The Atlantic: A 159-year-old US media institution seizing its moment to explain America to the world

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.

In many ways, the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States was as chastening for the cream of the American media as it was for the defeated Democratic Party.

For so many months, the business of exposing the unsuitability for the highest office of the billionaire property magnate and reality television star must have seemed like a turkey shoot to journalists, as he produced one outrageous soundbite after another. Yet, in spite of an exhaustive outpouring of negative press, a puffed up Trump struts into the White House with tail feathers spread and quite unruffled.

His victory has been achieved in part by his cynical characterisation of the American mainstream media as serving only a gilded metropolitan elite and – with the notable exception of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News which was screened at his New York election night party – being biased against him. What cannot be denied is that the deluge of exposes and critical analysis of Trump’s mistreatment of women, his tax affairs and his climate ignorance, has only demonstrated journalism’s limitations in influencing the popular vote.

And yet the paradox of this humbling of the quality US media, as it failed to predict Trump’s victory much less to stop it, is his presidency offers it unprecedented opportunities in selling its wares not just to the American public but to a vast international audience that is no less transfixed by this stunning result and its global implications. Has American politics ever been so gripping?

The opportunity is especially obvious for the Atlantic, which has never appeared in better shape. Named Magazine of the Year this year by the American Society of Magazine Editors, it was also recently declared Publisher of the Year by Digiday for its harmonious ecology of print, website, live events and video. “Our job right now – and our people are very excited about doing it – is to figure out who this guy is and how he will govern,“ says the Atlantic’s president Bob Cohn. “It’s a much more dynamic story than it would have been if Hillary Clinton had been elected.”

The Atlantic, a magazine that was founded in 1857 by prominent American literary figures, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and which provided a platform for writers including Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, has become a poster child for news publishing for its smooth transition to a thoroughly modern existence straddling the newsstand, festivals and debating theatres, and the world wide web. So much so that its consulting arm, Atlantic Media Strategies, advises organisations from large corporates to non-profits and foundations on how to arrange their own publishing operations.

Buoyed by the feverish interest in the 2016 presidential campaign, it has actually managed to add to its newsstand circulation (at this stage of 2016 its sale is up by 14% on last year), when the other hallowed titles in its subset of news periodicals are all in decline. At the same time, its web traffic has grown by 30% in 2016, continuing a trajectory it has followed for three years.

The products complement each other, with content produced originally for the magazine driving 10% of total online traffic. The print product’s cover story is used as a “brand statement”, a “huge boulder dropped in the middle of a pond”, Cohn says. He goes further. “I would argue with a completely straight face that the cover of the Atlantic has become the single most important real estate in American journalism.”

Election highs and lows

Trump’s triumph briefly knocked the Atlantic out of its confident gait; the title not only declared for Hillary but ran a piece seven days before election day, when the Democrat was ahead in the polls, headlined: “Hillary Clinton’s March to Victory”. It speculated on what might happen if “she wins by a large margin” and suggested that her success would be undermined by comment that “she was lucky enough to run against Trump”.

If this represented a momentary turning of its ankle, the Atlantic soon recovered its step, publishing 99 pieces of news and analysis online in 48 hours as the result came through. It is not volume but quality that is the hallmark of the Atlantic; this is a magazine that will allow a writer six months or a year to compile a cover story. Jeffrey Goldberg was able to devote 19,000 words to April’s lead, ‘The Obama Doctrine’, based on seven and a half hours of interviews with the departing president, in the White House, on board Air Force One and in Malaysia. The edition enjoyed a 40% circulation increase on the equivalent sale in 2015.

The Atlantic’s four best-selling covers of the year have all been about politics. The July/August edition, with the cover story ‘How American Politics Went Insane’, was so popular at the time of the party conventions that, for the first time in the magazine’s history, the Atlantic had to commission a second print run.

Cohn is willing to admit that the magazine’s coverage of the campaign has not been flawless. “We got it right some of the time, we got it wrong some of the time,” he says.

There was a failure in accuracy on the part of the polling companies, which then impacted on the news media and its focus of attention. “If the pollsters are saying that Wisconsin is totally in Clinton’s camp then there may be less journalistic resources, at least at the national level, applied to Wisconsin.”

And then the big news organisations were shown to be insufficiently cognisant of the popular mood away from the coasts. “The journalists who are largely East Coast and West Coast based did not have a clear understanding of the mood of the country,” says Cohn. “The New York and Washington media don’t know a lot of people on their blocks at home who are voting for Donald Trump and I think that showed in some of the coverage.”

There is an argument there, you might think, for a more permanent reporting presence in the so-called ‘Flyover Country’ but Cohn, despite being raised in Chicago, says it’s more a question of reporters being allowed to travel. “You are probably not going to base your news organisation in Western Pennsylvania or in the Florida Panhandle so you are going to need to have people go there and do some reporting. That’s a lesson to be learned from this.”

For all this soul-searching, recent US politics has been very good to the Atlantic, which is a general interest magazine. Rather than be swept along by the news agenda of the entertainment industry, it has devoted more resources to politics and the strategy has paid off, with traffic to that section of its website up by 300% year-on-year. And clearly interest is not going to wane.

"We don't need 320 million readers"

The election taught us that there are a lot of people, perhaps more people than ever, who have made themselves impervious to good reporting, preferring to dismiss it as all part of some grand conspiracy. But this phenomenon will not prevent the Atlantic continuing to build a very good business. “There is a portion of the citizenry that is not interested in high quality, unbiased, fair-minded journalism and we are not writing for that – we don’t need 320 million readers of the Atlantic in the US,” says Cohn. “We are writing for people who are curious about what’s happening and want information and historical context, reporting, analysis, and hard-thinking that will help make them smarter on these topics. I think there’s a big enough audience for that.”

The Atlantic’s online audience has just gone north of 30 million unique monthly users. Its print circulation hovers at around 475,000. Though the physical magazine makes a profit, Cohn will resist any temptation to revert from 10 issues a year to monthly. “Print advertising is the only metric in our bailiwick that is going down,” he says. “[Although] it is going down very small – single digit per cents – while digital advertising is growing at 30-40% a year, so it’s OK.”

But there are other ways to make money from this journalism. After partnering with the Aspen Institute for its ideas festival a decade ago, AtlanticLIVE has developed into a business that now hosts more than the live events a year and contributes 18% of the Atlantic’s total revenues. Last week in Manhattan it staged a discussion titled: The Next Four Years: What the Election Means for the Business Community.

The consistent ingredient in this multi-platform strategy is high quality journalism. Cohn has a strong journalistic pedigree and is the Atlantic’s former digital editor. Last month, Goldberg – the author of The Obama Doctrine cover piece – was appointed as the Atlantic’s new editor-in-chief, only the 14th person to hold the title in 159 years. Cohn notes that Goldberg, who has been an integral figure in the Atlantic’s transition to digital over the past decade, writing for both print and online, is also “terrific on stage at our live events”. The Atlantic has a roster of star writers including James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who with Goldberg were instrumental in establishing the relationship of the website, and political journalists David Frum and Molly Ball, to name but a few.

There are other editorial products, such as CityLab, a niche website aimed at those building, designing and living in 21st century cities. The business site Quartz, which has grown rapidly into a global media brand, is run by parent company Atlantic Media as a separate business from The Atlantic.

For all its history, this is a forward looking organisation. Cohn recalls that it was back in November 2011 that the Atlantic first started taking more than 50% of its advertising revenues from digital. That was “probably pretty early”, he says, “for a legacy media company”. The figure is now around 85%. All manner of other organisations, which are trying to reach their constituencies online, are seeking the Atlantic’s advice. Atlantic Media Strategies employs 40 people and contributes 10% of the total revenue pot. The business is expected to grow by up to 40% next year.

Capitalising on its editorial success, the Atlantic has been a frontrunner in the competitive field of native advertising, via its specialist marketing group Atlantic Re:think. Three out of every four advertising dollars made by the Atlantic now have some native content element. Re:think’s ambition is embodied in projects such as ‘Nepal, One Year Later’ for Cathay Pacific, in which four staffers were assigned to film the consequences of the earthquake, 12 months on. Atlantic Re:think, which claims dwell times of up to six minutes for some of its work, will be setting up shop in the UK next year.

One third of the Atlantic’s online audience is overseas, largely in native English-speaking countries. It makes sense to have “an outpost in London” not just to sell its native advertising but to introduce its journalism to more readers in a world that feels inextricably tied to decisions about to be taken in the White House, Cohn says. “To explain consequential, complicated stories and to try to explain America to the rest of the world is what we are here to do."

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

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