Q&A: NewYorker.com Editor Michael Luo on Readership, Revenue and ‘the Mooch’

Plus, the story of how his open letter about race became a viral hit

Digital editor Michael Luo produces a "mini version of the magazine every single day."
Sasha Maslov

Specs
Current gig 
Editor, NewYorker.com
Previous gig 
Deputy metro editor, The New York Times
Twitter
@michaelluo

Adweek: You were hired by The New Yorker from The New York Times last October as an investigative editor for the magazine and now you’re running the website. How did that happen?
Michael Luo: I started [at The New Yorker] the week after the election. I think I edited six magazine stories in three months, and then [NewYorker.com editor] Nick Thompson left to take the job as editor in chief of Wired. Initially, they asked me if I was interested in replacing him, and I thought I might be, but I also thought it was silly because I had just come here to do something completely different. They interviewed a lot of people and came back to me and said, “We really think you should take this job.” [New Yorker editor in chief] David Remnick is very persuasive.

After Luo's open letter in the Times addressing racism went viral, the newspaper followed up with a video.
The New York Times

 

Last year, while you were still at the Times, you wrote an open letter in response to a woman who told you to “go back to China,” which went viral. Tell me about that experience.
That kind of epitomizes the “new” New York Times in some ways. Basically, this thing happened to me in the street and I started tweeting about it, and then the folks on the race team [which I was part of] said, “Maybe you should write something about this.” … It was before one of the presidential debates, and I remember thinking, “This is going to get swallowed.” But I just did it. We ended up posting it during the debate and it still became huge and really broke through. The next day, I was in the Page One meeting, and they said, “Maybe we’re going to run this in print.” I was like, “OK, sure, you can run it in Metro or something like that,” and that afternoon I found out they had run it on the front page of the newspaper, which is a hugely significant thing. The Times did a quick direct to camera video where they got a lot of other people talking about how they had experienced the same thing and that went viral, and just continued to build on it. 

You were also part of a committee looking at how the Times could grow its U.S. audience. Is that something you’re focused on at The New Yorker?
Yes. What we’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and I think translates directly from the Times to here, is the fact that we’re very much a subscription, consumer-revenue-driven business, so sometimes we’ll get a huge audience for a story, but that might not necessarily have that great of a long-term impact if it’s not the right audience. There is a little bit of an existential question. For example, we’ve been doing TV recaps of Game of Thrones—they’re amazing, and Sarah Larson brings New Yorker-level writing to it—but just playing in that space is an interesting question. We’ve talked about whether we’re going to do more [recaps], and I’m not sure we would. At the Times, we had this thing that was like, “Here’s something that not many people read, but is it core to who we are?” On Metro, it would be City Hall coverage, for example. At The New Yorker, it could be an exquisitely written profile that maybe wasn’t read by as many people as read a Game of Thrones recap, but maybe the audience is particularly valuable. I think that the better understanding we have of that, the closer we’ll get to being able to grow The New Yorker audience while continuing to be true to what The New Yorker is.

What about revenue? Is that something you think about?
Yeah, but that is part of the job of being the editor of this site. We’re debating things like Amazon affiliate links. The company is putting a big priority on scale in video, which on one hand is an advertiser revenue issue, but is also driven by where the mobile audience is heading. On the subscription front, we’ve been actively talking about how to grow that. Can we get to 2 million subscriptions, which is something that the consumer revenue folks have been eyeing?

So how do you get there?
Part of it is simply by doing more, and that’s been a lot of what I’ve been dealing with. I think that a lot of people still don’t know what The New Yorker does online. I talk to former colleagues and friends and they don’t fully realize that we do produce this mini version of the magazine every single day. We have to increase the speed and frequency of our responsiveness to news. I think Ryan Lizza has pioneered, in his twice weekly column, this sort of reported commentary that is a space we can really live in. His best pieces are when he has a nugget of reporting and builds around it with commentary. Obviously the biggest one recently was his [Anthony] Scaramucci story

Anthony Scaramucci's profanity-laden call to Ryan Lizza generated record traffic for The New Yorker's website and boosted subscriptions.
Twitter/@NewYorker

Scaramucci was huge. What did you learn from that? And how do you follow up such a big scoop?
You can’t really put that into any normal bucket you can replicate. But I would say that Ryan got that phone call because he’s been out there talking to people, and we need more writers who are out there doing that. One other sort of product thing that plays into it is the idea of fast responsiveness to news. When I started here, if a news event happened, the typical thing would have been to get someone to write a 1,200-word piece, which takes around an hour or two, and then we have to edit it, copy edit it and put it up. So something we’ve been doing is what we call “First Thoughts.” It’s meant to be one or two paragraphs of analysis or expertise or context that we put up quickly. The idea—or at least my justification for it—is it’s not a hot take because it’s a New Yorker writer with expertise that you want to hear from.

There’s been so much great political writing and reporting from news organizations in the Trump era. How does The New Yorker carve out its own niche in the midst of that?
First of all, I’d like us to break news more. I want to hire people in Washington to help us. We’re never going to out-Times the Times or out-Post the Washington Post—they have 10 reporters on these stories and we might have one person—but as Ryan has shown, we can break news sometimes. It’s interesting watching the evolution of the website, because the website started out as this very small thing, and so how do you respond to the news if you can’t have this giant newsroom full of people? The way they did it was through really well-written commentary. That continues to be the space we live in, but I’d also like it to be more reported commentary.

Your Condé Nast sister title Vanity Fair has been marketing itself on its anti-Trump coverage. The New Yorker is obviously an emblem of the sort of New York liberal mindset—is that something you’re interested in playing up? Conversely, do you think it’s important to add more conservative voices, which is something the Times has been doing?
Other people might have a better historical context, but I think that the New Yorker has become much more known for its sort of liberal take on things in the Trump era and in the digital era because we have Remnick writing pretty often, and obviously he has a point of view. Really all of our writers have a pretty strong take on incompetence and demagoguery and stuff like that. Is that something that we want to be known for? In some of the reader surveys we’ve seen, one of the reasons that they subscribe to The New Yorker is because it makes them feel part of this progressive community. So I think it’s less of a concern for us. One thing that I think is a concern is that anti-Trump and liberal commentary can become predictable, and that’s something that we need to be aware of. I think that good writing can, to a certain extent, help with that. But it also gets back to the reporting thing. If you have some reporting mixed in with that, it makes us less predictable. Is it necessary for us to have a conservative voice or something like that? We’ve discussed it, but I’m not sure exactly what it would look like. I think The New Yorker’s niche is pretty comfortably in this progressive space and it’s much less of an issue to us than it is to The New York Times.

I saw that you hired someone from BuzzFeed to oversee newsletters this past summer. Newsletters are such a hot product right now—why do you think that is?
First of all, The New Yorker’s daily newsletter is gigantic and growing. There are over a million subscribers. In the building, it’s known as a huge success because of its high open rates and click-through rates, and it’s a huge source of traffic for us. But I think there’s so much more that can be done. I felt like our newsletters were sort of Newsletter 1.0, in that they serve a purpose by driving traffic, but I think that the best newsletters today use email as its own publishing platform, and that’s something we want to explore. In this age when peoples’ social feeds are out of control, email is an intimate way to reach people one on one. I think it’s going to be a big part of how we reach new audiences. We’re in an age where we really have to work on pushing stuff out to readers, whether that’s through emails, push alerts, browser alerts, [Amazon] Alexa.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.