The Atlantic's Owner Ponies Up

David Bradley, in his Watergate office, is committed to long-form journalism at a time when quality outlets for nonfiction writers are few.
David Bradley, in his Watergate office, is committed to long-form journalism at a time when quality outlets for nonfiction writers are few. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007

David Bradley had been trying to lure Jeffrey Goldberg to the Atlantic for more than two years.

Bradley, the magazine's owner, wrote flattering letters. He courted Goldberg at a McDonald's on Wisconsin Avenue. He proffered a hefty signing bonus. And when the New Yorker's Washington correspondent finally seemed receptive to making the move, Bradley sent in the ponies.

"He's incredibly persistent and makes you feel like you're God's gift to journalism," says Goldberg, who had turned Bradley down once before. But that was before the horses showed up at his home to entertain his children. "The charm is incredibly disarming," says Goldberg, who joined the Atlantic last month.

Bradley excelled at hiring top talent long before he got into the media business. But since moving the Atlantic from Boston to Washington two years ago (after vowing not to), he has sought out -- with an open checkbook -- some of the Beltway's best and brightest.

"Everyone has particular gifts," says Bradley, a soft-spoken man who exudes self-effacement. "George Will can write 800 words on anything. Mine is seeing gifts in other people and recruiting them."

Bradley made his millions at corporate research firms he founded, sifting through 50,000 applicants a year, before buying such media properties as National Journal and the Hotline.

"In this business, the talent is that much more unique," he says. "It's so much more ephemeral what makes a good writer."

James Bennet was a New York Times correspondent, and was excited about moving to the Beijing bureau, when Bradley approached him. He wanted Bennet to become editor of the Atlantic.

"He just sat me down for a couple of long conversations about what I was in journalism for, before I realized I was a candidate for the job," Bennet says. "He kind of interviews you about your life. He is a tremendously persuasive guy." Bennet took the job last year.

Part of what Bradley is selling is a commitment to long-form journalism, at a time when there are few quality outlets for those who believe in the power of nonfiction narrative. But what Goldberg calls "smart-bomb flattery" doesn't hurt, and neither do salaries for top journalists ranging as high as $350,000.

"Money is a factor in every situation," Bradley says. "I don't want people taking salary cuts to come write for us. But it doesn't get you across the finish line." The big salaries have stirred some jealousy among the rank and file, tempered by gratitude that the owner isn't cutting back during a tough time for the news business.

Bradley also uses his wallet in the political arena. At a time when many news organizations ban contributions by journalists, he has given $4,300 to Hillary Clinton, $2,300 to Barack Obama and $2,300 to Mitt Romney in the presidential race.

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