‘NYT Magazine’ editor Hugo Lindgren thinks he possibly ‘blew it’ on the iPad

Hugo Lindgren. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Things have changed since the 1970s and 80s, when The New York Times Magazine was a “catch-all for ads” from small local antiques stores to big national luxury campaigns like Chanel, the magazine's editor Hugo Lindgren told a Columbia University audience last night.

"I don't know what the individual P&L is on the magazine—I'm afraid to know—but I do know that people subscribe to the Sunday New York Times and the weekend edition, in large part, because of the magazine,” Lindgren said. “And that is acknowledged in the building. I don’t get any accounting that demonstrates that, but definitely it’s well understood.”

Lindgren was speaking to 70 students at Columbia Journalism School’s storied Pulitzer World Room, after he'd been introduced by journalism professor Victor Navasky, who himself had served as editor of The New York Times Magazine in the 1970s. Navasky told the students the early "New Journalism" practitioner John Hersey was Lindgren’s personal hero and asked who there knew about Hersey’s 1946 New Yorker story “Hiroshima.” One student raised her hand.

Lindgren said a decade ago, with the launch of the Times’ free-standing style magazine, T, much of his magazine’s luxury advertising, a market he called “one of the only growing markets for print journalism,” moved from his magazine to the new one. The two are totally independent of each other, with T now under the directorship of former Vogue editor Sally Singer. He said he wants those advertisers back in his magazine, but it’s difficult.

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“They do some interesting stuff [at T], but they’re not going to a story about famine in Africa next to the Chanel ads, so it’s an environment that the luxury advertisers feel more comfortable in and it’s difficult for us to make the counter to that,” Lindgren said.

He said he does gain an advantage with some advertisers like Apple that don’t want to be perceived as "luxury," and later said he would like to expand on their primary advertisers in the health care and financial industries.

The routine of media panels and industry professionals discussing the future of the print industry and the transition to digital journalism briefly became a punchline after one student began to ask a question during which she asserted that the jury was still out on the future of print.

“I have it all sorted out," Lindgren started, in a tone of mock confidence. “I know.”

“By all means," she said. "Because every time I’m at one of these talks they always throw the question back at me.”

But he bore down on the question, saying that great articles with well-produced photography and design will remain the center of the magazine, but admitting one big regret about his digital plans.

“At the moment we have a real problem: we do not have a separate iPad app, and our presentation on the New York Times app is not good enough … When I got there, we had a budget to create our own app. Literally, we were about to hire our own people and the budget disappeared. And I got pretty focused on the magazine, on the print magazine, because that’s where we needed a lot of attention. And I probably kind of blew it a little bit not fighting that hard enough, and we’re going to get that restored.”

He said timetables say the app will be ready in two years.

“And you’re like, two years? Oh my god.”

But much of the session was spent talking about the specific choices Lindgren had made with the magazine. When he became editor of the weekly in October 2010, he fired the some of the columnists who appeared in the opening pages of the magazine, including popular writers such as “Ethicist” columnist Randy Cohen and Q & A maverick Deborah Solomon.

Navasky asked about the move.

“You fired the whole front of the magazine,” he said. “That takes a lot of courage and it sounds like George Romney who loves to fire people.”

“No, I definitely did not like to fire people,” Lindgren said. “I’ve never fired anybody in my life, so it was, you know it was—one thing too, I should mention, all our employees are union employees. So no one really gets fired from The New York Times. It’s a little different with a lot of the contributors in the front of the book, contract workers.”

He said though he had professional respect for those contributors, the front of the book had to evolve and change. Later, an audience member asked about the decision to fire Cohen but keep the Ethicist column he originated and reassign it to Times staffer Ariel Kaminer.

“There’s no science to it. We thought the Ethicist franchise … still had some vitality to it and it’d be interesting try a different voice there. And I think there’d been a real male dominated voice. Randy’s an incredibly gifted, funny, smart guy, but he’s definitely a dude and I think a lot of his…” he trailed off. “Is this on the record?”

“Yeah,” Navasky said as Lindgren began to pick back up.

“But he definitely brought a male perspective. And not in a cheesy—he’s a fair-minded, decent guy—but we thought it’d be interesting to try a woman and see what the difference was. And it was just like we thought that’s interesting, so let’s try it.”

He was candid about some critics, such as those who don’t like the “one page magazine” feature, part of Lindgren's redesign, that introduces the magazine with a single page of micro-stories, infographics and a tiny "opinion" column.

“We get, I’d say about 90 percent of the mail we get is about how much they hate the one page magazine,” he said.

“Sometimes I get these ‘one page magazine [letters] and I do respond to some of them. Like, hey, here’s the thing about the one-page magazine: it’s one freaking page. If you don’t like it, turn the page. This one woman went through the whole thing, just critiquing each thing,” he said.

He pitched his voice hight and repeated "This! This! This!" mimicking the letter writer.

“I sent her a list, I said here are 25 other things in the magazine. Did you get your money’s worth? And I think the answer is yes.”

The crowd laughed.

(Still, he later said, they are getting rid of the text trail that circles the page and making the font type bigger on some of its tiny features.)

On the Times’ finances overall, Lindgren was optimistic and dismissed what he characterized as a constant stream of online chatter about his company's travails.

"It’s not a boom time for The New York Times the way it was in years past, but we still have an awful lot of resources, and the company is still pretty strong, despite what gets published on the Internet sometimes.”

He said the paper still has resources to send reporters to Afghanistan and Australia for upcoming stories.

“There’s so much chatter out there, there are so many people pretending to know things they don’t know and offering opinions that have little substantiation, that the opportunity—principally for the New York Times but for other committed journalistic endeavors—is really great.”

He said that the Times' influence in the overall culture was continually growing, something he says in meetings with advertisers.

At one point, he brought up an upcoming feature story on the financial troubles of Connecticut resort, Foxwoods, the largest casino in the world now hit with competition from other states.

“There’s just this kind of little money machine that’s just hit the hard times. They’ve had $2.3 billion worth of debt which they’ve had to restructure and there’s like this turnaround guy who’s there trying to figure out what the next thing is gonna be. So it’s really cool – there’s a little allusion to the newspaper business.”

He pulled several concepts for next Sunday’s cover out of a manila envelope to show some cover choices, which included torn playing cards and two he referred to as the “Julian Schnabel special” that pictured broken poker chips. Because there wasn’t clear preference, he said they set up a polling station at the office.

“I’m not going to tell you which one won, it’s part because I’m not a hundred percent sure which one we’re going to do,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure I’m going to pick the one that came in second.”

Still, he said, another idea struck him riding up on the subway, and he made a note to talk to the design director this morning.