No doubt about it, the lines between editorial and advertising are becoming more blurred as publishers seek to boost revenues in print and online. We're referring to the rise of native advertising (often called "branded content") — which, in the best instances, is clearly labeled as advertising; and in others, frequently involves backdoor deals that aren't disclosed. There's often a correlation, for example, between the number of ad pages a brand has in a magazine issue and whose clothes are featured most prominently in the editorials, even on the cover.
While many publications like to pretend their editorial decisions are independent of advertisers' input, Blackbook is taking a different approach in its return to print on April 14. In the issue, the first since the summer of 2013, editorially-driven stories exist seamlessly alongside those that feature advertisers. Take, for example, an interview with director and restaurant owner James Marshall about the mini docu-series he made for Cole Haan, which features a beautiful shot of Marshall wearing pieces from the brand. Some readers might put two and two together; others may not, because there's nothing to mark the article as an ad, and the interview about filmmaking and American culture is something the magazine could conceivably cover, anyway.
This kind of branded content, founder Evanly Schindler contends, does not weigh the magazine down, but instead, frees it to tackle idea-based journalism it has always wanted to do. Schindler founded Blackbook in 1996, seeking to provide an insider's perspective on culture for a mainstream urban audience. He sold the brand to businessman Ari Horowitz in 2006, who then sold it to Vibe in 2012. Schindler bought it back in 2013, with Jon Bond of the advertising agency Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners. The spring 2015 edition is the first print issue since the founder's return. The brand will now exist in print biannually, with a focus on longform journalism — "perennial and evergreen ideas, versus what the magazine used to do, which was more monthly breaking news," says Schindler — and online at BBook.com, which will provide geo-targeted city guides and cultural directories.
"The idea was really to take Blackbook to another level of a media company/agency, which is not unusual," says Schindler. "A lot of publishers right now are creating native content campaigns for clients. That's something Blackbook has always done." He says that aligning brands with art, talent, content and ideas was how the magazine made most of its money in the first years, and now the process is just more formalized. "The idea was really to partner with a guy who understands the agency model and couple it with mine so that we can really present full-blown native content campaigns."
Schindler says the reason Blackbook is able to maintain its unique identity, even while producing content for advertisers, is that it isn't difficult to find the right kind of partners, like Cole Haan. "Blackbook is so well known that we don't get too many brands that are off-brand coming to us," he says. He uses the partnership with the spring issue's biggest sponsor, Hewlett-Packard, as an example. "The whole idea of HP's technology is this new creativity, this new technology, that's really about art and design and getting artists and graphic designers to use it and take it to another level," he says. "That's a piece we could have written on our own, so when they came and they wanted to do that type of native content partnership, that was very easy and very exciting because it pushed forward what we do and what we're known for." The magazine's staff used HP's new desktop computer, Sprout by HP, to design several pages in the magazine and invited guests to use it too in a series called "Studies for an Art Project." Designer Adam Selman is one of those featured in the series.
The spring issue is packed with editorials, profiles, features and perspectives on the zeitgeist. One thing that's gone? The celebrity cover. To illustrate its feature story on Pope Francis, Blackbook used a stock image of the pope with two female models posing as brides in a same-sex wedding ceremony. It is a bold choice, and one that will certainly disgruntle more than a few religious conservatives. But Blackbook's brand partners don't appear to mind — and therein lies the proof that the magazine still has the creative rein to push boundaries and excite its audience. Its advertisers are counting on it.