#SMWNYC: How The Atlantic reinvented itself after 150 years in the magazine business

While print is still an important part of The Atlantic, it has thrived in the last tumultuous decade because of digital.

The Atlantic was founded in March 1857 by writers like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe with two goals: to end slavery and to create a magazine in which its founders could get their work published. That’s according to Bob Cohn, president of The Atlantic, who spoke Tuesday (February 28) at Social Media Week in New York.

And its founding manifesto – in which The Atlantic said it strived to be independent and honest – reveals everything readers need to know about The Atlantic today, too, Cohn said. In other words, The Atlantic still has a moral purpose and represents freedom, progress, honor and the American ideal. But it’s also a writer’s magazine that values entertainment, too.

“The blueprint for The Atlantic in 2017 is contained in this text,” Cohn added.

At the same time, the journalism industry has notoriously undergone huge changes over the last decade, which has resulted in what Cohn called a “profound, miraculous transformation” at the Atlantic itself, too, adding, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

The magazine itself is still at the core of The Atlantic, but its DNA now informs how the brand executes on other platforms.

“Our transformation begins with digital,” Cohn said. “Digital has become the biggest part of our revenue, staff and audience [and a] powerful live events business…six years ago, we hired our first employee in video [who] today has a full staff and then [there’s also] this unlikely fantastic consulting business.”

But all of these platforms have a common mission – and that is to bring clarity and original thinking to the most consequential issues of our time, Cohn added.

And it’s working out pretty well for The Atlantic so far. According to Cohn, staff has tripled over the last five years and the brand has quadrupled its monthly unique visitors to TheAtlantic.com to the tune of 33.5m unique visitors after setting monthly traffic records in October, November, January and February.

Another sign of the times: In 2006, The Atlantic derived 86% of its revenue from print, including both ads and subscriptions. In 2017, print accounts for 19% of The Atlantic’s revenue.

“Digital advertising, events and the consulting business have grown revenue,” Cohn said. “We are an entirely new company that transformed over a 12-year period.”

The brand has also seen newsletter growth. In 2016, The Atlantic had 31,000 newsletter subscribers and set out to improve content and delivery times, as well as to promote its newsletters more aggressively. And, as a result of a change in delivery time, Cohn said The Atlantic ended the year with 119,000 newsletter subscribers – and a 43% open rate.

Other products include live blogs, a timeline project and an ad-free site option for $40 a year in addition to a subscription in response to ad blockers.

“Digital ad revenue surpassed print in October 2011,” Cohn said. “I would submit this was early for most legacy media publications. This time, digital will be 7x greater than print revenue.”

The Atlantic also churned out 146 native campaigns last year for clients like Jaguar, Microsoft, Nest and Siemens. And 60% of The Atlantic’s digital revenue is driven by native advertising, Cohn added.

The brand has also focused more aggressively on video as of late, including a profile of white supremacist Richard Spencer that Cohn said went viral with 50m views on Facebook alone – and two-thirds of those views were for 10 seconds or more.

Additional video content includes one-on-one conversations with newsmakers, as well as animated explainers and mini documentaries. What’s more, Cohn said, The Atlantic doesn’t try to drive views on its own site, but rather puts video content on platforms like Vimeo, Facebook and YouTube and figures out how to monetize the content there.

“People want to watch there, so that’s where we’ll be,” he added.

In addition, The Atlantic’s live events business now hosts nearly 150 events a year and accounts for 16% of the brand’s revenue. This year, Cohn said topics will include events that can drive attendance and underwriters, like the opening of Cuba, driverless cars and the politics of water.

“That takes us to the magazine, which can seem like an afterthought, but the magazine is hugely important,” Cohn said. “It is the DNA that informs other platforms and can have a really deep impact. I believe the cover of The Atlantic can be the single most important page in journalism.”

And he may be right. Cohn said seven of the last 12 covers have been about politics, which fueled a surge in subscriptions and the brand’s newsstand rates are up 19% in a category that is down 13% overall.

Finally, Atlantic Media Strategies, the brand’s consulting business, works with 40 clients like the Ford Foundation, Allstate and Marketplace on strategic digital initiatives and now accounts for 10% of the brand’s revenue.

Which is not to say change hasn’t presented challenges. That includes striking a delicate balance between growth and remaining faithful to the legacy brand, as well as deciding which new technology and platforms to embrace.

“The temptation is to do it all, but we live in an era of scarce resources that we allocate while being committed to being experimental and forward-leaning,” Cohn added.

But what works is knowing who you are and not being constrained by old thinking. In addition, Cohn recommended saying focused on the journalism.

“We want to make the important stories accessible and the frivolous stories smart,” he added.

Cohn also suggested media brands break down internal silos, focus on ideas and act like startups.

“Our cover is a delivery system for big ideas,” he added.

In addition, he said to focus on being experimental – case in point: The Atlantic was among the first partner on Facebook Instant Articles and “learned the brand is really flexible. Our audience and partners have an expansive view of what the Atlantic can be and our goal is to keep stretching.”

But media companies also need a culture in which the team can execute. Employees take ownership of mission, not strategy, he said.

“The four pillars – the force of ideas, the spirit of generosity, commitment and ambition - have guided us and we continue to rely on those pillars,” Cohn added.

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