The 2019 Publishing Hot List: The Print and Digital Media Brands Paving a Way to Profitability

And meet our Executive of the Year Meredith Kopit Levien and Editor of the Year Jessica Pels

A collage of Adweek
Adweek’s Publishing Hot List honorees include The New Yorker, Vox and Airbnb Magazine. Sources: The New Yorker, Vox, Airbnb

Media is dying? Don’t tell that to the winners of this year’s Publishing Hot List. Whether legacy media outlets or digital upstarts, these publishers are creating groundbreaking work, finding new revenue streams and otherwise nimbly adapting to an unstable landscape. Even as the president attacks the media on a daily basis, these outlets are working tirelessly to show the profession at its finest. Here are 2019’s Hot List winners in publishing.

Publishing Executive of the Year
Meredith Kopit Levien

Meredith Kopit Levien, Adweek's Publishing Executive of the Year, reads at least 10 New York Times articles per day.

Overseeing a publication that puts out 200 stories per day on average, and has offshoots in games, TV and radio, Meredith Kopit Levien has to consume a lot of New York Times media to keep up. The Times evp and chief operating officer listens to at least two podcasts per day, including the Times’ news podcast, The Daily, on 1.5x speed when she runs. She reads at least 10 Times stories daily, and winds down by spending time on the Times’ mobile app, “both reading and working to understand how we’ve presented our stories,” Kopit Levien says.

Her diligence—in continuing to grow digital subscriptions, in understanding the Times work and thinking about how the newsroom can further innovate with potential brand partners—has paid off for Kopit Levien, Adweek’s Publishing Executive of the Year. The Times reached close to 3.8 million paid, digital-only subscribers, according to its second-quarter results, an increase of 200,000 over the past year. The publisher’s diverse revenue sources are also expanding. In that same quarter, the Times grew its digital ad revenue, including through podcasts, to $58 million; other revenue (including The Weekly, its new TV series with FX and Hulu) increased by $10.3 million. “We’re moving into a new space, into people’s lives that was previously reserved for entertainment,” Kopit Levien says.

Kopit Levien, who previously was the CRO of Forbes Media, joined the Times in 2013 as its head of advertising. Two years later, she was named evp and CRO, overseeing ad and subscription revenue. Under Kopit Levien, digital paid subscriptions grew to over 2.2 million, and the Times launched its T Brand Studio to create custom content. The key to growing the Times’ subscription business, Kopit Levien says, was having a model already in place requiring its users to pay for content. “That’s played a huge role in the improvement of the Times’ business directly and in scaling our digital subscriptions business, and in making our ad business more successful,” says Kopit Levien, who has been in her current role since 2017.

Among Kopit Levien’s major media vehicles this year are The Weekly, the TV show based on the Times’ daily news podcast, and The Daily, which debuted in June on FX and Hulu (a second TV series, Modern Love, based on the Times’ weekly column and podcast, premiered last week on Amazon). The Daily just hit its own milestone—1 billion downloads since its release in 2017‚ and the publication’s new game development team released its third offering, Tiles, over the summer. The Times has also gotten more aggressive about showcasing the news at the heart of the whole operation, with a marketing campaign called “The Truth Is Worth It” that spotlights the reporting behind some of its biggest news stories. “We’re much more explicit about showing people how it all works than we’ve ever been,” says Kopit Levien, “and you’ll continue to see us do that.”

Looking ahead, Kopit Levien is focusing on new areas of growth, including audio, which the editorial newsroom has built a team around following The Daily’s success and which “presents a new space in people’s eyes for journalism,” she says. “We’re thinking very hard in a time of profound change in the world—what are all of the ways quality and independent journalism can play a bigger role in people’s lives.”

A lot of that comes down to what the Times can offer its advertisers, especially with its thriving newsroom. “The continued investment in the journalism—the gathering of news and presentation of that news and the sheer number of journalists—has probably been the single biggest contribution to the company’s success as a brand,” says Kopit Levien, “as a digital subscription business [and] as an ad business.” —Sara Jerde

Publishing Editor of the Year
Jessica Pels

Cosmopolitan's site has grown 19% in page views under the leadership of Jessica Pels, Adweek's Publishing Editor of the Year.

Jessica Pels, Cosmopolitan’s editor in chief, is a Sagittarius Rising, a Virgo Sun and a Libra Moon. An astrology fan can tell you exactly what kind of leader that makes her: one that is adventurous, strives for perfection and is balanced. That same fan might also note that Pels has given them a lot more material to work with: She began devoting about 10% of the Cosmopolitan print magazine to astrology after she assumed her role exactly a year ago.

A greater focus on astrology is just one example of how Pels—Adweek’s Editor of the Year—has revamped the brand after listening to what her readers want, using surveys and watching how they read the publication. Until then, Pels had been the brand’s digital director, following stints at Marie Claire, another Hearst brand, where she had been digital director, and Condé Nast’s Glamour and Teen Vogue.

When she took over Cosmopolitan, Pels knew she wanted to use the publisher’s many signals to inform what the brand wrote about, and which platforms it should be on in order to interest “her” and what “she” (Cosmo’s audience of millennial and Gen-Z women) cares about, Pels says. “Obviously, Cosmo is a legacy brand, and there’s a lot of power to the DNA to what Cosmo is and what’s at Cosmo’s core. I felt like it needed an update for the modern girl, and I also felt like I was working with the best possible raw material.”

So far, so good: Under Pels’ leadership as editor in chief, the site has grown 19% in page views, from 38 million unique monthly visitors to 46 monthly unique visitors. In all, Cosmo’s net audience, among print, digital and social media outlets, reaches a total of 54.2 million unduplicated adults, including nearly one in three women in the U.S.

“I don’t actually think of my competition as other media brands,” she notes. “I think of my competition as the person who’s texting you and you’re getting a push notification from.”

For years, Cosmo was known for its sexually provocative stories, but under Pels it’s been tackling big subjects beyond standard pieces like “5 Sex Positions if You Wanna Be Louder in Bed.” One recent story followed an investigator who sleuths online to catch potential mass killers. Online, it was called “Is It Possible to Stop a Mass Shooting Before It Happens?” and in all, over 100,000 readers spent more than nine minutes with the story. In print, Pels says, Cosmo decided to headline it “They Call Her the Savant,” which she says is reflective of the internet culture that’s at the root of everything Cosmo publishes, with enough of a “curiosity gap” to draw in the reader.

Outside of editorial, Pels is chasing new revenue streams and working on incorporating them into the newsroom. She is experimenting with having people subscribe to the magazine via text, and putting the brand in stores where “she” already shops. Cosmo recently released a four-scent fragrance line in partnership with Luxe Brands, which put the magazine in Ulta stores, in packaging that might interest a younger consumer (think glossy juice boxes in colors like gold and pink). “I’m really happy to be at a place now that encourages us to work together in a way that informs an editorial staff about not only how the lights are kept on, but also how they can concept really creative ideas that also generate revenue,” she says.

Pels is also conscious of how Cosmo’s journalism can be repurposed for new formats. The story on the undercover operation, for example, is being shopped around Hollywood to turn it into a film or TV program, which would be a first for the brand. “It takes a lot to impress a young woman, which is why I work very hard to try to innovate and do new things that get her attention and that she feels are worthy of her,” Pels says, later adding, “We believe in experimenting to learn.” —S.J.

Hottest Magazine of the Year
New York

New York has given new life to the print format while also reimagining how to translate a bustling digital news operation to print—and readers have noticed. Under new editor David Haskell (who started in April) and in the first seven months of 2019, the magazine and its sister sites, including The Cut, Vulture and The Strategist, reached an average of 38 million unique visitors monthly, and revenue for New York Media is up about 34% year over year. Vox Media recently announced that it intends to acquire New York Media, including the magazine and its websites, in a deal expected to close this fall. Post-merger, says Vox, the editorial teams will continue to operate under their respective parent companies. —S.J.

Hottest Magazine Cover of the Year
The New Yorker’s Toni Morrison cover

The morning of Toni Morrison’s death, The New Yorker turned to artist Kara Walker to capture the esteemed author’s immense literary and cultural impact for the magazine’s Aug. 19 cover. Walker, who pulled together the design for a cut-paper piece in less than 24 hours, titled the work “Quiet as It’s Kept,” a reference to a line from Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye. The cover has since become a best-seller and generated about 2.1 million social media impressions, performing nearly 300% better than other recent New Yorker covers. —Kelsey Sutton

Hottest Design/Photography in a Magazine

Saveur has seen a sharp decrease in its audience and significant turnover among editors in recent years—in August, Sarah Gray Miller became the third editor in chief in fewer than two years. But there’s no debating that its food photography is spectacular, and the magazine’s minimalistic design has led to a sleek print product that’s pleasing from cover to cover. Saveur has also expanded this mouth-watering visual strategy online, where on Instagram the brand has experienced 15.27% year-over-year growth. —S.J.

Hottest Story of the Year
‘Perversion of Justice,’ Miami Herald

Convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s unusually light prison sentence in Florida was negotiated more than a decade ago, but the extent of then-U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta’s involvement in the lenient deal hadn’t been reported until Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie Brown began sniffing around. Brown’s “Perversion of Justice” series, published in late 2018, catalogued how Acosta’s deal with Epstein shielded him from facing major consequences and identified dozens of Epstein’s victims who objected to the deal. Brown’s award-winning reporting spurred a series of new reports. Acosta, who had by then been serving as the Trump administration’s labor secretary, resigned, and Epstein was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges in July (he committed suicide a month later), highlighting the power of dogged local journalism. —K.S.

Hottest Conversation Starter
The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project

There wasn’t a more talked-about magazine issue in the past year than The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which reexamined slavery to understand its lasting impact on America. The editorial initiative, which took close to eight months to complete, has since been heralded as a crucial educational text. To guarantee a wide audience, the Times gave the initiative a special section in the newspaper and created a stand-alone; it also printed hundreds of thousands of copies of the magazine and the newspaper section to distribute free at libraries, museums, schools and events across the country. The project has since been converted into educational materials distributed with help from the Pulitzer Center. —K.S.

Hottest Website of the Year
The New York Times

For a publication that’s been print-only for most of its 168-year existence, The New York Times acts like it was born on the web. In addition to a clean and easy-to-use website, presents gorgeous interactive stories like a deeply reported piece on how Apple’s App Store favors its own applications and a delightful interactive feature about office life featuring switches and buttons that, when clicked, display worker confessions. It has even put out auditory storytelling projects like a year-end audio roundup. The website reaches 150 million global digital readers every month, and is propelling the Times’ growing digital subscription business: More than 80% of the Times’ paid subscriptions are digital-only. —K.S.

Hottest in Business News
The Wall Street Journal

As technology becomes a bigger part of our lives, and tech companies push the boundaries of privacy, The Wall Street Journal has been there to document it. From reporting on dynamics within tech giants like Amazon and Facebook, to continuing to keep up with the daily grind of reporting on companies such as WeWork, The Wall Street Journal stands out. Just check the numbers: The Journal’s digital-only subscribers hit a record 1.8 million in the most recent quarter. —S.J.

Hottest in Celebrity/Entertainment

With a celebrity news cycle that ranged from royal babies to showbiz splits like Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, People was there with juicy exclusives at every turn. This led to a digital audience of 76 million monthly unique views, up 20% year over year. The magazine has close to 3 million subscribers, who each shell out $92.88 for an annual subscription. The brand has also successfully branched out into OTT with PeopleTV, which features 27 streaming shows and counting. A documentary about Oprah Winfrey’s charity work, called Oprah’s Daughters, brought in more than 3 million views. —S.J.

Hottest in Sports
The Athletic

Nobody has seen subscription growth this year like The Athletic, which reached more than 600,000 subscribers this summer. The publisher now covers more than 300 sports throughout the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and has built a strong following of avid fans by hiring their favorite local team writers to come onboard. The 500-person company publishes an average of 1,000 stories per week and produces more than 80 podcasts. —S.J.

Hottest in Health
Women’s Health

Now under Hearst’s purview after the Rodale acquisition was completed early last year, Women’s Health is bigger than ever. Its content output is up 71%, and traffic is following, with a 54% boost in unique visitor growth since the beginning of 2019. The magazine is extending its footprint outside its print and digital properties, with the debut of an “Alexa skill” for Amazon Echo devices that instructs through a yoga flow when connected to Hearst’s Backslash Fit yoga mat, and provides fitness content through Hearst’s All Out Studio app that offers subscriptions for fans. Last year, the brand even founded a national holiday, #NationalWorkoutBuddyDay. —Diana Pearl

Hottest in Fashion

The Hearst-owned style tome has beefed up its coverage under editor in chief Nina Garcia—the first Latinx woman to hold the position at a major American fashion magazine—who took over from longtime editor Robbie Myers two years ago. Not only has the magazine published some impressive features, including Jessica Roy’s “Two Sisters and the Terrorist Who Came Between Them,” but it has celebrated major milestones, like the 25th anniversary of the Elle Women in Hollywood franchise. The numbers are on its side, too: Elle is the top ad-page-generating monthly magazine in the country. —D.P.

Hottest in Home
The Magnolia Journal

Magnolia Journal—based on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ popular Magnolia brand—has grown even more in its third year. The magazine features new advertisers across categories, including L’Oreal Paris, Pandora and Tylenol, and ad revenue is up 16% year over year. The publication also has managed to reach a prized audience: 6.6 million adults, with an average household income of $104,568—and those numbers should continue to grow after next year’s launch of the Gaines’ new network for Discovery Inc. —S.J.

Hottest in Lifestyle

Launched in 2005, Refinery29 has long since blossomed past its initial iteration as a fashion-focused publication. Now it succeeds in tackling nearly every facet of women’s lives today, from finances, with its wildly popular Money Diaries series (which was turned into a book, released in September 2018), as well as its 67 Percent Project, which aims to showcase an array of bodies on its website that represent the American population. It has also expanded when it comes to video, launching series like Spill It, which showcases what’s in a celebrity’s bag, and Sweet Digs apartment tours. Earlier this month, Vice Media said it will buy Refinery29, but stressed that it will remain its own, distinct brand. —D.P.

Hottest in Travel

A general-interest publication from Business Insider, Insider is perhaps best known for its travel coverage. It invites readers and viewers to explore the globe through its videos, which act as a tour guide ready to unearth hidden attractions and must-see spots. The content has proved a big hit on social: Insider has 7.5 million likes on Facebook and 704,000 Instagram followers. —D.P.

Hottest in Food
Bon Appétit

Bon Appétit has expanded far beyond the pages of its monthly print magazine. This year, the brand’s videos, a massive hit on YouTube (with nearly 4.5 million subscribers), spurred the creation of an OTT channel, which launched earlier this year. The hosts of Bon Appétit’s videos—including Claire Saffitz and Gaby Melian—are now bona fide stars themselves. Its website continues to expand, with 34.5% growth this year in monthly unique visitors, while its print readership has stayed flat, in a time when print readership overall is declining. But YouTube continues to be the jewel in Bon Appétit’s crown, with 40.9 million average monthly views on the platform, which has led to a 44% video revenue increase year over year. — D.P.

Hottest in News

ProPublica’s transformative journalism has been rewarded by record-breaking readership this year. The nonprofit news site saw a 49% increase in monthly visitors to its website and added more than 50,000 newsletter subscribers. What drove this magnificent growth was the site’s deep reporting on topics that ranged from a secret Facebook group about migrants to how some parents in wealthy Chicago suburbs were trading legal custody of their children for need-based college financial aid. The organization is giving back to local news, too, adding 20 newsrooms throughout the country to its Local Reporting Network, which funds and mentors local reporters. —S.J.

Hottest in Social Media
The Washington Post

The Washington Post’s TikTok is a great example of how a media organization can have some fun online without losing its voice or sincerity, or deviate too far from the heart of the hard news that drives a publication—all while potentially reaching a much younger demographic. WaPo’s TikTok account has also grown in response, a 35% increase in followers over the summer. Its videos have seen record views, with up to 1.8 million within 24 hours. —S.J.

Hottest in Events
Dow Jones

Dow Jones properties, including The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s Group, have brought its brands to life with big tent-pole events that inspire consumers to interact through their news and magazine pages while generating big revenue from luxury clients. In all, the company produced more than 100 conferences and events this year. Mansion Global, for example, saw a 66% year-over-year growth in the number of events from fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2019 and created a new membership offering focused on experiences as well as a custom publishing business. The extension into events will continue, including an expansion of Journal House into its own consumer brand next year. —S.J.

Hottest in Podcasts
Vox Media

Vox Media has grown its podcasting arm to create a thriving network of opportunities for brands, including ad breaks that are branded audio segments during the podcasts (Dropbox sponsored a branded segment in which a neuroscientist was interviewed on the psychological state of flow). The network’s array of content spans daily news podcast Today, Explained as well as Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, a tech podcast, and Switched on Pop by Vox—which, according to Apple, is one of the top music podcasts in the world. —S.J.

Hottest in Branded Content
Bustle Digital Group

Bustle Digital Group purchased Mic’s branded content team and relaunched it across brands. Now its branded content offerings, which include more than 375 campaigns, drive 90% of the company’s direct digital revenue. The branded content team also attracted new business this year from clients such as Hilton and Mattel. —S.J.

Hottest in Subscription Services
The New York Times

More media companies are erecting paywalls and subscription offerings, but The New York Times is still ahead of the pack. As of the second quarter, the Times had 4.7 million total paid subscriptions, the increasing majority of which—3.8 million—are digital-only, a nearly 31% year-over-year increase. A small but accelerating part of the Times’ business is subscription offerings for readers interested in something other than the day’s headlines. The company had 792,000 subscriptions for cooking and crosswords (more than 500,000 of them) in the latest quarter, a 60% increase year over year. All in all, digital-only subscription revenues exceeded $112 million in the latest quarter, growing 14% year over year. —K.S.

Hottest in Ecommerce

BuzzFeed has a thriving ecommerce business, including its affiliate business, which has grown more than 180% since launching in 2016. That included Shoppable Recipes, which Tasty offered as part of its app in partnership with Walmart this summer. And it doesn’t look like the momentum will change anytime soon: BuzzFeed drove more than 6 million orders this year in affiliate content. —S.J.

Hottest Custom Publishing Magazine
Airbnb Magazine

Created by Hearst Magazines, Airbnb Magazine’s mission is to “help people be at home in the world”—a fitting manifesto for a print publication named for the most disruptive innovation to hit travel accommodation in decades. And though it’s a branded publication, Airbnb’s coverage of destinations around the globe is driven by information and insights from residents themselves, giving the publication a decidedly authentic flavor. It’s getting reader attention, too. In the past year, its reach has grown from 350,000 to 1 million. —D.P.

Hottest Special Issue Magazine
Happy Paws

Meredith launched its first pet brand this year with a sizable newsstand circulation of 350,000 and content backed by Fear Free Certified vet experts. The company’s bet on the growing pet industry—which totaled $72 billion in the U.S. last year—helped it secure large sponsorships from advertisers including Elanco and Purina. —S.J.

Check out all of this year’s honorees:

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.