The Atlantic has gotten very good at flipping conventional wisdom upside down.
A decade ago, like most traditional publications, the monthly magazine got 85 percent of its revenue from print advertising and circulation. It was losing money, and with print ads plummeting, it could have gone the way of the dodo or of, say, the Baltimore City Paper, which folded this month.
Now the Washington-based magazine is profitable, with more than 80 percent of its revenue coming from digital sources, live events and even a consulting business. It is growing: adding staff, and vastly increasing its digital audience.
Then, there’s the journalism. The Atlantic has kicked over the idea that today’s online audiences only want short and punchy hot takes — mostly with the word “Trump” in the headline.
Just weeks ago, the magazine published an 8,300 word piece, “My Family’s Slave,” that went viral, garnering nearly 12 million views, and prompting arguments and conversations across America.
That kind of thing has happened with other ambitious cover stories: Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” about the 44th president’s foreign policy; with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark “The Case for Reparations,” with Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants.”
“The Atlantic has had a remarkably good set of instincts for both embracing the Web early and continuing to change in step with the social Web,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
She credits its leadership with understanding “the critical role of great writers,” and for “not floundering into journalistic formats that don’t suit its journalism.” The magazine augments its effort with its fast-paced daily journalism online.
Founded in 1857 by such seminal thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the magazine was based in Boston until 2005. (Its offices are in the Watergate building now.) Its purpose in that pre-Civil War era was to get behind the abolition of slavery and to explore “the American idea.”
“That history is in the Atlantic’s DNA,” said the technology journalist Alex Howard, an occasional contributor. “It’s not ceding its position as a leading place for American thought.” When David G. Bradley bought the magazine in 1999, the seeds of its transformation were planted.
There are other magazines where strong writers have plied their craft but whose dependence on print advertising has kept them from thriving. The newsweeklies have taken a big hit. The New Republic has struggled to reinvent itself. Harper’s Magazine’s management, quite famously, rejected the digital ethos. (It still publishes, but it is certainly not leading the national conversation as the Atlantic often does.)
One of the Atlantic’s secrets has been finding new streams of revenue, beyond traditional advertising and circulation. These days, native advertising — ads that mimic the look and feel of editorial content — brings in 70 percent of its digital ad dollars.
The magazine’s early exploration of native advertising caused an embarrassing 2013 stumble, when a mishandled ad for the Church of Scientology had to be taken down, prompting an apology.
“We basically got over our skis,” said Bob Cohn, Atlantic’s president. “We didn’t have clear enough policies or labeling.” Reform came quickly, and the Atlantic’s guidelines became the basis for the magazine industry’s standards.
Cohn, who was the executive editor of Wired magazine for eight years, worked closely with James Bennet, now the editorial page editor of the New York Times, to radically reinvent the Atlantic without losing its mission. (The magazine last week appointed Matt Thompson as executive editor and Adrienne LaFrance as Atlantic.com editor.)
“We have to be entrepreneurs but we’re also in custody of this priceless institution,” Cohn told me.
Like Bennet’s successor, editor in chief Goldberg, Cohn sees the print magazine — which publishes 10 times a year — as having “outsize importance” with cover stories as force multipliers.
“We continue to do our best journalism there,” he said. “These are print cover stories that drive the national conversation.” The magazine’s print circulation of 530,000 per issue has held fairly steady.
Meanwhile, its digital growth has been dramatic. It cites 33 million monthly unique visitors per one industry metric — up from a mere 2 million in early 2009. (Using a different measure, ComScore, it is consistently edging out the New Yorker and New York Magazine, two other estimable print magazines that have pivoted to digital.)
The formula for its powerful cover stories, Goldberg said, is to use the magazine’s established form — “reported argument” — and to think big: “What is the most ambitious thing we can do? You want to kill the category.” Then to use all the tools of the social Web to amplify the story and the reaction to it.
While the magazine is seen as center-left now, he said, he would prefer it to be “a big-tent magazine in a polarized era.”
The Atlantic “is most vital when America is most fractured,” Goldberg said. And, at this historical moment, that makes it very vital indeed.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan