James Bennet is leaving the Atlantic to lead the editorial page of the New York Times, the two publications announced today, confirming a story over the weekend in Politico Media. It is a very big deal for both publications.
In 10 years at the Atlantic, editor in chief Bennet has presided over a renaissance of the thinky magazine both on the editorial and business fronts. “It is true that it took 100 interviews for me to find James Bennet,” wrote Atlantic Media Chairman and Chief Executive David Bradley in one of his distinctive memos. “What I really found was not one in a hundred, but one in a million. James Bennet recovered The Atlantic. More personal, James Bennet recovered my ownership of The Atlantic.” Just last month, the Atlantic carted home “Magazine of the Year” at the national magazine awards, a distinction that celebrated the publication’s record in “advancing the national debate on issues of critical importance.”
Among the hallmarks of Bennet’s tenure was giving his top writers space and time to craft big-impact stories, packed not only with thinking but also reporting. In his already classic June 2014 piece, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates opened with the story of then-91-year-old Clyde Ross, a black man who fell victim to a racist housing system in postwar Chicago. “I’d come out of Mississippi where there was one mess, and come up here and got in another mess. So how dumb am I? I didn’t want anyone to know how dumb I was,” Ross told Coates.
There are plenty of other examples in the Atlantic archive, including, most recently, a magnum opus by the magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg titled “The Obama Doctrine,” which produces a painstaking look at the evolution of the administration’s approach to the Syrian crisis, the Islamic State and beyond.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked Coates, who has resisted multiple offers to abandon his post at the Atlantic, whether Bennet’s departure would change his calculations. The response:
I mean it’s pretty simple: James Bennet changed my life. Ultimately, in writing, you need a top editor who really believes in your ideas. In 20 years of journalism, I have had two–David Carr and James Bennet. Perhaps that’s more than most. All I know is that without David I wouldn’t be writing, and without James I’d be compiling listicles or driving a cab. It is not a small thing to come into the office of an editor at a magazine like this and say “Hey I think we should do a cover arguing for reparations,” and for him to nod and say, “Seems legit.” It just ain’t normal.
Fortunately there is still plenty of beautiful abnormal here at the Atlantic. And I count in that number Bob Cohn, Scott Stossel and John Gould. So, from my end, the relationship won’t change. I still love the Atlantic and plan to remain here for as long as they’ll have me.
But I will deeply miss working with James.
In his memo, Bradley announced the appointment of Bob Cohn as sole president of the Atlantic, a position he formerly shared with Bennet. “Now, I have asked Bob to step forward as president over the whole, both the editorial and publishing sides of the house. I don’t know that there is anyone more qualified in magazine publishing than Bob Cohn.” Cohn and Bradley will search for a new editor in chief.
Bennet leaves the Atlantic as his portfolio is growing. Just last year, Atlantic Media announced that it was folding the monthly print version of National Journal and also shutting down its free Web offerings. As part of the same initiative, it beefed up the Atlantic, allocating resources for a Washington bureau for the magazine. “I can sound really pompous about this stuff really quickly, but I think where we distinguish ourselves is really paying attention to the ideas in contest” in Washington, he told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time. “There’s a meaningful clash of ideologies as well as interests and a real clash — and an interesting one — of ideas as to how you best further the interests of the country.”
Bennet, 49, declined an interview request about his move to the New York Times. However, the statement above pretty well captures the mentality of an editorial page editor. Whether Bennet continues the combative ways of outgoing New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal — well, we hope so. Agree or disagree with its output, the New York Times editorial page under Rosenthal has had a knack for letting people know where it stood. “Gov. Christie, Time to Go Home,” read the headline of an editorial in October after an underwhelming debate performance by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
When Rosenthal & Co. later invited Christie to a interview, an aide wrote back to refuse the invitation, enclosing the link to that editorial.
Just last Thursday, the Rosenthal-led editorial board accused Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) of “play[ing] the thug” after he said that any Supreme Court nominee from Obama “will bear some resemblance to a piñata.” And it also recently brushed back Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for conditioning her release of Wall Street speech transcripts on others doing likewise: “‘Everybody does it,’ is an excuse expected from a mischievous child, not a presidential candidate,” reads the editorial.
Rosenthal recently found himself at the center of a campaign-trail firestorm. In January, the editorial board interviewed Donald Trump in a session that featured both on-the-record and off-the-record moments. After characterizations of Trump’s off-the-record remarks leaked into the public, his opponents called for their release.
Though Rosenthal, 60, will step down as editor of the page, he’ll continue writing a column, since that’s what bigwigs who leave prestigious posts at large papers do. Expect more stuff along the lines of what Rosenthal laid out in a widely read January 2012 editorial blog post: “Talking about race in American politics is uncomfortable and awkward. But it has to be said: There has been a racist undertone to many of the Republican attacks leveled against President Obama for the last three years, and in this dawning presidential campaign.”
Rosenthal has led the editorial page since 2007, a tenure he called the longest in the modern history of the newspaper. Bennet will alight at the New York Times on May 2.
Here are all the canned quotes associated with this move, via a New York Times press release:
Andrew Rosenthal Steps Down As Editorial Page Editor
James Bennet Returns to The New York Times to Succeed Him
NEW YORK, March 14, 2016 —The New York Times announced today that Andrew Rosenthal, who has served for a decade as editorial page editor, has decided to step down. The announcement was made by publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who said that Mr. Rosenthal’s departure will take place in late April. Mr. Sulzberger asked Mr. Rosenthal to begin writing online columns, covering a range of subjects, including the presidential election. James Bennet, who for the past ten years has been editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, is rejoining The Times to succeed Mr. Rosenthal.
Mr. Rosenthal said, “Since Arthur began the public discussions last fall about succession planning for himself, I also have been thinking about my own plans. I feel very honored to have served in this position for longer than any editorial page editor in the modern history of The Times and during a period of such sweeping change, both in our business and in the world we cover. It’s been a great challenge and great fun. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to step back and focus my full attention on writing about subjects I care deeply about. I am very happy that in James, the editorial department will be left in the care of such an accomplished, influential and smart journalist. I am enormously grateful for my long association with The New York Times, an institution for which I will always have tremendous pride and affection.”
Mr. Sulzberger said, “Andy has done more than just preside over the continued excellence of our opinion pages, he has reinvented them for the digital age. Beyond his exceptional journalistic skills and his ability to provide clear and cogent analysis of the events shaping the world around us, he has been a forceful agent for change inside The Times. Over the past decade, our opinion section led the way in our digital transformation, piloting everything from video, with the stellar and award-winning Op-Docs, to interactive journalism to true global expansion with the addition of dozens of new international opinion writers, amplifying our voice and our reach to regions around the world. Under Andy’s leadership, our editorial page has been a persistent and impactful advocate for important policy positions from U.S. relations with Cuba, to transgender issues, to marriage equality, to race and criminal justice, privacy and guns.”
Mr. Sulzberger continued, “Less well known is the key role that Andy played as a leading advocate for some of the company’s biggest recent decisions – from the launch of the digital pay model in 2011 to the recent crafting of our strategy document, “Our Path Forward.” Andy truly redefined what it means to be editorial page editor by understanding and undertaking an important role in the leadership of the company. On a personal note, we’ve known each other for a very long time and I’m deeply grateful to him for the innumerable contributions he has made to this institution. I look forward to those that lie ahead.”
Mr. Bennet will join The Times on Monday, May 2, 2016.
Mr. Sulzberger said, “I am delighted that James has agreed to return to The Times where he did so much exceptional work over 15 years. When we lost him to The Atlantic ten years ago, those of us who worked with him knew that he would usher in the resurgence of that great publication. He’s done that and more. We also knew, or at least hoped, that someday he would return. James is an extraordinary talent, known as much for his journalistic curiosity and judgment as he is for his originality and spirit of innovation. I am so very pleased to welcome him back to The New York Times and look forward to his many contributions to our future success.”
Mr. Bennet said, “It’s a tremendous honor to have the chance to succeed Andy Rosenthal, an editor I’ve known and looked up to since I covered politics for him at The Times 20 years ago. I’m looking forward to joining my new colleagues to continue his work imagining all the new possibilities for intelligent commentary in these times.”