Naomi Zeichner on The Fader’s Digital Success in 2015, and What’s Next for the Brand
"We want to be a culture site for everyone."
For music and culture magazine The Fader, the end of 2015 saw the release of the brand's landmark 100th issue, the digitization of its complete archive through a partnership with BitTorrent, and unprecedented digital growth. Combined traffic across desktop and mobile jumped 33 percent year-over-year, and October 2015, the month the 100th issue was released, was the highest-traffic month in the magazine's sixteen-year history.
Folio: caught up with Naomi Zeichner, editor-in-chief, to get a glimpse of what's behind The Fader's growth and what's next for the brand.
Folio: For starters, to what do you attribute all of this growth in digital? Is there anything you've been doing differently?
Naomi Zeichner: We’ve been doing everything differently over the past year or so. I don’t mean to say we’ve switched our entire approach or model, but The Fader at its inception and for many years on the internet was a great MP3 blog; that was the bread and butter of our business, and then we had this separate magazine that we were doing, and those stories would also always go online, but there were only so many of them.
Our goal has been to move away from that MP3 blog model. We saw so much potential in The Fader’s brand and the way that The Fader has always looked at music, which is using music as a prism to learn more about the entire world and youth culture and technology. It’s been a process both of staffing up and working with everyone here to improve day-to-day writing and editing skills. We’re still a small staff and we will lean on each other to create most of the content. To some extent, we’ve just been in blogging boot camp all together, and trying to do magazine-quality stuff every day.
Some of our biggest stories in the past year have absolutely been magazine stories. We had an amazing run with Fader 100 where we had two incredible cover stories, but also just a ton of excellent content that we created for the magazine that’s all done really well online. We had an exciting cover story with Zayn Malik, which for The Fader was kind of a departure, but also super in line with the history of the best stuff The Fader does, which is to talk to an artist early on in a project and take time to learn where their head is at. That Zayn story was a classic Fader story, and we were happy to bring the Fader approach to a new audience with that one.
Folio: Looking back at that Fader 100 issue, was featuring well-established stars like Drake or Rihanna a departure for the brand?
Zeichner: The Fader has always been all about balance. I don’t think The Fader has ever shied away from pop music. Drake and Rihanna are both established artists, but also artists who constantly have their hands in what’s next in culture and are supporting or feeding off of young artists, so they’re very much in our world. It was about looking back, but we also think those artists are really vital and interesting right now. It was the same for Zayn; Zayn was a pop star who was actively trying to wheel himself back into a smaller, more meaningful world. We thought that was an interesting story and it says a lot about the status of the boundaries between indie and pop.
Folio: There was a time when a huge, global pop star like Rihanna might have only wanted to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair, for example, and it seems that's no longer the case. Is that reflective of a changing landscape in magazine media?
Zeichner: Absolutely. I think a print magazine cover at this point is such a feather in the hat. There are so few print magazine covers, and we’re just really proud that people still feel that a Fader cover, as a symbol, is a currency that they want to be a part of, and that it still means something. These distinctions between a high-brow thing and a low-brow thing, or a popular thing and an underground thing, might go away. Lots of publications are now operating with that understanding.
For us, that’s a challenge. If The New York Times Magazine is putting Nicki Minaj on its cover or T Magazine is putting Rihanna on its cover during the same cycle as us, we want to make sure that the way we’re covering that story is innovative, unique and high quality. For us, having Rihanna on our cover at the same time as Vanity Fair and T Magazine, I feel like our story really held up. That’s what this year has been about for us, challenging ourselves not to just be a good music magazine or a good looking magazine, but to be one of the best culture magazines out there.
Folio: Your BitTorrent partnership resulted in over one million downloads for the Fader 100 issue. Can we expect more promotions like that in the future?
Zeichner: Yes, we have each issue up for free download as part of our bundle now, and then you’ll be able to purchase the entire archive. I went to an art show recently where these kids had created a whole wall out of Fader photography that they got from the archive bundle when it was free, and that was a really cool moment for me. Some of our early magazines still exist in this office only on compact discs as quark files, so knowing that the archive was digitized and made available is really amazing.
Folio: Going back to the digital growth—where are you seeing all this new traffic coming in from?
Zeichner: Just like other publishers, we’re seeing a ton of traffic directly from Facebok. For us, I would say Twitter is a larger audience than for some other publications, I think because music readers still hang out on Twitter, which is awesome. We’ve seen a huge increase in mobile traffic. We also see a lot of direct traffic, which is coming from people texting each other links, or when people put links in their Instagram bios, which for us is an exciting metric.
Folio: What are some ways in which that affects your editorial strategy? Are you tailoring content for different social platforms?
Zeichner: Not exactly, but we are thinking about how to use social platforms for native content. These days, when an artist visits the office, what we’re doing with them for our Snapchat story is one of the first things we think about. A few years ago when we did our redesign for our site, we built it mobile-first, and we’re going to introduce a couple of tweaks to the mobile design in a couple weeks, making sure that all of our articles—whether it’s a long-form magazine article or something that’s more newsy or more listy—is really pleasant to read on your phone, and that you’re able to easily navigate around the day’s content on your phone. That sort of user experience is really important to us, but we aren’t necessarily tailoring content towards social.
Folio: So what's next? How will you top those numbers in 2016?
Zeichner: This year, we have a fuller stable of editors than ever. A joke that I make with my deputy is that we taught each other "folk journalism." We aren’t people who went to journalism school, but all of a sudden we have this infusion of people who have worked at amazing places and are some of the best editors in the business. Their specialties aren’t only in music. They’re people who love music and love culture, but also are really ambitious writers about politics, sports, technology, identity—things like that. I’m looking forward to those editors both improving the overall quality of our magazine stories and also making sure that we have more non-music, high-quality stories that we’re breaking in our magazine, as well as just bringing in more freelancers and more people into the Fader network.
Last year we saw huge traffic growth when we were able to meaningfully weigh in on a cultural moment. When Meek Mill and Drake were fighting, we had a million posts that were different from posts that you’d see elsewhere on the internet, and that’s where we really saw growth. Looking at things like the election, and even the Grammy's coming up, we want to make sure that we have the best coverage and all different types of coverage. Now we have coverage coming from our UK office, and we also have someoene in Canada starting, so we’re looking forward to broadening the types of stories we tell.