David Bradley made his fortune riding the great era of business consulting during the 1980s and ’90s. He built two companies and reaped hundreds of millions as he sold them around the turn of the century.
“Then I entered print magazines, right as it went off a cliff,” said the 64-year-old chairman of Atlantic Media, sitting on a recent Friday afternoon in his eighth-floor office at Watergate 600, the office building he recently sold that overlooks the Potomac and Kennedy Center.
After enduring more than $100 million in losses over a decade, Bradley has secured the future of the Atlantic, the 160-year-old monthly magazine that positions him at the commanding heights of the national conversation.
He expects to make back his investment in Atlantic Media when he finds a new owner for it in six to ten years. “I want to find somebody who will love it as much as I’ve loved it,” he said. The recent sale of his Watergate headquarters for $135 million to Washington REIT may have been part of a succession plan. He and his wife, Katherine, are also investors in Axios, the news company started by Washington journalists Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei.
The Bradleys recently set Washington abuzz when they announced another Atlantic Media property — the business-oriented digital news site called Quartz — was profitable. The announcement spurred rumors about a sale.
“There are no plans to sell Quartz,” an Atlantic Media spokesman said. “Atlantic Media is proud of Quartz’s achievement of profitability. Anything beyond that, such as the reported speculation about Quartz’s future, is pure speculation.”
But if anything illustrates David Bradley’s steely calculus for running a business, it’s the National Journal. He calls folding the once-storied trade magazine on national politics “the biggest business failure of my life.” His “10 years in the wilderness,” trying to break a path to assure its survival, was emblematic of the media crisis of his day.
For decades, the magazine had a solid business and loyal following selling inside information to lobbyists, legislators and journalists.
The Internet changed all that. Well-funded entries moved in, including Politico and its Politico Pro, Bloomberg Government, CQ Roll Call, Huffington Post, RealClear Politics and even Google, whose Google alerts decimated National Journal’s Hotline political tip sheet. The rivals turned the lucrative inside-the-Beltway media market into a commoditized free-for-all.
National Journal subscribers no longer wanted to pay to get something that they could read online for free.
To its credit, National Journal did what start-ups do all the time: Try and fail, try and fail, try and fail.
“One theory was we would get into the breaking-news business — a real fool’s errand,” Bradley said. “The second theory was that we would make the National Journal a national property the way we made the Atlantic a national property. A third theory was that we would succeed by having a very expensive paywall. We would be a digital media company but with a multi-thousand-dollar paywall. Nobody comes across a paywall. Your mother won’t go across a paywall.”
Bradley finally saw a way forward, which was solving problems for the same client base but with new, customized products such as charts, slides and informational analysis that help navigate Washington’s power centers.
He chose survival.
That meant closing the flagship weekly print magazine, de-emphasizing National Journal’s journalism, giving up its public service mission and disappointing the faithful Washington insiders, including journalists, who followed the publication over decades.
“It used to be a unique Washington institution with a public mission,” said Brian Kelly, the U.S. News & World Report editor who has successfully navigated the news magazine into a digital enterprise known primarily for its rankings of hospitals, cars and colleges. “If you were researching F-15 sales to Saudi Arabia, you looked it up in National Journal. Now it’s just another business.”
The resurrection of National Journal 2.0 into a profitable business with virtually no resemblance to its print version mirrors the existential challenges many old-media companies, including this newspaper, have faced over the past two decades as their bedrock advertising revenue evaporated.
Bradley and National Journal President Kevin Turpin II have reinvented the company into an unglamorous assortment that resembles something out of McKinsey & Company’s consulting playbook.
Turpin, whom Bradley refers to as “my fourth son,” is a potential heir apparent to the sprawling Atlantic Media, which includes the Atlantic, the Quartz online news site, live event organizers, video and studios that create advertising.
Over the past 12 years, during countless dinners, lunches, breakfasts and office meetings, Bradley has become Turpin’s mentor and is comfortable with his style and poise.
Instead of overseeing a repertoire of must-read bylines, Turpin, 33, is selling insider information wrapped in wonky names such as Presentation Center, Policy Brands Roundtable and Network Science Initiative, which is headed by a former counterterrorism expert who worked on the Obama administration’s National Security Council.
Some journalism remains in the Hotline and National Journal Daily reports.
But nearly three-quarters of its 125 employees work on things that did not exist in 2011, building road maps to Washington power players, analyzing potential effects of executive orders and legislation, and providing companies with inside dope on what Washington influencers think of them.
New services are planned that include “house calls” on clients and a damage-control toolkit for companies under social-media attack. Both businesses are in response to clients who want more hand-holding on strategy and the risks of social media.
“It’s sort of deep research on the ways of Washington,” Bradley said.
It’s expensive stuff, even by pay-to-play Washington standards. Policy Brands Roundtable runs $125,000 a year. Network Science Initiative: $40,000 to $80,000. The Leadership Council, which includes the Presentation Center, the National Journal print daily, Hotline and a research arm, averages about $25,000, depending on the size of the client.
“What National Journal does is no longer journalism, it’s data analytics,” said Ed Newberry, managing global partner for Squire Patton Boggs, one of the biggest law firms on the planet. “It’s the ability to gather and process data for our clients.”
Bradley and Turpin have unapologetically turned the institution into a modern imitation of the Advisory Board and the Corporate Executive Board, the subscription-based business intelligence companies that made Bradley immensely wealthy two decades ago.
The irony thickens when you consider the original name of the National Journal when it was started in 1969 as Government Research Corp., distributed as a stack of papers with holes punched for a three-ring binder.
The National Journal’s business model echoes the Advisory Board and Corporate Executive Board in other ways: Hire smart 20-somethings, work them hard, pay them $30,000 a year until they leave for law school, business school or something else. Repeat.
A few who stand out get promoted.
Kevin Turpin II stood out.
The Georgetown University graduate and preacher’s son blew through his sales goals within two months of joining the company in 2005 after answering a posting on Monster.com. He had a knack for persuading corporate or association executives to make the heavy lift and purchase National Journal’s $2,000 annual magazine subscription and the $6,000 Hotline.
Promotions followed over the next three years. After a juicy offer from a rival publication hit Turpin’s desk in early 2010, Bradley invited his star salesman to breakfast at the owner’s favorite corner table at the Four Seasons hotel.
“This is the first time David and I really sat down one-on-one,” Turpin said.
Turpin arrived early for breakfast wearing an ill-fitting suit he had bought at a discount store in Virginia Beach. Bradley, who said his own unique strength is spotting talent, spoke for almost 90 minutes while his nervous employee attacked a plate of pancakes.
“David starts talking to me about my career,” he said. “Thinking back, he was interviewing me to see if he wanted to keep me.”
An email arrived in Turpin’s inbox the next day, which was followed by a personal letter. Bradley wanted to map out a future for Turpin at National Journal. He wanted to map out a future for National Journal itself.
“I really think my gift is seeing gifts in other people,” Bradley said. He sees many gifts in Turpin. “He is quite different. He is a very natural leader.”
Bradley, an inveterate letter-writer, said in the follow-up letter that he wanted Turpin to partner with him in a product that would lead to the evolution of National Journal. Together, they would build businesses essential to Washington’s decision makers.
“He wanted me to go out and do the market research to help prepare the way,” Turpin said.
Bradley asked Turpin to start a 62-person sounding board comprised of associations, nonprofit organizations and clients of the National Journal. They spent the next year listening.
“I met with everyone from MasterCard and Microsoft to the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, [Squire] Patton Boggs, Procter & Gamble. I went out and made 62 pitches,” Turpin said. “I would ask them about challenges, what kept them awake at night.”
Some lobbyists said they were spending too much time building PowerPoints, writing memos and briefing colleagues at the home office. That led in February 2012 to the rollout of Presentation Center, which built PowerPoint slides on politics, Congress and legislation for lobbyists and others to use in their briefings. Presentation Center would anchor the new National Journal.
Others said they needed to know what Washington thought of their company or their issue. Were there any minefields? What was around the corner? Who were their friends? That led to Policy Brands Roundtable, which launched in August 2013 and soon infused $1 million in revenue at a 60 percent profit margin. It informed clients what Washington decision-makers thought of them and offered ways to shape that thinking. Think of it as reputational management.
By 2014, pesky rivals such as Politico and its Politico Pro, the Bradley-esque data provider that mined “verticals” from cybersecurity to e-health, were consuming more and more of the magazine’s customer base. The financial crisis and ensuing recession — and the lack of legislation during the Obama years — shrunk inside-the-Beltway advertising demand further.
“The cookie was getting smaller,” Turpin said. “So we created another cookie.”
Bradley and Turpin teamed up on yet another product called Network Science Initiative. Bradley had spotted a new field in academia called network science pioneered by Yale University’s Nicholas A. Christakis.
Essentially, it is figuring out who the most influential people are, whether it’s tracking Obamacare influencers on social media or terrorists on cellphones in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military uses network science to track the cellphone calls, numbers and voices to create a matrix that tells them who does what in the Taliban.
“I just came and said, ‘I wonder if Washington works in networks,’ ” Bradley said.
After trial and error, he and Turpin devised a new business that is one of their stars. The year-old Network Science has grown its staff from four to 18. It has more than 40 clients and expects to turn a profit this year.
By 2015, National Journal’s ad business was wheezing and profitability depended on how the numbers were counted.
“The National Journal had atrophied,” said John Fox Sullivan, a shrewd media executive and longtime president of National Journal who retired from day-to-day operations at the publication and left to become mayor of rural Washington, Va., in 2010. “You were throwing all your weight into the world of politics, where you had a gazillion competitors who were better and bigger and weren’t charging a lot of money. The company had changed so much, I said to David, ‘What is the point in publishing the magazine anymore? The strategy has changed. Ads are going away. Do it right or don’t do it at all.’”
“Keeping it going as a shadow of what it had been felt unprincipled,” Bradley said.
And at the end of 2015, he closed it.
Which brings us to the future of David Bradley and his empire, an amalgam of businesses employing 730 (125 at National Journal). The empire brings in around $135 million in revenue and is profitable, Bradley said.
The Atlantic is safe, too. The magazine has been profitable for the past five years after losing more than $100 million in the decade prior. Quartz is thriving. Network Science Initiative is seen as a core economic piece of the National Journal.
Bradley isn’t throwing in the towel on journalism, but he is over the sentimentality of closing the National Journal magazine. The new National Journal is budgeted to gross a respectable $18.4 million this year. That’s a far cry from its halcyon days in the 1980s and ’90s, but a meaningful contributor to Atlantic’s bottom line. More importantly, it has potential for growth.
“What we’ve been doing is utterly original products,” Bradley said, sitting at the circular stone table where he and Turpin map strategy. “They are not the romance of the magazine, but if you say, ‘What can 125 of us do?’ One hundred twenty-five of us can do much better work than racing after late-in-the-crowd, day-to-day journalism.
“For the first time in my ownership of the National Journal — but especially for the first time in seven, eight, nine years — everybody is focused on something that’s really exceptional. I’m really happy.”