems, the back page is going to be the old Talk column, which used to be called Questions For. For better or worse, the franchise no longer has the bite that it had when it was being written by Andrew Goldman, and I don't love this way of ending the book. It feels a bit fluffy and generic. Still, it did remind me that I still haven't seen 25th Hour. I've got to get around to that.