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The Atlantic's Owner Ponies Up

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.

When it comes to hiring, Bradley's most useful trait may be patience. Says Andrew Sullivan, who had been blogging for Time: "David regularly offered me tea and scones every year or so for the better part of the last seven years, to find out what I was up to, and always suggested ways to go work for him." Sullivan recently moved his blog to the Atlantic's site.

"We all get job offers from time to time, but rarely does someone offer you a job who has been willing to talk to you for years, even when there was no chance of going to work for him. David is the real deal: the tortoise in the online media race."

Bradley looks to his writers for policy guidance. He was, he says, "a neocon guy" who was "dead certain about the rightness" of invading Iraq. He argued about this with his national correspondent, James Fallows, who wrote skeptically about the war, and now concedes Fallows was right.

Despite his persistence, Bradley doesn't always get his man. He has been after an unnamed foreign affairs commentator for seven years whom "I'll never, ever get," he says, though he keeps trying. When longtime Atlantic writer William Langewiesche was being courted by Vanity Fair, Bradley flew to Paris to have dinner with him. Langewiesche defected anyway.

As for the ponies, Bradley has a built-in advantage. He was a groom at Meadowbrook Stables in Chevy Chase while growing up and is now one of its chief financial supporters.

For Goldberg, the arrival of the horses at his Northwest Washington home was the finishing touch that delighted his three young children. What's more, Bradley showed up and offered to clean up after the animals.

After that, Goldberg assumes, "it's all downhill from here."

Mother Is Calling

Mother Jones may be rooted in San Francisco, but the magazine is putting boots on the ground in Washington.

The liberal bimonthly is boosting its bureau here from two correspondents to seven in an effort to ramp up its investigative reporting. By contrast, Mother Jones has one reporter in its home city.

"Some people think we're a partisan magazine," says Clara Jeffery, the co-editor, who has spent the past month here looking for a bureau chief. "We're informed by a progressive tradition. But we're not out to grind the ax of anybody."

What's more, she adds, "the Bush administration has been good to us. There's a lot to investigate." Mother Jones's circulation has risen to 231,000 during the Bush years, double that at the end of the Clinton era.

Among the Washington staff are James Ridgeway, a longtime author and Village Voice correspondent; Stephanie Mencimer, a former Washington Monthly editor; and Laura Rozen, a national security writer for American Prospect. Another staffer, Daniel Schulman, has reported on a robo-calling operation that spread negative information about Democrats before the 2006 election, and on federal whistle-blowers who wind up getting fired.

Jeffery says the magazine's California perspective keeps it free of Beltway minutiae. Among Washington journalists, she says, "there can be a little bit of a herd mentality."

By putting breaking news and blogs online, the editors are adding urgency to a publication that's out only six times a year. But how can a small magazine, run by a nonprofit foundation, afford to triple its D.C. staff? Some financial backers are writing checks, Jeffery says, but the magazine is also making an old-fashioned pitch to smaller donors: send $250 and enter a sweepstakes for a week-long vacation.

Media Promiscuity

More than seven years ago, NBC and The Washington Post Co. announced a news alliance in which their Web sites would share content while Post and Newsweek reporters made frequent appearances on NBC and MSNBC.

Despite the long relationship, NBC now wants to see other people. The network said last week it will start sharing political content with the New York Times and featuring Times correspondents on air, while still collaborating with The Post.

"It's smart and good for us to try to get our journalism into all those media and all those platforms," says Mark Lukasiewicz, NBC's vice president for digital media. "It's not just television anymore. TV is a big piece of it. But online is huge." Plus, he says, "when Times reporters break national news, we have first access to them on television."

The deal is but one example of the overlapping links between news organizations that are nominally in competition. NBC and National Journal are fielding a team of "embeds" who will travel with the presidential candidates, shooting video and blogging.

Beyond that, NBC is a partner in polling with the Wall Street Journal, although that longtime arrangement could be severed now that Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch is taking over the Journal. The New York Times polls with CBS, while The Post teams with ABC for its opinion surveys. ABC, meanwhile, recently announced a content-sharing deal for the campaign with USA Today. Got that?

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