Media critic

Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley photographed in his office in February. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The internal memos of Atlantic Media Chairman David G. Bradley are commonly interesting documents, if only because they reveal the often agonized thinking of a media entrepreneur when he hires a new editor or bids adieu to some trailblazing executive. Friday’s version merits scrutiny for a couple of reasons: 1) It announces that Bradley will be selling a majority stake in the Atlantic magazine to the Emerson Collective, an entity founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple icon Steve Jobs; and 2) it mentions Leon Wieseltier.

“It was a friend of many of us here, Leon Wieseltier, who first put me onto the possibility that Laurene might come to love The Atlantic as I have,” wrote Bradley in his missive. “For its part, Emerson Collective had begun to invest in serious journalism for its own sake. And, as to Laurene personally, Leon said, ‘If she were to take an interest in The Atlantic, it would be for all the right reasons.’ In a January meeting in Washington, Laurene first took an interest.”

To be clear about that interest: Under the arrangement announced Friday, Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective — founded in 2004 — will secure majority ownership of the Atlantic. That, however, is not all of Atlantic Media. Affected properties include the magazine, which was founded in 1857, its digital properties, its standout events line and the less-well-known work of Atlantic Media Strategies, a consulting arm. Not included in the deal are these Atlantic Media properties: Quartz, National Journal Group and Government Executive Media Group.

Other important details: The 64-year-old Bradley will retain a significant minority stake and the plan is to have Emerson move to full ownership within three to five years, during which period Bradley will continue to work in his current role. For now, there will be stability — Bradley writes, “As to our remaining rank of leaders and managers, the agreement contemplates no change.” Bob Cohn will remain president, Jeffrey Goldberg the top editor. As part of the deal, Emerson Collective media official Peter Lattman — who formerly worked as a journalist at the New York Times — will add a title as vice chairman of the Atlantic to his portfolio.

“Nothing is imminent,” says an Atlantic spokeswoman.

Powell Jobs issued this statement about the deal: “What a privilege it is to partner with David Bradley and become a steward of The Atlantic, one of the country’s most important and enduring journalistic institutions. The Atlantic was co-founded 160 years ago by a group of abolitionists including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is a primary inspiration for our own work at Emerson Collective. Emerson and his partners, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, created a magazine whose mission was to bring about equality for all people; to illuminate and defend the American idea; to celebrate American culture and literature; and to cover our marvelous, and sometimes messy, democratic experiment.”

With a Bloomberg Billionaire Index estimate of $18.2 billion in net worth — plus that apparent appreciation for the publication’s history — Powell Jobs looks like an ideal steward. That said, the Atlantic doesn’t need a billionaire vanity publisher, according to the entity’s own representations. Though Bradley lost tens of millions of dollars subsidizing the title — he bought it 18 years ago from Mortimer B. Zuckerman — the company maintains that it is now profitable. “Digital readership has grown from two million in early 2009 to a monthly average of 33 million unique visitors for the first half of 2017. The company, which early in Bradley’s ownership recorded losses of more than $10 million a year, now, generates profits well above $10 million per year,” reads a press release on the sale. Revenues are nearly $80 million per year.

The Atlantic’s roaring events business — with big events in Aspen, Colo., Washington and elsewhere — helps account for the turnaround under Bradley. That smarty-pants venture feeds off of the magazine’s own legacy as a place where thoughtful reporters showcase stories that take weeks and months to produce. Journalism that lasts.

The Emerson Collective’s ability to sustain that will determine how it’s viewed as a media proprietor. Early signs indicate that the outfit isn’t in the media business to slime the public with clickbait. Dedicated to “removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential,” the organization invests in educational initiatives and other programs “to execute innovative solutions that will spur change and promote equality.” Its areas of concentration are education, immigration, the environment and social justice.

And now, increasingly, media. Investment in the Atlantic comes alongside the Emerson Collective’s investment in Anonymous Content, the California Sunday Magazine and other journalism mills. Not to mention a journal that Wieseltier is cooking up. According to a January 2016 story in New York magazine, the journal would take on the role of technology in modern lives, among many other topics. That Powell Jobs would partner with Wieseltier should ease any concerns among current Atlantic journalists that this eventual new owner would turn their workplace into a blog farm. “Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability,” wrote Wieseltier in a January 2015 New York Times piece. “As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.”

Asked whether the deal involved an editorial role for Wieseltier, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic said no.

For more on this plan, just read the memo from Bradley:

My Atlantic Colleagues:

This is not my everyday memo to you. Definitionally, it is a message I can write only once. And, in the event, it is to the good.

I want to let you know that I am entering into a partnership with Emerson Collective, the business and philanthropic venture of Laurene Powell Jobs. For a time, Emerson Collective and I will own jointly, and then Emerson Collective alone, The Atlantic – magazine, websites and affiliated businesses. I don’t think you will see any material changes in your lives; we all continue in our same roles. But, now 64 years old, I find my gaze casting farther forward. Laurene and I have settled on a plan that, as I approach 70, Emerson Collective will take full ownership of The Atlantic and she serve in my stead as leader of the enterprise.

Against the odds, The Atlantic is prospering. While I will stay at the helm some years, the most consequential decision of my career now is behind me: Who next will take stewardship of this 160-year-old national treasure? To me, the answer, in the form of Laurene, feels incomparably right.

My Thinking in Brief

The Atlantic’s long-term future has been on my mind for the last two years. As Katherine’s and my three sons reached majority, we came to understand that we did not have a next generation interested in media. Katherine and I would need to look farther afield.

I don’t suppose it would be a Bradley search if I didn’t burden it with process. A year ago, I tasked a small group of researchers with identifying a list of individuals who might succeed me as the 6th owner of The Atlantic. That the list soon topped 600 names raised the question from me to our researchers: “Is there anyone you think not qualified to own The Atlantic?” But, by anyone’s measure, the top 50 names were remarkable. And, for me, from the first, Laurene Powell Jobs sat atop the list.

It was a friend of many of us here, Leon Wieseltier, who first put me onto the possibility that Laurene might come to love The Atlantic as I have. For its part, Emerson Collective had begun to invest in serious journalism for its own sake. And, as to Laurene personally, Leon said, “If she were to take an interest in The Atlantic, it would be for all the right reasons.” In a January meeting in Washington, Laurene first took an interest.

Sharing Some of the Detail

Writing alone here, at night, I’m struck by how little I know about business partnerships; this will be the first owner partnership in my 40-year career. I wonder the appropriate detail to share with you. But, here is some to begin.

In roughly a month’s time, Emerson Collective will purchase a majority interest in The Atlantic. I will retain a large share of the property; likely, but not certainly, Emerson Collective will purchase my remaining interest three to five years from now.

How might management change? I don’t think at all. I will continue in my current role with my current responsibilities for three to five years. In fact, my agreement with Emerson Collective contemplates the possibility that I may remain in some capacity for some longer time. (When I purchased The Atlantic in 1999, our poetry editor was 93 years old. I’ve some mind to take her role in the event she retires.)

As to our remaining rank of leaders and managers, the agreement contemplates no change. My 8th floor colleagues – Michael Finnegan, Aretae Wyler and Emily Lenzner, the senior Atlantic leadership under Bob Cohn – Jeffrey Goldberg, Hayley Romer, Kim Lau, Margaret Low, Jean Ellen Cowgill, Rob Bole – and all their direct reports – all continue to serve just as they do now. Michael will report to me, Bob to Michael, and so forth down the line. And, as to the only note of disappointment, Atlantic headquarters continues here in the Watergate, and not in Palo Alto.

(Lest 600 of my other colleagues simply wander away, I should make clear that I – alone – will continue to own the other Atlantic Media properties – National Journal Group, Government Executive Media Group and Quartz. We will continue tomorrow exactly as we do today.)

One final note as to leaders: the day-to-day work of bringing us to an agreement was led by an Emerson Collective executive appointed by Laurene to lead her inquiry into media. Some of us knew Peter Lattman when he was the media editor and then deputy business editor at the New York Times. Though Peter will continue in his role of media strategist for Emerson Collective, he also will serve as Atlantic vice chairman, taking an office with us in New York.

In our last conversation of any note, Laurene and I thought through timing for her to meet you, and vice versa. Our best guess is that Laurene will visit both our Washington and New York offices in September. We have discussed smaller meetings with the leadership and all-staff events thereafter.

A Closing Thought on Ambition

Against expectation, surely against my own, The Atlantic is completing its most-successful decade in 100 years. In relevance, readership and even commerce, it is as if The Atlantic had entered, to take from Churchill, “the broad, sunlit uplands” of publishing. That it could happen now … well, you know the odds.

So, for some time, the strategy question nagging my thought is this: “What could we do in the next ten years worthy of the ten years just gone by?” I assume a Wall Street analyst would tell us, “Not a thing. There is no ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ for serious journalism.”

What I loved about Laurene from the first is that her confidence was forged on a different coast. And, if anything, her ambition is greater than my own. So, let’s make it our work to prove the wisdom of our era wrong. And, when my time comes to leave, that would be a happy note on which to say “good-bye.”