Why the New Yorker Festival Is the Model of a Modern Magazine Event

The festival’s content, business strategy, and sponsor activations are an example for the rest of the media world.

By Chad Kaydo October 15, 2014, 7:28 AM EDT

Larry David spoke to New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick on Saturday.

Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Columnist Chad Kaydo (@ChadKaydo) is BizBash’s former editor in chief and the founder and editor of The X Letter, a website and newsletter about experiences, brands, and culture.

This past weekend was the 15th annual New Yorker Festival, three days of panels, Q&A sessions, performances, and excursions related to literature, entertainment, and politics—60 events for more than 20,000 ticket buyers.

The festival started when Rhonda Sherman, The New Yorker’s director of editorial promotion, pitched the concept to editor in chief David Remnick on his first day on the job. He green-lighted it the next morning, and the festival is now the biggest annual event hosted by parent company Condé Nast.

In the past 15 years, the festival has become as a model for many magazines looking to develop signature events and build additional revenue streams. On Thursday I had lunch with three people from an out-of-town publishing company who came to check out the festival and New York Comic Con for ideas for their own projects.

So here’s a look at how The New Yorker was ahead of its time in developing the festival’s template, and how its most recent iteration showed the ways publishing events continue to evolve.

1. The editors are in charge
Magazine executives always say the goal of their events is “to bring the pages of the magazine to life.” Achieving that cliché has actually become more likely as publishers increasingly look to editors to take active roles in programming event content. (New Yorker sibling publications Wired and Vanity Fair both held ambitious new conferences in the past few weeks, and the “live magazine” concept is one of 13 trends I identified in a recent trend report.)

The New Yorker Festival has always been driven by its editors. “The content of this festival is 100 percent editorial and the editor has complete knowledge, sign off, and input,” Sherman says. A New Yorker writer or editor is on stage at every festival event.

2. It’s interdisciplinary
Many conferences now put chefs on stage with artists, tech entrepreneurs, and world leaders. Consider TED or the World Economic Forum or the Life Is Beautiful Festival, launched last year as a mash-up of music, food, and art festivals.

The New Yorker Festival has always aimed to represent the magazine’s blend of politics, culture, humor, and other topics. “The challenge every year is the same, to get the mix right, to make it the best festival, to keep people intrigued, to keep it true to the magazine,” Sherman says.

One of the stranger entries this year: Remnick judged a debate about pets—dogs versus cats—argued by New Yorker writers Anthony Lane and Adam Gopnik, with testimony from the likes of novelist Joyce Carol Oates and former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson.

3. It experiments with technology
For the first time, this year’s festival included interviews with newsmakers who couldn’t appear in person. “That really came about when I heard we had the possibility of having Edward Snowden speak at the festival virtually,” Sherman says.

Ultimately, the magazine used Google Hangouts to have staffers interview Snowden, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, and Kim Dotcom, the Internet entrepreneur currently living in New Zealand while the United States tries to extradite him on copyright infringement charges.

4. It develops content for other channels
The New Yorker posted the Snowden and Dotcom interviews online over the weekend. Condé Nast Entertainment—the division that develops and produces TV, film, and digital video offerings—will also edit 22 or so eight- to 10-minute videos with highlights of other sessions. While Sherman stressed to me how the footage will allow people who can’t travel here for the festival—New Yorker staffers happily note that attendees come from around the world—the videos also help promote the event and provide sponsorship opportunities. (Watching the Dotcom interview is also more enjoyable online than it was in person at the theater, where the sound and video never matched, making it feel like a dubbed foreign film.)

5. It actually makes money
Many magazines have historically used events as “added value” for advertisers—incentive to buy more ad pages. As consumer magazine print ad revenue has declined, some publishers now require that events run as profitable enterprises. (New York publisher Larry Burstein told me recently that the magazine’s Vulture Festival, inspired by its entertainment blog, was profitable in its first year, with all sponsors paying to participate.)

The New Yorker simply would not put on the New Yorker Festival if it were not profitable,” Sherman says. “It has been profitable for a very long time.”

Publisher Lisa Hughes says all sponsors pay for festival activations as part of multi-platform deals, and the percentage of the magazine’s revenue that comes from live events is increasing. “Advertisers really love the live experience,” she says. Sherman and Hughes are also planning new projects outside New York.

6. It’s adding more engaging sponsor activations…
This might be one of the biggest changes in the past 15 years. “In the old days it was pretty much putting a logo up,” Hughes says. “Now it’s a full-on integration. We work with each of our advertisers for six to nine months on what we’re going to do together.” On weekly conference calls, her team determines how to help the sponsor work toward their marketing objectives, while also enhancing the experience for festivalgoers.

Presenting sponsor MasterCard gave cardholders access to purchase tickets a day early, preferred seating at 21 of the 60 events, and more than 1,400 “Priceless Surprises.” (I picked up a Moleskin-style notebook for flashing a card before one session.)

7. …which is challenging.
My out-of-town lunch friends liked the MasterCard preferred seating and Acura’s free shuttles between venues (used by 1,000 festivalgoers). But they felt an Acura activation inspired by New Yorker cartoons was oddly placed in its venue, where attendees were more focused on finding their seats for the talks.

And that shows how tough it can be to create more engaging experiences for more demanding sponsors and more blasé consumers—probably the most challenging and important trend here.

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