There are several ways to measure success, but Golf Digest has one very unique metric—setting an innocent man free.
The publication found itself in a situation where it helped prove one man’s innocence. It’s a tale we think is much better told by editor-in-chief Jerry Tarde. However, it’s material to know that the story behind the story generated the brand’s highest trafficked piece outside of its Hot List annual franchise, attracting nearly 600,000 unique visitors to golfdigest.com.
But as we learned after talking to Tarde and general manager, Chris Reynolds, Golf Digest has a lot more to celebrate.
Folio: First, tell us the story behind Valentino Dixon and the impact it had on Golf Digest.
Jerry Tarde: Golf is a passion sport, so passion is a word that we use a lot. It’s what really connects our readers to what we produce. About five or six years ago, we were doing a series called “Golf Saved My Life.” It was about people who used golf to rehabilitate themselves or to recover from tragedy. Golf if a redemptive pursuit. There isn’t a golfer who doesn’t play in charity events or in some way contribute back to the community—it’s part of the fabric of the game. Those stories touch the human spirit, so at the end of each article we included a note that encouraged readers to write our editors with their own stories.
Max Adler, our editorial director who was the author of the series, received a letter that had a return address of Attica Correctional Facility. Obviously he opened it gingerly, and found a letter from an inmate who was convicted of second-degree murder and turned to golf in an odd circumstance. The warden knew he was an artist and asked him to do a rendition of the twelfth hole at Augusta using a photograph. Dixon had never been on a golf course, but he drew an imaginative four-color drawing and it piqued his interest. He somehow connected with golf and it turned into hundreds more drawings. He brought them to our attention and in this well crafted letter he said to Max, in effect, “by the way, I’m innocent; I didn’t do what I was accused of and if you saw my drawings, I think you would get a glimmer of my innocence.”
That letter inspired Max to begin an investigation. He was taken by the story, so he went to visit Valentino and learn what happened on the night of the murder. As it turns out, another man had confessed of the crime, but his confession was disregarded. Max then traveled with a video crew to capture the confession and the story kind of grew from there.
It was a first-person piece in the magazine, part of the “Golf Saved My Life” series. Over the next five years, Max stayed in touch with the story and with Valentino. He followed up and tried to get it into the courts, but it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere. They exhausted all of the efforts for clemency and pardon until a group of Georgetown students read the piece in Golf Digest and took it upon themselves to do more research.
Out of that, the judicial system came to the conclusion that Valentino was innocent. Max got a phone call about a week before his release and was on the courthouse steps when Dixon was released.
Since then, a lot has happened. There’s interest in a book, a documentary, or even a movie about Valentino’s life. Max is also working with our team here at Condé Nast to develop an art exhibit in New York to benefit Valentino and launch his career as an artist. It’s a proud moment for us; it’s a little out of our mainstream of instruction and equipment or following the [PGA] Tour, but I think it cuts to the heart of golfers and the compassion that they have for others.
Folio: You say it’s a bit outside of your wheelhouse, so how do you balance the desire to produce journalism like this while also staying on brand?
Tarde: The core of what Golf Digest stands for is golf service, and we think of that as how to play, where to play, what to play: instruction, equipment and courses. But part of our mission, too, is to produce great literature. Our magazine is looked upon as a credible authority on the subject of golf. I always like to say that the actual swinging of a club is a second-and-a-half, so it probably takes about a minute-and-a-half for a round of golf in which you’re actually performing the athletic motion, but most people are on the course for four or five hours.
There’s a lot of conversation that occurs during the game, and it’s one of those rare opportunities in life where you pause and look up from your phone and the everyday pulls of family and business, where you can be with friends and talk about the things that are fun or important to you. So we think the journalism of the game is part of the conversation of golf.
Chris Reynolds: I would just add that digitally, we’ve kind of taken the heritage that Jerry established in the magazine and with the journalism and really translated it into our strategy, which we’ve really been successful with over the last three years. But at the same time, golfers are going to go out and spend this time with other men or women who are on the course, so we want to provide them some of the other topics they might be interested in.
The way I like to think about it is giving them something to talk about on the golf course. Then we kind of have a funnel of content that feeds all the way down into our paid product where we’re really focused on instruction, which is kind of the most personal part of the game, which is how to improve and how to perform better, but along the way, our tour coverage, our courses coverage, all of that, is helping draw people who may just be the two or three rounds-a-year golfer. We’re drawing them to our site and then helping them establish that passion for the game through the services that we provide.
Tarde: Since 2015 to today, our audience has gone from fourth to first, passing golf.com, golfchannel.com, and even pgatour.com. I think the thing that we’re most proud of is that as we’ve grown and maintained our engagement, so it’s not just about publishing news headlines, but also those deep dives are still an important part of our formula.
Folio: What have you done differently to make your product more engaging on digital platforms?
Reynolds: I think a lot of credit goes to the team here. We’ve got some incredible talent. We’ve also developed a science on how to cover major moments throughout the season, and a lot of that is due to a better understanding of where that traffic comes from and a better understanding of how to deliver that content.
Some if it is really tactical, like SEO management and when to publish certain kinds of content. One of the things we found—especially during major [tournament] weeks—is that a lot of the content we were holding and publishing during the event, we are instead publishing a week, sometimes two weeks, earlier because of the ramp up of the traffic going into those weeks. It really comes down to being able to identify key moments in the year where we’ve been able to capitalize
The other thing that has been huge is our social team. We’ve really done very little audience acquisition for those channels; it’s all a very organic audience. Even with this Facebook algorithm change, we haven’t seen our numbers decline because golf is a passion point for [that audience].
Instagram has also been a massive area of growth. Some of the new teams that we’ve brought in have really started to push the boundaries of what we’re doing in social and I think we’re really excited about some of the new efforts we’re doing there. But in general, I think we’ve really broken down all of the pieces of our traffic: search, email, social, direct traffic, and we’ve been able to optimize who’s coming to our site. We’ve had three record months so far this year, and some incredible individual days. The last day of [the Masters Tournament] was our biggest day in our history. And like Jerry said, the beautiful part of all of this is not seeing our engagement decline. If you look at total minutes spent with our brand, it’s flat from two years ago, but our traffic has more than doubled.
Folio: There’s been another intangible factor in golf this year that must have had a positive impact on Golf Digest. Of course, that’s Tiger Woods’ comeback story. Has Tiger helped lift your brand, like he’s seemed to help lift the game—not only this year, but for the past 20-plus years?
Tarde: I think that Tiger is certainly a big lift and the reason why is because he transcends the sport and transcends the borders of the U.S. Everybody is interested. Golf Digest has 25 international editions. We’re the largest circulated sports publication in the world. I just came back from Paris, where we had our international summit the week ahead of the Ryder Cup, and you’re right. Tiger has everybody talking. People are excited to see him back and playing well. But having said that, I think the economy has a bigger effect on how well golf does. So while it’s no question that Tiger helps to lift all boats, having a strong economy means that people have money in their pocket to buy $500 drivers, to take trips to Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes, and to afford private club memberships or to play more public golf. So I think you’ve got to look at it from that macroeconomic standpoint as well.
Reynolds: I would agree that Tiger is a major factor in some of our site’s success. When we do our analysis, we often try to exclude Tiger stories because it effects the analysis of everything else. He certainly transcends sports, but I also think the PGA Tour is in a great position right now. They have Tiger and Phil [Mickelson] as the elder statesmen, but they also have an incredible group of young players that are appealing to new golfers because of either how they dress or how they play. I also think the tour is being smart about how they’re approaching their season and how they’re promoting their brand. All of those things, especially on top of the fact that Tiger finished as well as he did in the championship, we’re all really excited about. Who knows what Tiger can do next year, and I think that the set up for the fan of the tour is going to make it even more enjoyable to watch and to cover.
Folio: How are you repositioning Golf Digest as a media brand?
Tarde: I started working here for the founders of the magazine. It was launched 68 years ago, in 1950. I was able to hear in their own words what the impetus for Golf Digest was then, and today it remains the same. The platforms are different, the world of publishing is a heck of a lot different, but improvement is ultimately what we stand for. That’s the bond that all golfers share as players. We want to get better and that’s the basis of what our content is built upon. I think we have gotten a lot better at helping golfers to improve because we not only communicate on print, but we’re on every platform imaginable.
When I started here, we were all about print, and then we were all about print and digital, and then digital became video, and video has now become more interactive, so I think one of the big changes is that we’re able to think of Golf Digest as an experience, more than just something that’s important and well-read. It’s much more interactive content than it’s ever been, and I think that for the trajectory of the future there’s going to be more of that.
I think of our business in two ways—free and paid. Both are very important to us. The free is our website and what we give away to readers that attract the largest audience, and then the paid is what we offer at the bottom of the funnel with the most passionate golfers. We know that in the world of golf, fans are really important, but players are the hardcore people who are a part of the fabric of the game. They’re more willing to pay for their content and they’re more willing to participate and be the most engaged of your audience, so that’s what we’re all about.
Last April, we launched a premium subscription content business that’s all about instruction, and I think that we’re building towards a Netflix-type program where golfers are able to tap into our content and really dig into long-form video that brings to them the best teachers, the best instruction, and even an opportunity to have customization where you’re able to have your own swing analyzed or be able to interact with the best teachers in the game.
So the big difference between when I first got here in the late 70s and today is that we’ve increasingly become an experience, and that’s the way we look at ourselves and that’s the knowledge that we put to all of our editors, and I think that it’s only going to become more so down the line.
Reynolds: We were looking for a way to balance a number of different businesses in one. Obviously our instruction is important and it will continue to be at the core. We’re looking for new ways to deliver on things that are really easy extensions of what Golf Digest is, so instruction is always the first step. We see some things that we’re certainly planning for the future around equipment.
Then when it comes to courses to travel to, golfers typically say that you build your life around golf, so there are a lot of different pieces that we have the right to participate in, because for a lot of golfers, their lives and their golf are so connected. We can provide services and offerings that might fit into different parts of that life.
Folio: Let’s talk more about print. How important is this medium if you’re becoming more of a multi-channel experience? Can you imagine Golf Digest without a print component?
Tarde: I would say that print is still very important to us right now. But it’s a part of what we do, and in the beginning it used to be the only thing we did. Now, I can assure you that every story we discuss, that we contemplate pursuing, and that we execute, print is only part of the conversation. We look at all stories across all platforms. However, I would add that the audience still loves print and when we talk to top players, top teachers, the leaders of golf, they want to know if it’s going to appear in the print magazine. It’s an attraction for getting the best to give you more time, more effort, and more of themselves. So yes, I think print remains important because it’s important to the people of golf, whether they’re our readers or the people we cover. And I see that continuing on the horizon. How long is that horizon? I can’t tell you. Will that always be so? Probably not. But I think that for the foreseeable future, maybe in a different form, maybe at a different size over the next few years, print still matters.
Reynolds: Every golfer has had a dream of being on the cover of Golf Digest. That position is iconic in the world of golf and something we are very serious about maintaining. That being said, I think that Jerry has done an incredible job in taking a print editorial team and turning it into a multi-channel team. There isn’t anybody who works on a single platform anymore. We are all working across all platforms and it makes it so everybody has skin in everything that’s being produced across the group. It makes the team a lot closer because they recognize there are times when someone steps up for a print piece or a digital piece and ultimately makes it the best possible product.