Journalist Q&A: Ben Williams, editorial director, New York Magazine

Ben Williams, a veteran of New York Magazine's "Strategist" section, now oversees the publication's popular website. He talks to Erica Iacono about Gawker's influence on it, the Vulture blog's evolution and embargoes.

Name: Ben Williams
Title
: Editorial director
Outlet: nymag.com
E-mail: Ben.Williams@nymag.com
Website: www.nymag.com

Ben Williams, a veteran of New York Magazine's "Strategist" section, now oversees the publication's popular website. He talks to Erica Iacono about Gawker's influence on it, the Vulture blog's evolution, and embargoes.

What is the site's goal?

We try to translate the editorial identity of the magazine. We didn't try to replicate the magazine online - there are some similarities, but also some big differences between the website and the magazine, which is a weekly general-interest title with its audience concentrated in New York.

The site is an hourly news publication and two-thirds of the audience is outside New York. We put more emphasis on breaking news, especially in the glamour industries: fashion, film, TV, media, national politics, and restaurants.

Did the fact that some of Gawker's former editors (Elizabeth Spiers and Jessica Coen both worked at New York) had stints on nymag.com affect the site's tone at all?

We definitely aren't snarky; we don't try to be. Gawker, in a way, was influenced by the front-of-book Intelligencer section in a magazine like New York. It definitely set the stage. We found that general approach interesting. Certainly it was one blog we looked at.

Do you think Gawker helped whet the public's appetite for this type of constant blogging?

Gawker is a big blog network. It has done a lot to popularize blogs. However, there are a lot of blogs out there. You can look at someone like Andrew Sullivan - he's been incredibly influential - or at blogs such as Eater in the food space.

As far as competitors, we're unique because we do so many things at once. A lot of websites focus on a niche; we focus on a lot of niches all at once. In one sense, we compete with Gawker, but we also compete with Entertainment Weekly with our Vulture blog, which we're concentrating on now. We also compete with Style.com in the fashion space.

What is your stance on embargoes, exclusives?

We do value relationships, so you must take that into account. There's a balance between honoring the relationship and making sure you have a good relationship going forward. One thing that distinguishes us is that we have a lot of access. A lot of blogs have commentary and we interview people, do videos with people, get people to guest on the site. To work with people, you must be on good terms with them.

At the same time, we're hungry for news breaks like anybody else. There is so much competition now, it's a bit harder for PR people to control the news. Sometimes controlling the news doesn't serve the audience or the journalist.

Are there some areas of the site where you're negotiating more with PR people than others?

Certainly in fashion we have a lot of relationships with designers and publicists, but at some level, we're interacting with PR people for all areas of the site. For example, we do a lot of breaking news on Vulture now.

How do you make the pop culture space your own and Vulture a go-to destination?

Vulture has eight full-time writers and editors and a relaunch coming up. We treat it as a site within a site. We're going to have a new homepage design. We're trying to bring a smart populist site to the space.

On one end of the culture coverage you have huge sites: AOL, Entertainment Weekly, mass market and targeted at the broadest possible audience. At the other end you have smaller sites such as deadline.com, which is very much an insider crowd, or Defamer or perezhilton.com, which takes a more tabloid approach. We're talking about mass culture and high culture and trying to do it in a smart, not gossipy way. We're for people who are obsessive about culture and want to talk about it all day.

How do you keep your readers engaged?

If you can encourage a good commenting culture, it can be something people come to the site to read. We seek ways to have readers participate. On Vulture, when an interview is coming up, we'll say, "We're talking to Jon Hamm tomorrow, do you have any questions for him?" That's a great way to make them feel involved.

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