There’s a Jolly Roger tacked up on a white wall in CityLab‘s DC office. And if the pirate spirit is not always obvious in a publication dedicated to challenges and opportunities regarding transportation, housing, and urban planning, CityLab insiders will tell you they’ve got the yo-ho-ho where it counts–it’s now independent from The Atlantic, which launched CityLab in 2011 as The Atlantic Cities.
On Tuesday the publication will announce a new top editor, Nicole Flatow, formerly the enterprise editor for the Guardian‘s US operation as well as a deputy editor at ThinkProgress. (Flatow replaces Sommer Mathis, who announced in December she would leave to edit Atlas Obscura.) And it will unveil a new redesign that’s flatter, has far fewer sections than it does currently, and shifts how it will ask advertisers to pay to reach its fervent audience.
This all makes sense at a time when cities are asserting themselves anew, says Robert Bole, CityLab’s general manager, who calls the publication a “re-startup.” It was a brutally humid June morning when we met in his office in the Watergate, which overlooks an austere, Mad Men-era swimming pool. “It’s not always a good view,” he says.
Cities in 2017, Bole says, are “places where mayors are actually becoming more important than prime ministers in some cases.” Urban decision-makers and managers are the site’s core audience, but they’re ringed by transit advocates, designers, and engineers, as well as general-interest readers who tend to come to CityLab via social media. The site’s biggest concentration of readers resides in Silicon Valley, Bole says. That’s not exactly an urban center, but it’s definitely had outsize influence on city living in recent years.
In January, CityLab became an independent unit of The Atlantic with its own teams for sales, marketing, design, and product development. It’s also responsible for its own profit and loss, and this redesign is in part an attempt to take ownership of its financial future.
To that end the new design plans to do away with programmatic advertising–the computer-driven process that can pop ads for stuff you’ve searched for on Amazon or Google into articles like the one you’re reading now. Each page on the redesigned CityLab will feature one large ad, a unit Bole and his team call an “empire.” Those will usually be bespoke, created with an advertiser eager to reach the average of 2 million urban nerds and bigwigs the Atlantic says are reading each month (data from comScore, which typically measures audiences lower than most publishers do, says CityLab averaged about 1.2 million unique monthly visitors between May 2016 and this past March).
That approach is sharply different from how many publishers approach making money off the internet, where massive scale is usually required before you can see a dime. “I feel like in the era of mass scale, as a niche site we’re sort of mammals that are coming after the cataclysm,” Bole says. “We’re focused on earning revenue and building a revenue strategy that focuses on these people who are directly involved in urban decision making, who are urban influencers really thinking about the future of cities.”
CityLab journalists speaking on background seem fairly optimistic about the changes–they see Bole’s team as hustling for dollars that make sense for their readers, and some think editorial resources may increase as well. Bole says he believes the publication has “a good chance” at becoming revenue-positive within a year.
Bole talks about creating content, not just ads, for sponsors. The ads—produced with help from Atlantic Media Strategies, the company’s in-house creative agency—could take many forms, including written-through, videos, maps or infographics. The Atlantic’s review board, set up after a 2013 fiasco involving the Church of Scientology, will continue to vet sponsored content before it goes up. In the event a sponsor isn’t in the chamber, CityLab will run a house promo for its editorial content, events, or newsletters, which Bole says reach more than 70,000 subscribers.
In terms of things more evident to readers, people on the new site will notice far fewer sections than they see now–as opposed to the 13 “verticals” on the old design, only five will remain: Design, Transportation, Environment, Equity, and Life. CityLab will still cover much of what it did before, but a separate section like Technology on the old site isn’t necessary, as tech pervades everyday urban life. As is the case with many other publications, the real action is on article pages, which offer an uncluttered reading experience, especially on phones.
Further down the page, readers will find lists of popular stories as well as a box promoting the site’s individual writers. That’s not based on data but on gut feeling, Bole says, influenced by the way sites like Medium develop audiences around authors. Another new thing: An expansion of the “POV” series begun by executive editor David Dudley, which brings in contributions by fellow travelers like former DC Mayor Anthony Williams and National Trust for Historic Preservation CEO Stephanie Meeks.
What does Bole what like best about the new design? After waxing positive about the new green logo (“sort of reminiscent of neon”) and the hashmarks that evoke crosswalks, he says it’s the wide field it leaves for CityLab: “It gives an opportunity for the content to really breathe,” he says. “It’s clean white space.” Which makes sense–what pirate doesn’t long for the open seas?