Mon 07 Mar
This past weekend, The New York Times unveiled a new redesign to its Sunday magazine under the sure hand of my former colleague, magazine art director Arem Duplessis, and the magazine’s new editor Hugo Lindgren. The new look of the magazine is heavily influenced by “newspaper and vintage magazine issues from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s,” what many might call the golden age of publication design. I think it says something about the state of publishing today when even a magazine that is exempt from the metrics of newsstand sales (The Sunday magazine is distributed as an insert to the paper and is thusly not subject to newsstand sales numbers) still feels compelled to recall the glories of an earlier age. Nevertheless, the redesign is stunning work.
In citing the thinking behind this major overhaul, Duplessis argues that it brings “the brand” of the magazine back to its newspaper roots, resulting in a higher impact presentation than what preceded it. The result is sharply realized and visually arresting, injecting an unexpected and welcome sense of urgency into what has often been too comfortably thought of as a sleepy weekend read. My hope is that this also signals a turn towards a new brand of journalism for the magazine. As much as I’ve always been passionate about the newspaper, I’ve always found the writing in the magazine to be a hit or miss affair. With this strident new identity and the new editorial stewardship, that may change.
Sterling graphic design aside, what I find really interesting about this redesign is its timeline. Lindgren began his new post less than five months ago, and yet in that short period he, Duplessis and their staff were able to completely overhaul one of The Times’ most prominent and well-regarded franchises, from top to bottom. As Lindgren writes, “With the exception of the crossword… every page of the magazine has been reimagined.” By contrast, the magazine’s online home hasn’t meaningfully changed in over four years; I know because I worked on it myself back during the last decade. As another point of comparison, last year’s redesign of The Opinion Pages section of NYTimes.com required a year of effort and was even incomplete when it launched.
Digital publishing is supposed to be much quicker than print publishing, but this dramatic disparity in timelines suggests that more important than the speed of medium is the nimbleness of the business behind it. The print side of The New York Times takes a lot of good natured ribbing for being slow to publish news, but it’s still very, very good at what it does. Which is to say that few organizations can publish on a weekly basis and still effect the kind of major change that this redesign represents.
In some ways, the digital side of the business is not as nimble as that. To be sure, few companies can execute digital publishing as well as The New York Times — you’d be hard pressed to find another organization operating at comparable scale and breadth that can keep up with the market nearly as well. But partly because the medium is much younger and constantly changing, partly because best practices are less well-defined, and partly because the mission is more diffuse, execution is a more intricate, protracted and, often, inefficient affair on the digital side. In my experience, it took no less than six months to undertake a major overhaul of any part of NYTimes.com or to update its apps or other products. And it takes years, apparently, to build something as colossal as a pay wall.
One could interpret this operational disparity in many ways, some favoring the print side (I often heard complaints from my print colleagues while I worked there that the digital side was too cumbersome in its methods) and some favoring the digital side (the sheer technical and economic complexity inherent in The Times’ digital products dwarfs that of virtually any of its print products). I don’t intend to imply a judgment in this commentary, though, only to point out what it says about the deep challenges that The Times continues to face. It’s pretty clear that being able to substantially redesign a major product like the Sunday Magazine within five months is a desirable rate. When the time comes that the company can routinely replicate that speed in its digital products, that will be one of the surest indications that the business has truly transformed itself.