Can The Atlantic model save journalism?

    "I don’t care!” James Bennet, president and editor-in-chief of The Atlantic said to a packed McCormick Foundation Center auditorium Monday night. Charles Whitaker, the Northwestern professor and longtime Ebony editor, had just asked him whether his publication would always exist in print.

    Bennet was trying to say he was dedicated to the The Atlantic’s message and not the medium, that the widespread sentimentality over the death of print journalism was misplaced, but his ambivalence towards print journalism and it’s sizable revenue shocked the audience.

    He quickly clarified himself, though. Of course it matters for business, Bennet said. For more than half a century, after the Great Depression, a business model centered around subscriptions and advertisements kept an industry booming. But, in the Internet age, subscriptions are plummeting – with the notable exception of The Atlantic, whose circulation remains as high as ever.

    “Part of the game at The Atlantic since I got there was to reach a point where we could be agnostic about the answer to that question,” Bennet said. “If our audience didn’t want print anymore, we wouldn’t need print in order to be able to continue to do something distinctive and meaningful.”

    Bennet stepped in as head of The Atlantic in 2006, and he talked about how a commitment to exploring big ideas and asking tough question has revitalized an ancient and then-flagging magazine. But he left one question open: Can other publications actually do the same?

    The Atlantic is profitable. This is an at once jubilant and ominous statement. That a major journalism outlet can be profitable in the digital era - by going “digital first,” no less - gives a glimmer of hope to what professional journalists have called a “dying industry.” But the fact that profitability is noteworthy betrays the fragility of a business long propped up by donations and billionaires - billionaires who no longer seem willing to Sharpie over perennial red ink; since 2009, 1,028 magazines have closed.

    In some respects, little has changed. In 2015, when the NationalReview became a non-profit organization, they argued the transition was a mere formality. "Most similar publications – from Commentary on the right to MotherJones on the left – are nonprofits,” Review editor Rich Lowry toldPolitico, “a reflection of the fact that publishing a serious opinion magazine has never been a profitable business, and never will be.”

    To paraphrase Rebecca Traister, writing in one of those faltering magazines, TheNewRepublic, budget shortages and subterranean profit margins are simply the result of a society that venerates the ideal of a press as a bulwark of democracy, but in practice affords it zero economic value.

    So perhaps history is circular and good writing has never been profitable.

    “The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in,” NewYorkTimes columnist David Carr once said. "But what happens when the slim monetizing power your industry once had breaks down?”

    The fact that The Atlantic has found economic footing is striking, but it’s worth wondering if they found the only scant purchase on an otherwise smooth cliff-face. “We’re able to charge higher CPMs,” Bennet said, referring to amount advertisers pay per click they receive, “because we reach such an influential audience.”

    No magic formula. No innovative business model. Just mass and demographics. (“Influential,” for those unfamiliar with marketing jargon, is a vague term, but generally refers to wealthy and upper middle class individuals operating within elite circles, as well as other groups that advertisers believe will influence people with purchasing power). A quick scroll through Bennet's site gives you ads from United Technologies, Prius and a couple books on Amazon; you get the idea.

    The Atlantic has 27 million unique clicks per month, Whitaker said in the introduction. How many publications can be financially solvent if the model is contingent on such a massive volume? There is an outer limit to the number of publications the “influential” demographic can read.

    Still, there is something to be said for The Atlantic, whose articles regularly go on thousands – if not tens of thousands – of words; whose signature, Bennet said, is not internet quizzes but the reported essay that has become the premier publication of the digital age. They’ve published such noteworthy exposes as What Isis really wants, the most widely read article of 2015; Jeffrey Goldberg’s Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?; Ta Nehisi Coates’s The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Coates has made them a hub for a revitalized national conversation around race in America. Their virtual and print pages contemplate childhood suicide, the end of work, the end of higher education and if America has entered a liberal revolution. While many in the industry have grabbed clickbait in their desparate reach for revenue, The Atlantic has made thoughtfulness profitable.

    In an 1857 manifesto that Bennet quoted, the founders of The Atlantic promised to “honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what it's conductors believe to be the American idea.” Although the “American idea” was never fully explained, Bennet said one can infer its meaning from what the magazine published: editorials in favor of abolition in 1857, Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail, Einstein on nuclear war, pieces questioning police techniques or challenging the war in Iraq.

    “When The Atlantic made its contribution it was when it was advancing big, provocative ideas,” Bennet said, “when it was challenging assumptions about the way the world worked and imagining other ways it might work.”

    In an era where Time is running articles on dogs with braces and BuzzFeed, one of the most successful internet publications, profits primarily through Friends quizzes and exposés on Leonardo DiCaprio being a puppy, such deep thought is refreshing. It may be one of the few times the ideal of a free press lives up to the reality. But when we speak of the press, we speak of free exchange of ideas, between publications and not constrained by a single editorial staff. The question remains whether we will have these publications or just a handful of giants. 

    Editor's note 3/2: This article has been updated to clarify comments about The Atlantic's circulation and print subscribers.


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