Little mag, big ideas

The New Inquiry's revenue model might be the future of little magazines

It’s not easy being a little magazine. But The New Inquiry, an online journal and monthly magazine of culture and politics, is making it look easy.

“We have no paywall, no advertisers, no benefactors, and we’re creative commons,” said 27-year-old editor in chief Rachel Rosenfelt. Instead, the publication relies on revenue from subscriptions, with readers signing on for as little as $2 a month. “Two dollars a month is $24 a year, and that’s actually pretty standard for a magazine subscription. But because we make it so low a barrier to support us, we’ve been doing very well with that,” Rosenfelt said.

Indeed, the magazine isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving.

Founded by Rosenfelt, and her friends Mary Borkowski and Jennifer Bernstein, 26, The New Inquiry has become an online haven for unabashedly intellectual cultural criticism, dissecting everything from Shakespeare and drones to video games and Lindsay Lohan. In a world where there are fewer magazine staff jobs available thanks to the rise of the freelance gig economy, Rosenfelt and company didn’t wait to be hired by a literary magazine—they simply started their own.

“What New Inquiry speaks to is the middle ground between public culture and academic culture, and as more and more students are graduating with liberal arts degrees, but not going into academia and not going into media,” Rosenfelt said, “that surplus attention and intellectual energy is being met by organizations like The New Inquiry.”

The $2-a-month subscription plan began in February last year, and “has been hugely successful,” she said, pulling in 30 to 50 new subscribers every week. “Our entire magazine is supported by this money alone. We pay staff members; we pay every single writer for every single article they publish.” (Many of the New Inquiry’s peers don’t pay for content. Who Pays Writers?, a Tumblr monitoring how much magazines and websites pay their writers, states that New Inquiry pays a $50 flat fee for pieces over 1,500 words. However, rates are reportedly subject to change.)

“We publish really broadly,” Rosenfelt said. “We publish every single day, free, on the Internet. What people get when they subscribe is thematic clusterings of work we’ve done, or works that we’re about to come out with.” Last month’s theme was “Family Planning”; this month’s is “Art.” Readers received an iPad-compatible PDF of articles, laid out in a neat, bold style, and flanked by details from an eclectic selection of masterpieces: Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” Edvard Munch’s “Madonna,” and Andy Warhol’s “Liz.”

If every single article in the magazine eventually appears on the New Inquiry’s website, for free, why do people still subscribe? Rosenfelt feels the PDF provides “coherent clusters” of the journal’s articles, “as opposed to our otherwise totally decentralized form” on the website. And if readers like what they see on the website, they are often happy to invest in future content by subscribing.

Wired’s Bill Wasik has called the New Inquiry’s plan a “model that might save the little magazine for the Internet era,” and Rosenfelt is enthusiastic about its prospects. So far, it’s supporting two full-time staff members, including Rosenfelt, and stipends for a few members of the magazine’s creative team. “My goal at this point is not only to pay our staff more, closer to what they deserve, but also to be able to compensate my editors, because they’re a big reason why the system is so successful, and they’re doing such amazing, hard work to keep it going,” she said.

The magazine is currently experimenting with what Rosenfelt calls “autonomous editorial satellites” that are connected to the New Inquiry, and centralized by the New York staff. In June, the magazine ran a series of essays on the recent Kenyan election, “Kenya Refuses,” as a supplement. The essays were co-edited by Aaron Bady, a PhD student at the University of California, and Shailja Patel, an author who divides her time between Kenya and Oakland, CA. Rosenfelt never met Patel, but trusted Bady to integrate her into the New Inquiry’s editorial process and gave her complete editorial control over the supplement.

The New Inquiry is also launching a publishing arm, with its first book set to be released next spring. “I don’t believe it’ll be as substantive as the subscriptions have been for us,” Rosenfelt said. “But it’s more about meeting the demand of people that do subscribe. We’re told all the time that they want New Inquiry in print.” She hopes offering a book series might pave the way for publishing collections of the New Inquiry’s writers’ work in print, without having to issue a regular print edition of the magazine.

Although the New Inquiry is registered as a nonprofit, Rosenfelt doesn’t see it operating as one long term. “I’d like us to be entirely reader-supported, and I think we’ve come very far in proving that’s possible, even without a paywall,” she said. The New Inquiry’s goal “is to be completely without ads, not pandering to grant givers or benefactors, and 100 percent reader-supported.”

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , , , ,