Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley today announced to staffers that National Journal, a weekly Beltway policy mag in circulation since 1969, will be suspending its print edition at year’s end. “[N]ews in Washington now moves too quickly for a weekly publication,” writes Bradley, noting that the company will be moving resources toward its higher-frequency publications National Journal Daily, Hotline and NationalJournal.com.
Though the memo doesn’t “propose” layoffs, it does propose a soft approach to paring the publication’s staff: “My intention is that our editors begin talking with each National Journal editorial staff member about what she or he would like to do – as a matter of first or second preference. We will do our best to help each person stay in place, or be reassigned, or transition to a new employer,” writes Bradley. According to a company spokesperson, there are 13 positions tied directly to the National Journal print edition, all of which will disappear. There are 80 staffers in the National Journal/NationalJournal.com/Hotline editorial operation.
In a bit of self-searching, Bradley cites his own failures: “The more-personal statement is that, as to the magazine, I believe I failed. When I first entered publishing, Don Graham taught me his motto: ‘Eyes on, hands off,'” he writes. “A few years back (before virtually any of you was in place), distracted from National Journal’s work, I took both my eyes and hands off the task. In the long run, I don’t think a weekly print magazine can thrive. Still, had I not failed for a time in my role, I think National Journal might have prospered longer.” He acquired National Journal in 1997.
Clearly Bradley’s failures don’t lie in the realm of memo-writing.
Like a lot of industry memos that deliver bad news, Bradley’s wraps the package with good news. “Revenue growth, investment growth and staff growth are all between 10% and 20% this year. Membership renewals are running a remarkable 93%. I don’t know that those numbers have been better during my tenure,” he writes.
So why shut down the print edition?
Easy: It serves as a drag on the more promising parts of the National Journal brand. As Bradley states in his memo, the company in 2011 pulled off a migration of its National Journal “subscribers” to “members.” Though the change sounds like one of those meaningless biz-school buzzword-heavy charades, it is actually a big deal. For its “members,” National Journal has sought to provide something resembling a Washington office for companies, trade associations and other organizations across the land. Need a briefing on immigration policy? Or a better understanding of where government contracting is headed? How about some PowerPoint presentations? Those are sorts of services that National Journal is providing to “member” organizations.
Members also pay for customized content on NationalJournal.com. The price of membership hovers in the five-figure range.
“We have all these other strategic services that will help your companies do their jobs better in Washington,” then-Atlantic Media President Justin Smith told the Erik Wemple Blog in a 2013 interview. “And that’s because we felt like differentiation is the name of the game in an increasingly commodified information” ecosystem. “We’ve gone from a relatively defensive position of selling subscriptions . . . to what we believe is a totally differentiated and more offensive position of saying, ‘Look, we do what no one else does.'”
Today, the team that provides National Journal’s member services is 15-strong and works separately from the editorial team. It won’t see its numbers dip as a result of today’s announcement.
Whatever comes next for National Journal, the announcement merely reinforces the one constant at the Foggy Bottom operation: upheaval. Stretching back to 2010, National Journal, in response to the threat from Politico, decided to turn itself into a “national consumer brand.” In late 2012, it announced that it was bifurcating its newsroom into teams serving the membership base and the national audience. In early 2014, new editor Richard Just sought to brand the magazine as a purveyor of long-form journalism not unlike the New Republic.
Come September, the National Journal Web site will undergo another redesign, along with another adjusted set of marching orders, via Bradley:
• High-velocity curated news feed
• Mobile utility products
• News alerts
• Expanded wire coverage
National Journal Editor-in-Chief Tim Grieve is committed to staying on board through the transition, though his longer-term plans are unclear.
At its core, Bradley’s move to shutter the print edition is an inevitable consequence of fragmentation and heightened competition in the once-tidy market of Capitol Hill-oriented publications. During its initial decades, National Journal, Roll Call (founded in 1955) and The Hill (founded in 1994) had a sweet time divvying up the millions upon millions of display advertising dollars flowing in from big aerospace and defense contractors, not to mention trade associations and so on. One former Roll Call employee recalls profit margins reaching as high as 55 percent.
The Internet put an end to the party. Outlets such as the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and many, many other Web-based political sites now claim a part of the issue advertising market, which stretches into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
And, of course, POLITICO! The Rosslyn-based outlet launched in 2007 and proceeded to reach across the Potomac to grab the lunch of National Journal. Free of a print-only legacy, Politico roared on the Web at a time when National Journal et alia were still fussing over their page mockups. It outhustled its competitors to scoops and ran circles around them in pushing its reporters onto the radio and TV airwaves.
Years from now, media historians will look back at National Journal’s herky-jerky management adaptations as a fruitless struggle to solve the threat from Politico.
National Journal Colleagues,
Some writings are easier than others. I suppose the first very hard memo for me was writing my Atlantic colleagues in Boston, telling them my plans to move the magazine to Washington. But, this note will be memorably difficult as well.
The News in this Writing
After a great deal of reflection – and all the modeling and scenario planning you would expect – I’ve decided that the National Journal should move the whole of its journalism to the higher-velocity work of our daily publications, National Journal Daily and Hotline, and to our hour-by-hour coverage on NationalJournal.com. The bittersweet part of this writing, as you will have seen, is my conclusion that, likely at the year’s end, we should suspend publication of the National Journal print magazine.
Almost certainly, without the magazine, the size of our newsroom will be reduced. That said, I’m not drawn, here, to proposing layoffs. My intention is that our editors begin talking with each National Journal editorial staff member about what she or he would like to do – as a matter of first or second preference. We will do our best to help each person stay in place, or be reassigned, or transition to a new employer.
I want you to know that I understand that this is not a happy outcome for some important number of you. I can’t solve that problem, but I can tell you I’m truly sorry. I am. What I want to do is help address fear. This is the third time in my career that I have reduced the number of staff at one publication or in one location. I have never left anyone “on the street.” I won’t do that here.
My Thinking in Brief
As to the reasoning, I want to explain the largest consideration and then share a more-personal truth. The large consideration feels most obvious: news in Washington now moves too quickly for a weekly publication. We will be investing in our daily publication, National Journal Daily, in NationalJournal.com, in Hotline, and in a mobile app. But, likely, the best years of weekly print magazines are passed.
The more-personal statement is that, as to the magazine, I believe I failed. When I first entered publishing, Don Graham taught me his motto: “Eyes on, hands off.” A few years back (before virtually any of you was in place), distracted from National Journal’s work, I took both my eyes and hands off the task. In the long run, I don’t think a weekly print magazine can thrive. Still, had I not failed for a time in my role, I think National Journal might have prospered longer.
At a minimum, I don’t assign any fault to our editors and writers. The problems here were strategic – and mine entirely.
The Larger National Journal Strategy
For that larger number of our editorial staff who will remain – and for all my other National Journal colleagues – I want to reassure you about the overall health of the National Journal. Even with the print magazine in gentle decline, the whole of the National Journal is growing, growing in revenues, employees and capital invested. Revenue growth, investment growth and staff growth are all between 10% and 20% this year. Membership renewals are running a remarkable 93%. I don’t know that those numbers have been better during my tenure.
I’ve come to think of our journalism as the capstone to a quieter work underway, underneath. At its best, National Journal’s journalism may be the best thing we do. But, it rests, now, on a very stable, very smart and rapidly-expanding platform. As background only, four years past, we converted the larger part of our NJ “subscribers” into NJ “members.” The intent was twofold: (1) We wanted to lead with teachability; we now have 15 full-time staff, engaged in 2,000 conversations a year, asking members how we might best serve them. (2) We wanted the ethic of our work to be generous – that members could have unlimited subscriptions to our publications, access to our slides and graphics, copies of our studies, attendance at our meetings. Whatever we have, it is for our members in unlimited amount.
The discipline of deep listening has yielded a progeny of new services and products, each almost wholly original in the field of public policy. Most of you know these services already; half our staff works on member services. In the main, they are best-practice reports and value-added tools intended to increase the effectiveness of our members as they work in Washington. They are, as well, the most secure platform I’ve seen for building a journalism enterprise.
My Commitment to Media
As to our work in media – National Journal Daily, NationalJournal.com, Next America and Hotline – my ambition is unqualified. In as crowded a field as coverage of Washington, our work must be remarkable. The advantage I would like us to seek is in clear thinking, original insight and deep utility. National Journal should be the home for great thinking and beautiful writing. I love my children equally here; each publication should be exceptional.
It’s a little in the weeds, but I thought I might list some of our first plans for the fall:
September Re-launch of NationalJournal.com
• 100% redesign
• High-velocity curated news feed
• Mobile utility products
• News alerts
• Expanded wire coverage
Expanded National Journal Daily (print and digital)
• Movement of National Journal magazine investment to National Journal Daily
• Expanded daybook
• Hill leadership news (new)
• Hill people news (new)
• Top 100 competitive races (new)
• Daily graphic of the day’s events (new)
• Increased frequency of in-depth committee profiles (expanded)
• Enhanced data analysis (new)
Spin-Out of Next America
• Rapidly growing platform reporting on demographic changes in the U.S.
• Increased staff to expand reach and impact
• Eventual spin-off into its own digital platform
One final word on media, if I may: 17 years ago, I did not leave the Corporate Executive Board and the Advisory Board Company just to graze in greener pasture. Media is hardly that. I entered the profession for my love of journalism and my love of the Washington, DC it covers. I am, today, as committed to this work as I was at the first.
Before lifting up, I want to pause over two of our top leaders. As to Tim Grieve, our editor-in-chief, and Richard Just, the magazine editor, I feel pure appreciation. Stating the obvious, I’m afraid, the receding tide for news weekly magazines is an impersonal force, unimpressed by, indifferent to, the force of any editorial team. For his time here, Tim has been a great force. As to raw intelligence, drive, editorial integrity, digital sophistication (NJ.com traffic has grown 50% under Tim) and an eye for talent, Tim is, in my experience, unsurpassed. And, then, there is this: Tim has proved a wonderfully popular leader in the newsroom. One of Tim’s great finds has been Richard Just, an exquisite talent. In the one year we allowed Richard, before today’s decision, he redesigned the magazine, recruited some of the nation’s top long-form writers and earned the National Journal its first National Magazine Award nomination in a decade. As a team, Richard and his colleagues have been excellent. I’m so appreciative of Tim and Richard’s continued leadership through this transition.
In the first draft of this note, I closed by telling a story from my first days with National Journal – the Clinton scandal, impeachment and the fool’s errand of thinking I could manage Michael Kelly. The story was by way of saying how much I loved National Journal as a print magazine. But, given this note is personally hard for some number of you, these early stories feel off key. Instead, I’ll look for a time some weeks out when all of you, and all our alum, can join John Sullivan and me in an event to celebrate the good work of this magazine.
I hope to speak with you in person, later today.
With my high regard.