By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007
David G. Bradley likes to say he has had three large pursuits in life. The first two were the Corporate Executive Board and the Advisory Board, Washington companies that ascended by advising other firms on how to compete in business. They made him more than $300 million.
At 54, Bradley no longer has any association with the two companies. But he is using the things he learned from those endeavors and applying them to his third and latest undertaking, the Atlantic Media holding company, whose centerpiece is a respected if cerebral, 150-year-old, money-losing monthly, Atlantic magazine. His latest project: take a group of properties founded on a 19th-century brand and leverage them to a robust, online presence.
Atlantic Media plans to create at least two Web initiatives over the next year that will focus on the worlds of business and lifestyle and appeal to the same wealthy, educated audience that follows the Atlantic and its fellow publication, the National Journal, Bradley said this weekend.
He aims to expand the media company by using Atlantic's brand for serious journalism as a magnet for online talent.
"Success here is going to turn on our ability to spot and attract talent," Bradley said. "I've always thought that my personal gift is I'm good at spotting gifts in other people. I can see when people are really gifted, and I want to be part of making this a great talent destination."
Bradley, who is pouring millions of dollars into the new venture, says he wants to recruit a cadre of uber-experts to form what he calls the Atlantic Society, "where we will find 300 of the smartest human beings across the main intellectual terrains we're likely to cover and to go out and ask them, would they be essayists for the Atlantic?"
Bradley and Atlantic editor James Bennet are researching which bloggers to hire and what journalistic personalities would fit the bill for Atlantic online. One Web site is sure to focus on lifestyle, with generous coverage of wine, food and travel.
The new content would supplement that of the Atlantic and National Journal, said Bradley, who is the company's chairman and sole owner.
"The largest ambition is to be the center of where you go for the smartest take on whatever is happening," he said on Saturday, sitting in his Atlantic office at the Watergate eight floors above the Potomac River. "Clearly, global news, which is where our Atlantic strength is. Politics. I think we're going to have to trespass into business. We'd love to do a land grab on the business terrain."
The company already has three Web sites, under the Atlantic, National Journal and Government Executive brands. The new coverage could be folded into those sites or be presented on new Web sites.
Atlantic Media is a private company and profitable, thanks to the National Journal, a political publication with a Capitol Hill readership, which commands subscription fees of $1,600 a year. The Atlantic, with a circulation around 400,000, is known for its lengthy original reports that run to thousands of words. It has lost $12 million in its worst years under Bradley but should lose less than $5 million this year, he said.
With old media under siege for years, Bradley, who bought his properties in the 1990s, once thought of putting his media interests on hold to pursue other ventures such as hotels, for-profit education and adult higher learning. To figure out what to do next, he said, he devoured 2,000 pages of research on a few industries and conducted a series of interviews. He then retired last summer to his house near Provence, France, for a week's reflection. That's when he had what he calls "an acute moment."
While musing over his options at a cafe, his wife, Katherine, interjected: "You have work to do in Washington. Just go do your duty," Bradley recalled.
"You never know what's going to be the blinding light," Bradley said. "But suddenly, it was that moment. And I came back saying I love doing this. Let's just take it in earnest now."
Bradley lives off Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest D.C. with his wife and three children. He started his first companies in 1979 on the idea that he could build a business around the information that was available in Washington and through the federal government. By 2001, both the Corporate Executive Board and the Advisory Board had gone public and Bradley had sold his stock, pushing his net worth well above $300 million.
By then, his media career was well underway. He purchased the National Journal in 1997, and in 1999, he bought the Atlantic from real estate billionaire Mortimer B. Zuckerman. Each cost about $11 million. Bradley moved the Atlantic from its longtime home in Boston to an office building he owns at the Watergate complex.
He dove into the online world last fall with what he calls "a research and extreme talent tour of the Internet world." He spent four months visiting Web sites of major publications such as USA Today, the New York Times and Business Week. He talked to bloggers and online personalities around the country. He visited investor conferences and heard talk of old media. He learned that the Atlantic's home page stood still all day while Bloomberg's was updated 90 times.
"There's talk in the investment community that there are only four great newspapers left in the United States: The Washington Post, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. And between those properties and the online services, the rest of the newspaper world gets just utterly marginalized, is the way the chat goes," he said.
Asked if he was concerned that recruiting 300 new contributors to an online enterprise could compromise Atlantic Media's reputation for quality, Bradley said success would come down to the standards he sets for talent.
"James Bennet and I have about 40 blogs that we're supposed to read across the next few weeks where we would want our brand associated with their writing. Going back to my days at the Executive Board and right up to my involvement in journalism, I love the process of creating a culture of great talent. That's what I do for a living."