Condé Nast Traveler: The Road to Tasteful Touring

Whether you call it “writing for the reader” or “improving the user experience,” current publishing is completely focused on the audience. In the words of Condé Nast Traveler’s Digital Director, Brad Rickman, “You can’t just preach to the choir; you have to go out and bring people to the church.” During the NYUSPS M.S. in Publishing: Digital & Print Media’s visit last week, Condé Nast Traveler impressively displayed how a traditional magazine media brand is using skillful reporting and highly organized writing to bring their content to a new, interdisciplinary audience.

Our visit to the beautiful and trendy Condé Nast building started with a conversation with Paulie Dibner, the magazine’s Managing Editor. After introducing the unique standpoint of Traveler, a publication with the rare even divide between male and female readers as well as one of the highest household incomes at Condé Nast, Dibner described the way she approaches the magazine.

“My job,” she summarized, “is basically to be hyper-organized.” She reins in the creative teams to focus on the hook of the story, make decisions, and meet deadlines.

Paulie Dibner, Managing Editor (left), and Candice Rainey, Executive Editor (right), explain the current editorial vision of Condé Nast Traveler.

Dibner then introduced Candice Rainey, Condé Nast Traveler’s newly promoted Executive Editor. Rainey emphasized the current vision of Traveler: to make travel relevant to everyone and everything; an umbrella for fashion, food, and culture; and a viewpoint through which to see the world.

When a student asked whether Instagram and travel blogs had cut into Traveler’s role as a source of content, Rainey answered, “Well, something like 80% of content on Instagram is travel-related, but… bloggers don’t have the skill or the resources to replace Traveler as a publisher.” She recounted her days of “journalism bootcamp” with the New York Daily News, GQ, and ELLE that fueled her love of magazine journalism. Rainey hopes that publishers will not abandon the studied skill of reporting and writing; Instagram users may be popular, but Traveler continues to be the authority on travel.

The next speakers were Kate Cunningham and Linda Denahan, the magazine’s Senior Photo Research Editor and Photo Editor, respectively. They provided a perspective on the visual content of the magazine, and their presentation strengthened Rainey’s earlier point about studied skill. Photography is not just assigned and styled to reflect stories; the photo editors also must have a thorough knowledge of the world of photography to dig up unique art that reflects the theme and vision of the magazine. Cunningham said her job is “going down the rabbit hole” of research and of being completely aware of the current movements of the art world.

Kate Cunningham, Senior Photo Research Editor (second from right), and Linda Denahan, Photo Editor (right), walk M.S. in Publishing students through the photo decisions relating to Condé Nast Traveler‘s most recent issue.

Brad Rickman, the Digital Director, highlighted the tension between the print and digital sides of the magazine. In his eyes, the digital world is an interdisciplinary space where you have to go get readers instead of having them simply coming to you for your tastemakers.

“What works best for which platform has to inform your decisions about content, and we’re trying to work with the editors to write for the audience,” he said. This is not to say that Rickman believes Traveler should only focus on statistics; he continued, “Print is like a refuge from the endlessly crowded digital space today. Users are getting a blend of everything thrown at them, and they don’t even realize it anymore.” In this economy of attention, Traveler must work hard to keep up, but there must still be a balance between putting the audience first and maintaining a strong editorial voice and standpoint of authority.

Brad Rickman, Digital Director (left), and Sarah Rowe, Digital UX and Arts Director (right), discuss how they have expanded the brand for an increasingly digital audience.

Sarah Rowe, the Digital UX and Art Director, demonstrated Traveler’s exploration of the user experience in terms of apps and the website. She agreed that it is important to focus on how different techniques work for different users and shared how her team maps out the personas and journeys of their readers. Her parting takeaway for us, she said, “is to design for the opportunities and gaps left open by the needs of users.”

Students, including blogger Lauren Evans (right), take notes in the conference room at the Condé Nast offices.

The publishing students who visited Condé Nast Traveler were privileged to hear about many jobs and viewpoints, but the same thread wove through all of the discussions: publishers today must go out and actively understand and reel in their audiences distracted by the economy of attention. Still, the skill of experienced writers, editors, and publishers maintains value for magazine media. In other words, publishing content must evolve with its audience, but the basic skill of creating and curating content will always remain relevant.

by Lauren Evans

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