As the Atlantic turns 160, a new era of memberships and European expansion gets under way

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The Atlantic president Bob Cohn

The Atlantic magazine, which marked its 160th anniversary yesterday, is launching a major circulation drive in Europe, using London as a bridgehead.

It feels timely. While young Europeans imbibe and mimic the culture and language of young America from topics trending on Californian social media platforms, Donald’s Trump arrival in the White House has rendered Europe fixated by every nuance of American politics. The 3,716-mile expanse of ocean which gave its name to this news brand has never seemed so narrow.

Behind the Victorian terracotta facade of London’s Waterhouse Square, on a site where Charles Dickens once rented rooms, the Atlantic’s president Bob Cohn last week announced the publisher’s intentions for “more robust coverage of Europe” and its hopes for “an expanding European audience”.

He was speaking at an event called “The Atlantic After Hours”, featuring its editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg in conversation with former George W. Bush speechwriter (and Atlantic senior writer) David Frum, and Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government. Later, James Fallows, newly appointed as the Atlantic’s first Europe Editor, talked with Labour peer and senior diplomat Baroness Ashton. Such public events, a significant part of the Atlantic’s business model in the United States, should soon become a feature of the London calendar.

In an interview with The Drum, Cohn sets out the strategy for an enhanced European presence.

“If we can market the Atlantic brand better and cover the story here more aggressively then we can build a bigger audience both in the UK and throughout Europe,” he says. “We see the opportunity for audience growth and ultimately for revenue growth and along the way we will do the kind of impact journalism that we try to do whenever we unleash our writers on a topic.”

The Atlantic’s data tells it that it already has 1m readers in the United Kingdom, with minimal marketing. That’s from a total audience that reached a record 42.3m in May. The Atlantic has become a model in 21st century news publishing for simultaneously growing readership in print and online – the circulation of its 10-editions-per-year magazine is at an all-time high of 570,000 (and it has increased the profitability of print sales by cutting out third-party distribution agencies).

Fallows, one of the Atlantic’s star writers with more than 100 cover stories in his portfolio, will be based in London and Amsterdam. The London bureau will also include staff journalists Sophie Gilbert and Yasmeen Serhan, while Rachel Donadio has been recruited from the New York Times, where she was European culture correspondent, and will be based in Paris. Krishnadev Calamur will cover US-Europe diplomatic relations from Washington. Cohn promises that the Atlantic will build “a robust contract writer and stringer network in all the major [European] cities to allow us to really amplify the impact of our coverage”.

In addition, the Atlantic’s London bureau will be home to a new European sales, marketing and events team. Last week in France, mayors from 40 global cities attended a three-day event organised by CityLab, a digital sub-brand of the Atlantic dedicated to sustainable urban living.

The Masthead membership model

This European drive coincides with the launch by the Atlantic of its first membership programme. Known as The Masthead, this offers a wider range of benefits to a (less costly) scheme run by the Guardian which is starting to register significant take-up.

For $120 a year (or $12 a month), The Masthead members get a package that includes a free subscription to the print magazine, monthly long-read digital articles not published elsewhere, a daily email from the newsroom, and access to weekly conference calls with staff writers and to a private Facebook-hosted debating forum. The Guardian’s (mostly £5-a-month) scheme is focused on giving access to its live events, but both these liberal publishers are capitalising on reader fears for the future of journalism in the time of Trump.

Cohn explains that The Masthead is designed to generate digital “consumer revenue”. While readers have paid for the Atlantic in print for 160 years, its digital content has always been free. “That’s been a very good strategy for us because it allowed us to build a large audience in a way that has been friendly to our advertising ambitions,” he says. “Having built a large audience it seems that it would be prudent to look for ways to get consumer revenue not just from print but also from digital and so the premium membership programme is the first part of that.”

The Masthead Facebook page has already become home to some “really robust conversations”, without the abuse that often poisons discussions on newspaper sites. “It’s all the good of the comments without any of the cesspool,” says Cohn. Conceived as a place for Atlantic readers to discuss the content from the magazine and website, it has grown into something more. “After the Las Vegas shooting, we had a conversation among members about guns that they initiated themselves [and had] very little moderation. What we have done is create an opportunity for Atlantic fans and Masthead members to not only get special content from the Atlantic but to talk to each other about the issues that are animating the daily conversation.”

Early members of The Masthead are regarded as “big brand fans”, a subset of the wider audience, and are already developing a close relationship with the magazine’s journalists. Some of The Masthead’s first long reads, examining themes such as the art of persuasion in the social media age, or the difficulties of some US-resident students in taking up offers from Ivy League colleges because of tightened immigration rules, were prompted by member suggestions and tips.

Radio Atlantic

This interactivity with the readership is also reflected in Radio Atlantic, the publisher’s podcast, which was launched in July and has already surpassed 1m downloads. Masthead members are encouraged to phone in their views on certain subjects and the voicemails can provide audio content for Radio Atlantic podcasts.

Goldberg, who frequently co-hosts Radio Atlantic, will front his own new podcast, The Atlantic Interview, which will have its first season during November and December and feature his conversations with diverse newsmakers, beginning with the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The podcasts are funded by sponsorship. US telecoms giant Qualcomm backed the first season of Radio Atlantic and Goldman Sachs is under-writing the second 10-week run. Forevermark Diamonds is the first sponsor of Atlantic Interview, while a third podcast format, focused on business and technology, already has a brand attached. “We are bringing our editorial mission to podcasting and it’s actually not that much different form bringing it to video, or to digital or to print,” says Cohn. “You may tell stories a little bit differently but it’s a very effective way to meet our mission and deliver our content wherever our audience wants to be.”

The Atlantic’s push into Europe was planned well before the last US election, Cohn says, and would have happened without the election of President Trump.

But there is no doubt that the current state of US politics makes it more compelling for European readers. This magazine, which in its early years featured the writing of Emerson, Longfellow and Beecher Stowe, hosts in its latest edition a series of forensic analyses of the Trump Presidency thus far.

That coverage includes a convincing appraisal by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic’s national correspondent, of the role of white supremacism in Trump’s rise to power. Jack Goldsmith, former assistant attorney general to the George W. Bush administration, writes that American institutions are so far standing up to Trump’s “norm-busting” presidency, but that they might not withstand a second term, or a major blow to the country’s stability (this before the New York attack). Former Republican State Department advisor Eliot A. Cohen provides a brilliant and scathing assessment of the president’s foreign policy, likening its long-term effects to the approach of cardiac arrest.

In that latter essay, the author warns that “surprises are unavoidably what international politics is all about”, and expresses fear over how Trump might respond to unimagined crises. Trump’s own election was, of course, a surprise that shook the world. In his prescient 2004 novel, The Plot Against America – based on the mythical rise to the White House in 1940 of a Nazi-appeasing, populist president – Philip Roth noted that history books can fail to capture any sense of the unexpected, with historians preferring to see any course of events as inevitable. “The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides,” he wrote.

This is where serious news media has such a vital role, in trying to make sense of complicated and frightening developments as they unfold. The Atlantic is attempting this not just in respect of decisions made in Washington but in seeking to decipher the momentous changes in Europe for its readers back in America. “When we write about the refugee crisis, or Brexit, or Catalonia, we know the data and we get a lot of readers from the US on those stories,” says Cohn.

The Atlantic has been covering Europe for a long time, from profiling Bismarck in 1882 to analysing “The Tragedy of Tony Blair” in 2004.

When this magazine was just 60 years old, Winston Spencer Churchill wrote for it on leadership qualities in the ongoing first world war. Civilian chiefs lacking in humility and with “preconceived theories, obsessions, or complexes”, Churchill said, were “capable of doing incalculable harm”. That century-old observation was, Cohn noted, a “nod to the present day”.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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