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Atlantic Monthly to Move Down the Coast to D.C.

By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page C01

It has been nearly 150 years since the Atlantic Monthly magazine was born, its first offices located in Boston's Old Corner Bookstore. It was on that site in the city's downtown that a couple of book publishers bound the words of men such as Emerson and Thoreau and Longfellow. The writers would often gather to chat and gossip, these American literary titans. No coincidence then that some -- including Emerson and Longfellow -- would be among the Atlantic's founders.

But great writers know that good narratives always have their twists, and the Atlantic staff got a big one this week when it learned that its owner of six years, David Bradley, will be moving the publication from Beantown to the Beltway over the next year, a decision rooted in economics -- and what Bradley calls "economies of intellect."

Cullen Murphy, managing editor for 20 years, will leave the magazine. (The Atlantic Monthly)

"It's been a long and trying day," the magazine's managing editor, Cullen Murphy, said yesterday, though, he added, the news wasn't a complete surprise. With the assistance of his deputy, Toby Lester, Murphy has spent the last few days holding individual conversations with the nearly 40 staff members who must decide whether to move to Washington.

Murphy himself, who has been managing editor for 20 years and whom Bradley describes as the Atlantic's "soul," will not be moving. He will stay on through the new year, he says, then continue to edit some writers for a while. But he has no desire to come to Washington and will eventually fulfill a book contract he's been putting off. He figures many of his colleagues will also remain in Boston.

"This is a group of people most of whom have ties to Boston," he says. "And they may have spouses working here, families living here, young children here, so, yes, I think the majority of the Boston staff will not take up the offer to move to Washington."

It's not that Bradley hasn't extended the offer. A multimillionaire who owns the Washington-based National Journal Group, which has several publications that deal with the inner workings of Washington, including the weekly National Journal and monthly Government Executive magazine, he says all the employees will get at least a year's pay. And he's offered to fly staffers and their spouses to visit the magazine's destined new home.

He does not talk like a man unaware of the gravity of his decision.

"It's a Boston institution," Bradley says. "It's a huge disappointment . . . and I'm really sad about it. I've actually written an apology which I'm sending to all of the Boston staff tonight." He'll visit the offices next week.

Like any red-blooded businessman, he can't deny that the bottom line was a factor in the decision. The Atlantic has been in the hole for nearly 40 years, he says. His company's headquarters and its other nearly 300 employees are in the District.

He remembers going to a Christmas party at the magazine the year he purchased it and introducing himself this way: "For those of you to whom I've not introduced myself, I'm David Bradley. I'm the man who is not bringing the Atlantic to Washington."

All he can say now, he adds, is that "I really, really tried. It's been almost six years. I've invested over $20 million in the Atlantic and in many, many ways succeeded. . . . But two years ago I began to struggle with whether this was the right thing."

The other issue, in some ways more important, he says, is getting all his magazines together in one place. "If I had 300 people in Boston and 37 people in Washington, I would be moving the 37 people to Boston," he says.

Bradley bought the Atlantic from Mort Zuckerman in 1999 and installed Michael Kelly as editor. Kelly shifted the magazine to more of a news orientation before he returned to writing. He was killed covering the Iraq war in 2003.

This subscription base is 355,000, a spokesman says. Bradley adds that readership, or the number of people who see the magazine, has gone from 980,000 to 1.5 million in his six years. The magazine has also won a number of National Magazine Awards, including one this week for fiction.

Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, is sorry to hear the news. "It's another sign of the faded glory of literary Boston," he says. "You have to accept change, but you regret the break of this long, historical connection."

There's a bit of irony in the Atlantic's move: The Old Corner Bookstore's address in Boston was on Washington Street.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company