Pitchfork vs. ‘Playboy’: What Does a Men’s Publication Look Like in 2015?

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In the same week that Playboy decided to ditch its long-held tradition of publishing pornography tasteful nude photos of attractive women, Condé Nast announced that it had bought Pitchfork Media, so as to “[bring] a very passionate audience of millennial males into [its] roster.”

There’s been a fair bit of online outcry about Condé Nast’s statement on what it’s buying in Pitchfork, with the loudest complaints coming from those who seem to have conflated the company’s vision of the site’s readership with the actual gender breakdown of its staff. Condé Nast is making a business decision here, and if they think that buying Pitchfork is a way to acquire a readymade audience of millennial males, one suspects they know what they’re doing.

Indeed, it might well be that in an era when gender-based barriers are tumbling, buying a specialty publication might just be a better way of getting at a certain demographic than buying a publication that’s aimed specifically at that demographic. Pitchfork has long been accused of being overly dude-centric, and while its audience demographics haven’t been published publicly, there are ways to estimate them: Quantcast’s verified figures on the site suggest that its audience is 82% male, and participants in the site’s 2014 readers’ survey were 88% male — although in the latter case, Pitchfork was careful to emphasize that this “[was] not indicative of Pitchfork’s overall demographics.”

One would hope not, as that’d make Pitchfork’s audience more overwhelmingly male than… Playboy, which according to this media kit had a readership that was 75% male as of 2014. As a standalone site, you don’t want to cut out 50% of your potential audience before you even begin, and it’s clear that Pitchfork has been making efforts to correct this imbalance, perceived or actual, in recent years (the launch of The Pitch, for instance, seems like a concerted effort to encourage diversity in both writers and readership).

But let’s say you were a successful publishing company with a stable of publications that are focused largely on an older, affluent readership. You already have several fashion magazines and other properties whose audiences skew female (Allure, Vogue/Teen Vogue, W, and Glamour), a men’s magazine that isn’t exactly going to get the kids excited (GQ), a slew of specialty publications that range from bourgeois to more bourgeois (Golf Digest, Golf World, Bon Appétit, Brides), and two very different iconic feature magazines (The New Yorker and Vanity Fair).

The only Condé Nast titles that seem to aim directly at a young male demographic are Ars Technica and Wired, both of which focus on tech. (And, of course, there’s Reddit, which is an entirely different can of worms.) Still, if there’s a gap in the company’s traditional portfolio, it seems to be young men — which makes sense, because how often do you see young men reading magazines? And if they don’t, how do you get to them? Condé’s own press release confirmed that the acquisition of Pitchfork was aimed at filling exactly this void, and it’s instructive that it’s a music publication, not a specifically male-focused publication, that they chose.

It’s interesting to contrast this to Playboy, which is pretty much the quintessential men’s magazine, and has been so for about 60 years. Its abolition of nudity makes sense from a business perspective — there’s, um, not exactly any shortage of naked women on the Internet, so nobody’s buying your magazine for the dirty pictures. In a pleasant twist of cosmic irony, there’s no reason to read Playboy these days except for the articles, so why place those articles in a context that risks alienating 50% of your potential audience?

When even Playboy is abandoning the neanderthal demographic, one suspects things must be pretty grim for men’s magazines — and indeed, this whole situation raises a larger question: what exactly does a successful gendered publication look like in 2015? Playboy might have ditched its risqué pictures, but most men’s magazines remain largely stuck in grotesque caricatures of masculinity — either expensive-suits-and-Rolexes-and-whiskey or beer-boobs-‘n’-football.

And, as such, their appeal remains niche at best, especially online. As per Quantcast’s estimates, esquire.com attracts 1.5 million unique visitors a month in the US, making it the country’s 1370th most popular website. menshealth.com attracts fewer: only 623,000 unique visitors a month, good enough for 3227th in the country. GQ’s website is further down the list, at 5078th, with 374k uniques. Maxim gets only 262k uniques, placing it in 6889th place.

Again: these are only estimates, and obviously don’t include those magazines’ print distribution. But if you total them up, the number is still significantly less than Pitchfork’s monthly readership of around 4 million unique visitors. Pitchfork isn’t formally a men’s publication, obviously, and pretty much anyone involved with the site these days would blanch at any such suggestion. But if you were an advertiser targeting 18-to-30-year-old men, where would you spend your cash?

If one were to describe a successful men’s publication in 2015, the result might look a lot like Pitchfork: a publication that does a good job of reporting on a subject that happens to be of interest to men. If that subject also happens to be of interest to women, then you’re missing out on a large potential audience if you don’t find a way to make your publication appealing to them too. But it also makes sense to stick to what you’re good at and not risk alienating the audience you do have. It’ll be interesting to see if Condé Nast encourages its new purchase’s ongoing pursuit of diversity, because it seems largely irrelevant to the reasons for the acquisition.