Feature

Why the Atlantic is making London its first port of call in its quest for global readership

In its 160th year, US media institution the Atlantic is embarking on a global expansion effort that will see it open its first overseas bureau in London this summer. In a wide-ranging interview with The Drum, its president Bob Cohn takes us inside the digital strategy that will see this distinctly American magazine brand attempt to win over European audiences and advertisers.

When US magazine brand the Atlantic opens in London this summer, it will do so in the hope that its latest attempt to introduce a British accent to its pages will fare better than its first.

Published in 1857, the Atlantic’s maiden issue was supposed to have been composed of pieces from English writers, ferried across the ocean by the eminent American author Charles Eliot Norton. Alas, while Norton made it safely to his hotel in New York, his suitcase containing the manuscripts did not, having been left behind on a Manhattan pier by a porter. Despite an exhaustive search of local hotels and businesses, and advertisements in newspapers promising a reward for its return, the case was never to be seen again. The loss dismayed Norton, but for the Atlantic, it was to prove a blessing.

“As the weeks went on, and the character of the new magazine defined itself with increasing distinctness, the publishers began to recognise that the accident relived them from what might have been an embarrassment,” Norton reflected in the Atlantic’s 50-year anniversary issue. “It had intervened to save the editors from the ungracious duty of rejecting well-intended but unsatisfactory material. Another result not less fortunate was the recognition of the error of soliciting numerous contributions from foreign writers. The Atlantic was to depend for its success upon American writers.”

In the 160 years since that fateful episode of the lost luggage, the Atlantic has come to be regarded as one of America’s most celebrated, influential and enduring magazines, a reputation forged from bylines belonging to the likes of Mark Twain and Martin Luther King Jr gracing its pages. Last year, its print edition grew newsstand sales by 14.8% at a time when the industry as a whole declined by 12%. It is also one of the few legacy media brands that can claim to have navigated the treacherous waters between print and digital publishing without casualty, having inverted its revenue model from an 85/15 split in favour of print in 2006 to the total reverse today. With its credentials well established among US audiences and advertisers, it is now charting a course to become a global digital publishing player – starting with its return to Britain.

The Atlantic will open in the UK as a pure digital play. By the end of August, it intends to have secured an office in London and have a team of at least 10 in place split evenly between editorial and business roles. The bureau will be fronted by one of its star writers, James Fallows, a former presidential speechwriter who has written for the title since the late 1970s and is relocating to become its first Europe editor. The role of the UK team will be twofold: to provide more European coverage of current affairs to the Atlantic’s existing audience back home in the US; and more ambitiously, to challenge quality UK and European media for their online readers and advertisers.

Over coffee in London, the Atlantic’s president, Bob Cohn, explains to The Drum why he’s confident the move will succeed. His belief that the time is right to cross the pond is fuelled by analytics showing that overseas readers to theatlantic.com now account for nearly 30% of the website’s 33 million monthly unique visitors, with around 1.5 million coming from the UK. That’s a relatively modest number compared to the newspaper brands it would like to compete against, but not bad going for a title that has scarcely any brand awareness in the UK and – until now – little reportage from the ground. “We didn’t even try to do that,” Cohn says. “That just happened by the wonders of social media and the internet.”

Cohn describes the UK media market the Atlantic is coming into as “much more robustly competitive than we have in the US” but thinks his title can find readers by positioning itself as an alternative to Britain’s nakedly partisan press. “Most of the [UK] papers have an ideological perspective, most of the news outlets seem to apart from the BBC,” he says. “We pride ourselves on being non-partisan. It’s in the founding manifesto of the Atlantic to be – quote – ‘the organ of no party or clique’. So our individual stories, by individual authors, may well come from a perspective informed by reporting that reaches conclusions, but the Atlantic as a whole has no ideology. So that might be a little bit different.”

It is tempting to link the growing overseas interest in the Atlantic’s serious journalism with a rekindling of curiosity in American political life precipitated by the pantomime presidency of Donald Trump. “Trump’s a good story, and good stories are good for journalists,” Cohn says. “Certainly, our coverage of Trump has helped audience growth, and it’s helped circulation growth, and it’s helped newsstand sales when we write about politics right now.” But he adds that it would be too simplistic to give Trump too much credit for the Atlantic’s rising popularity. “It’s been well before Trump and much more gradual – [global readership] has been in the 20s for several years so there wasn’t a spike moment. Right now, we’re in Trumpland and Brexit and Marcon and all these things, but for the most part we are driven by other topics and so we are reminding ourselves that we’re going to dig in deep to those here as well.”

To emphasise the point, Cohn sent round an ‘attaboy’ memo to staff on the 19th of this month informing them that May was already theatlantic.com’s biggest ever month for digital traffic. On the Tuesday of that week, theatlantic.com recorded nearly 4.5 million unique visitors and on the Wednesday 4.8 million, smashing its previous single-day high of 3.3 million. “The story that has captured the internet doesn't even contain the words Trump, Russia, or alternative truth,” Cohn wrote. “I'm referring, of course, to the June magazine piece, ‘My Family's Slave.’ The reach and impact of this article demonstrates the power of an Atlantic cover, which remains, I believe, the most important real estate in American journalism.”

The Atlantic’s print circulation may sit below 500,000, but the resources it still devotes to tirelessly and meticulously producing longform magazine features – 'My Family’s Slave' was written by the late Pulitzer prize winner Alex Tizon and runs close to 9,000 words – can pay dividends online.

“Print is less central to the revenue story of the Atlantic, but it’s central to our journalism, to our audience proposition,” says Cohn. “Our expertise at polishing and repolishing and fact-checking and editing and lawyering and rewriting stories and getting them like Fabergé eggs – as close to perfection as possible – and then, to mix metaphors, drop them like a boulder in the pond for the ripple effect is really important to us," he continues. "So we are using a big cover story to hang events, digital packages and video adjacent to those and we can really go out with a story that we might’ve spent a year on, spent a lot of money on and really make it an event moment with these other platforms.”

The Atlantic’s stories have found their way to international audiences thanks to social sharing – most of theatlantic.com’s referrals come through Facebook – and the publisher will require the continued cooperation of the social network to help it build readership in the UK and Europe. Cohn is satisfied with its arrangements with Facebook for now – including publishing natively to the social network through Instant Articles, which the Guardian recently stepped away from – but acknowledges that being so reliant on Facebook to drive traffic is not without risk.

“Of course I worry about Facebook,” he says. “Facebook has been very good to us. We have grown on the back of Facebook’s sharing economy, so that’s been important to us. But it has great power. And the algorithm can change, and often does change, and usually we like other publishers are behind that.” As well as the danger of Facebook gobbling up its readers, there is also the threat of the social network taking a bite out of its advertising proposition. “We worry about Facebook having the direct relationship with our customers when we’re in the Instant Article format and with our advertisers. So we are cautious, but still find it to be a productive relationship.”

The reason the risk of online audiences retreating behind Facebook’s walled garden is particularly acute for the Atlantic becomes apparent when Cohn explains how he intends to monetise the website in the UK. “It will be the same thing that sustained us the US in the last five or 10 years, which is digital advertising,” he says. “I know the display market here is not as robust as display is in the US in that there’s a big programmatic market here. We obviously make money in the programmatic environment but it’s not as big a driver for us because we do so much in native and we still sell display. Programmatic is a small portion. But we’ll be involved in programmatic and play that game until we reach scale here.”

It’s not just the likes of Facebook and Google that threaten publishers whose business models are predicated on maintaining and growing scale; there is also the small matter of adblocking to contend with – a problem the Atlantic has attempted to tackle head on with a "hard wall". Adblocker users arriving at theatlantic.com are now presented with two options: whitelist the site, or pay up for a digital subscription. “I mean we’d love to have people subscribe to us… [but] the real goal is to get them to whitelist us so we can unlock some of that ad revenue by basically increasing our advertising inventory,” Cohn admits.

He accepts that ad blocking “has a lot of potential” to harm the Atlantic’s business model, but says that “so far that potential has not been borne out”. “What I worry about here is it’s a technological arms race,” Cohn continues. “We’ll do something to undo the problem, the ad blockers will do something to undo our undoing and it’s just an arms race. The real answer is to create better user experience that will mitigate people’s desire to block ads in the first place.” The Atlantic’s recently relaunched homepage contains prominent inventory for a high impact video ad unit, which launch sponsor Sony has already taken advantage of, although it remains to be seen how popular this in-your-face advertising will prove with those readers who have been persuaded to turn off their adblockers.

The other advertising proposition the Atlantic will be bringing to the UK is Re:think, its native content arm, which has worked with the likes of United, Jaguar and Microsoft in the US. Lucy Kirkland, the former Shortlist publisher who is now the Atlantic’s executive director, EMEA, will be building a commercial team to take branded content packages to European clients. “What we argue is, our audience is an audience you want to reach and we know how to reach that audience because we’ve been doing it journalistically for all these years, and we know the kind of content that works with them and we know how to reach them and how to engage them,” Cohn says. He adds that Re:think will be starting slow in the UK, relying on its “content engine” back in the US to produce the work for clients. “As we ramp up business we’ll ramp up staff as well.”

Indeed, for now, the Atlantic’s business ambitions in the UK are, by Cohn’s own admission, “modest”. He says: “We don’t expect to make a lot of money in year one but we believe that if we succeed editorially we know how to sell the brand and we’ll be able to bring in native and we’ll be able to monetise programmatic.” Its brand building drive will include a “scrappy” events series, featuring bureau chief Fallows in conversation with newsmakers from the worlds of politics, business, arts and culture. The first such event in London took place in early May, with Fallows discussing 'the future of global nationalism' with the Atlantic's editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg. Fallows will also be expected to become a prominent commentator on British radio and television to increase his – and by association – the Atlantic’s standing in the UK.

Cohn, meanwhile, will remain based at the publisher’s headquarters in Washington DC, where he has presided over its digital transformation for the last eight years. For a heritage title that celebrates its 160th anniversary this year, the Atlantic has made an impressively smooth transition to the web and through projects such as Life Timeline, has even demonstrated a surprising streak of innovation which would not look out of place at new media upstarts like BuzzFeed.

“It’s been remarkably friction free,” Cohn says. “I’ve worked at Conde Nast, and I’ve worked for Newsweek for 10 years, and I’ve worked at other organisations where there’s a lot of tension between print and digital, between the old and new, and the leadership of the Atlantic and the rank and file of the Atlantic have embraced change in an aggressive and refreshing and fantastic way. It’s really great to see a place that has got such tradition and such history and heritage embrace change without discarding that tradition and heritage at the same time.”

If that tradition was shaped by a hapless New York porter, its future will be determined by how it navigates international business challenges such as the looming spectre of Brexit which has already prompted executives from some US businesses, including UBS, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, to publicly suggest that jobs may be moved away from the UK.

“I read all those stories,” Cohn says. “We’re not signing a 20-year lease anywhere. We think London is the place to be and if it proves in five years we’ve got to be somewhere else we’ll open a second office or we’ll move to that space.”

For now, “the great story happening here” – ie Brexit – is only enhancing Cohn’s opinion that London is the place to be. “Had we been on the ground a year earlier we’d be reaping the benefit of the run up and the coverage. But there’ll be other big stories. The truism here is that what happens in London and Paris and Moscow and Singapore and Hong Kong and Beijing just matters more and more to Atlantic readers. I hope this is just the first step towards a more purposeful international expansion for us.”

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Cameron Clarke

Cameron Clarke has been a journalist at The Drum for more than 10 years and is now its Deputy Editor. Based in the UK, he is primarily responsible for overseeing The Drum's coverage of the media industry and marketing agencies. His work includes long reads on Brewdog, Patagonia, De Correspondent and the future of sports rights. He was named Feature Writer of the Year at the 2017 PPA Scottish Magazine Awards.

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