A trend has emerged, though in many ways its always been present, certainly since the internet began “disrupting”- to borrow a word beloved by techies and business-folk- many traditional industries. I won’t summarize the myriad ways that the internet has changed the world (many), as that’s a topic that’s both self-evident and covered to death. Instead, I’d like to look at The Atlantic‘s monetized, cross-platform business model from a quick historical perspective, and also argue briefly that the magazine’s best days might just behind it, unless something changes. The 158 year-old magazine of literature, culture and political happenings was founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a cadre of other 19th-century intellectual heavyweights, and while it’s always offered pleasurable, witty, insightful reading, I can’t help but resist it’s smarmy cocktail of contemporary neoliberalism and internet sensationalism. In looking at what The Atlantic once was, I hope to understand better what exactly is lost when a magazine blatantly transforms into a clickbait swamp, and what options, if any, are available to reignite it’s philosophical spark.
“In politics, The Atlantic Monthly will be the organ of no party or clique, but will honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea… It will not rank itself with any sect of anties: but with that body of men which is in favor of Freedom, National Progress, and Honor, whether public or private.”
Those words are included in the magazine’s Declaration of Purpose, drafted in 1857, an idealistic, democratic mission to further press the fundamental questions of America and maybe even posit some answers. It was the dream of a “journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts” that would improve the cultural conversation. In it’s history, The Atlantic has published pieces by Mark Twain, Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hemingway’s first short story, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, to name a few. The magazine is inextricably linked to those mighty Boston Brahmins of the mid-nineteenth century, elite Bostonian abolitionists searching for and creating the “American Idea”. Granted, they were Upper-Class White Guys straight from the aristocracy of the Ivy League, but the goal was altruistic: a magazine “endeavoring always to keep in view that moral element which transcends all persons and parties, and which alone makes the basis of a true and lasting prosperity”.
Partly it’s the beauty of that 19th-century Transcendentalist egalitarianism that I’m lamenting, but The Atlantic‘s transformation into a primarily online domain has brought the magazine as far away from that initial purpose as it has ever been. Around twenty years ago, Cullen Murphy, then managing editor, wrote eloquently about the history of The Atlantic Monthly, outlining it’s purpose as America’s “dining room table”, a place to find some of the best writing in the country. Even then, he could feel something changing- verging on a time that would “fundamentally re-engrave the template by which we make sense of virtually every aspect of our national reality”. Rather than issue a call-to-arms, he re-emphasized the core values of the publication, to analyze the underlying meaning of news rather than just report it, to discover beauty through literature and poetry. It was an admirable move, and prescient. Several years later, the magazine was sold to David S. Bradley, who had cashed in big on his legal and defense consultancies for a $300 million windfall. What’s a mega-millionaire to do besides buy a storied magazine?
Bradley’s arrival was marked by dismal losses in his first few years. As a businessman, he was shocked to see the spreadsheets rife with red ink. His Harvard MBA must have been pulsing with nervous, profit-hungry energy. Then he brought Justin Smith on board. Smith came from The Week, where he had successfully packaged a readable, informative magazine for the masses. In an Adweek profile, “How David Bradley and Justin Smith Saved The Atlantic”, Smith is described as a bit of a “suit”, but perhaps a more apt comparison would be Harvey Keitel’s character The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, who is called in to help clean up a bloody mess: “I’m not here to say please, I’m here to tell you what to do and if self-preservation is an instinct you possess you’d better fucking do it- and do it quick”. Those may not have been Justin Smith’s exact words when he walked into The Atlantic‘s Washington, D.C. offices, but still, I’d like to imagine it’s what he said, the staff of writers gulping in deep-seated fear.
In Adweek’s revenue-centered profile, Smith is praised for trying to make The Atlantic “a place where the traditional wall between editorial and business sides could be broken down”. Picture Georgetown and Ivy alums in slim-fit dress shirts, wielding MBA’s like shields, preaching the gospel of digital ad revenue, click rates, Facebook shares, and scalable customer acquisition models. Since Bradley and Smith’s gutting of the admittedly bloated traditional print mode, the magazine’s been sinking- into the Atlantic. The majority of content aims to be a surprising or shocking or fresh take on a safe, NPR-qualified product or idea, like HBO’s The Wire or artisanal coffee or Race in America. Every article has a snazzy, attention-grabbing headline like “5 Facts About The Porn Industry You Never Knew Were Also True About Factory Farming” or “The Seal of Approval- Barack Obama’s Failed Foreign Policy in the Bering Sea” but the articles typically don’t go much deeper into the subject matter. The obvious focus on click rates and Shares reduces the content to sensationalist surface-level writing, a kind of “you’ve-got-to-read-this” proposition with little payoff for the reader. The magazine has been around since the mid-19th century, but with a revenue-focused executive team, it’s been catapulted into the future, now referred to as one of The Atlantic Media Company’s “Brands”.
In November of 2014, The Atlantic issued a press release announcing that they’d received 21 million unique visitors in October, their highest-trafficked month on record. I’m sure many handshakes were shook, bottles of champagne were uncorked, and slim-fit dress shirts of various shades of salmon, lavender, and charcoal were untucked, maybe. The deliverables had been delivered, the cross-platform social engagement strategies had worked. With untold Likes and Shares and digital ad revenue spiking (it’s now the chief source of revenue for the magazine), attention to what’s actually being written takes a backseat. Bradley and Smith helped usher in a new era for The Atlantic, noting that they saw it is as a “Silicon Valley start-up that needed to kill itself to survive” (NYT, 2010). Its zombified corpse may be more popular than ever, but at this point, The Atlantic echoes a self-congratulatory, privileged centrism (perhaps it always did) without respect for the reader’s attention span.
I’ve been straightforwardly critical in my assessment of The Atlantic in its current incarnation. As a “Millenial”, “Digital Native”, and “twenty-five year old”, I’m expected to love the flash and speed at which The Atlantic churns out content. It’s writing style consistently displays the current preeminence of “information”- not opinion, but facts, downloaded and digested and regurgitated at light speed. But Smith (who moved on to Bloomberg Media as CEO) and Bradley’s approach to steering The Atlantic is one with only one thing in mind- dolla dolla bills, y’all. I hope a compromise can be reached, an approach that rebuilds the wall (it can be see-through) that separates revenue from editorial control, so one of our country’s oldest magazines can regain it’s footing as a socially conscious and positive force. We deserve it.