Blast Radius

Notes and errata (mainly errata) from the mind and life of Nicolas Barajas.

October 31

The New-World Economy of a Modern Magazine, or, A Single-dip

After Marco’s outrage at The New Yorker’s brazen choice to include advertising in their iPad app, and follow-up thought experiment on how to right-size the magazine industry, I figured I’d try to work the numbers out. Let’s say you’re going to reinvent The New Yorker, but as a modern, digital-only version. We’ll make The Williamsburger as a thought exercise to compete.

We want to create the essential experience while removing as much overhead as possible. This means we still need staff writers, paid contributors and cartoonists. It’ll still publish weekly with the same $4.99 price as its competition — no discounts for subscribing.

Notes on salaries: From my limited research, Malcolm Gladwell makes $250,000 per year, but he’s an outlier (pun intended), so $90,000 seems like a reasonable sum to pay the staff — remember, we want the same high-quality journalism The New Yorker has. We’ll use that number for all staffers as an average. We’ll also be paying $675 for each cartoon or illustration in an issue and our contributors will be paid a flat rate of $1,000 per piece (a total guess — I’d love a better number).

Our staff and cartoon figures come from the October 31 issue of The New Yorker, purchased on an iPad. The issue in question actually makes things a lot more difficult, as it’s a specialty comics issue. To make it easier, we’re going to ignore the special comics entirely, and leave ourselves with the rest of the magazine.

What I consider reasonable assumptions: Each standing section will have a staffers — an editor plus writers — and we assume the main, long-form features are all staff-written. (Again, a lot of suspension of disbelief for easier math.) And let’s assume we have the same number and type of contributions for each week — producing a full 52-week run.

Here are our costs:

Staff

  • Editor in chief
  • Goings on editor + 5 staff writers
  • Talk editor + 4 staff writers
  • Reviews editor + 6 staff writers
  • Ten1 staffers for long features

Illustrations

  • Cover illustration
  • Nine illustrations in Goings On About Town
  • Financial page illustration
  • Seven comics panels
  • Four illustrations in the reviews

Contributions

  • Financial page contributor
  • Two poems
  • One piece of fiction
  • We’ll lump all the photography in the magazine together as a single, $1,000 charge (for math’s sake).

With these figures — a staff of 29, 22 illustrations and five contributed works per issue — the bill due at the end of the year is $3,642,200. You’ll need just over 20K subscribers to break even2. This seems like a totally doable number — and in fact The New Yorker did that back in August, albeit at a lower subscription price.

But in order to make the numbers a lot neater, I’ve eliminated a lot of basic things: There’s no talk of renting space; we haven’t actually built a website, iPad app, or content management system; maintenance and support costs for a server and subscription model haven’t been touched. We’ve assumed our writers submit nothing but flawless prose, thoroughly fact-checked and without a single typo or grammatical error.

Even if you assume every non-editorial cost is covered by a free, ad-driven website, you’re counting on a steady 20K to stay in the black, which, looking at Popular Science’s ABC numbers in June, is still a challenging proposition.

Don’t get me wrong about Marco. I appreciate, and even relish his challenge to the assumptions of business models in journalism — I’ve had my own words on the matter. There are better experiences to be had from digital publications. But the numbers to grapple with, and break-even costs, aren’t easy ones. And I think without taking the editorial mission seriously, it’s too easy to lay down the type of broadside he has.


  1. Only two are represented in the single issue, but there is no way two staff writers will contribute upwards of 10,000 words weekly on a variety of subjects.
  2. My math skills: Weekly illustrations are $14,850 and contributions are 5,000. Multiply these out by 52 and you get 1,032,200. the 29 staffers cost 2.61 million to keep employed. For the revenues, multiply that $4.99 out by the year, then take your 70-percent cut from iTunes. Expenses over revenues equal subscribers.

    (Official number that I grabbed: 20,053, rounded up since there aren’t partial folks.)

Addenda: Here is the space where a raft of disclaimers ought to go about my employer and my personal opinions.

Additionally, I got some feedback that my salary is too low, since it doesn’t mention benefits. While The New Yorker works that way with its writers (essentially one-year freelance contracts), full-time employment is surely different.

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