The New York Review of Magazines

Old Dog, New Tricks

By Tim Kiladze

In early March, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor and writer at The Atlantic, wrote a blog post about Jay-Z and Beyonce’s surprise meeting with President Obama. Alluding to America’s racial tensions, he suggested that only Obama had the courage to invite a rapper to the White House for such a casual visit. It was a remarkable moment: Although The Atlantic often discusses race in a political context, it was uncommon for the erudite publication to use someone like Jay-Z as an example.

Coates didn’t stop there. He followed up with a comment about Kanye West, who has produced some of Jay-Z’s biggest hits, and posted a YouTube video of the song “Never Change.” Above it he wrote: “After the jump, the hardest Kanye beat ever. OK, maybe one of the hardest. Am I the only one that prefers his earlier work? Dude was hungry.” The vernacular spoke volumes about how much the publication has evolved.

Of all The Atlantic’s changes, the biggest have been online. As recently as January 2008, in an interview for The New York Times, editor-in-chief James Bennet admitted that the website “functioned for too long as just a marketing arm for the print magazine, rather than a publication in its own right.” That same month, was revamped and its pay wall, which had always existed, was removed. The site now draws almost 3.5 million unique users each month, whereas in 2007 it averaged about 500,000.

This traffic is largely attributable to the’s eight main bloggers. Led by Andrew Sullivan and including Coates, Megan McArdle, Marc Ambinder, James Fallows, Jeffrey Goldberg, Clive Crook and recent addition Joshua Green, they cover beats such as culture, business and politics, and they are free to discuss whatever they choose within these silos — hence Coates’ Jay-Z post. Their free range is a product of the open-minded masthead that owner David Bradley has assembled. Since buying the magazine in 1999, he has hired James Bennet to run the editorial side; recruited Jay Lauf — one of the industry’s top publishers — from Wired to oversee the business side; and tapped Bob Cohn to develop The Atlantic’s website. Together they have worked to position The Atlantic to remain relevant amid journalism’s migration to the digital world.

But this process of evolution is accompanied by some critical questions. Have they changed what the publication stands for? While the print magazine is held to editorial standards that are rooted in history, the reins of the website are held more loosely because editors can’t keep up with the volume of information published online each day. Can they make money? The magazine was losing $3 million a year when Bradley bought it, according to a 2002 Columbia Journalism Review story, and today’s market for web advertisements is still in its infancy. And the question that is the key to the future: Can the web and print models work together?

The Atlantic was founded in 1857 to promote “the American idea,” something the magazine’s editors in a 2006 anthology summarized as support for equality, democracy, pluralism, institutions of civic culture and the notion that “public life is something higher and greater than the sum of all our private lives.” Publisher Jay Lauf says the focus remains the same today. Although it now has print and online operations, “both divisions start with the premise that The Atlantic is about powerful ideas.” Bob Cohn, editor of, agrees, and describes the website as “its own publication with a shared D.N.A. with the print magazine,” adding that both outlets aim to be provocative, authoritative, smart, literary and witty.

Their content, however, does differ. Lauf says the magazine publishes “researched, fact-checked, honed, long-form ideas that translate well in a print medium,” while the website runs many posts throughout the day and is not “a repository for long-form journalism.” Still, both outlets target people who are highly educated, affluent and in positions of power. The web simply casts a wider net, which helps to lure younger readers, and it offers space beyond the magazine’s print confines. “The web gives you more room to explore more deeply and more widely,” Lauf says.

Both men acknowledge that will be an integral part of the magazine going forward. “I’ve been in places in my career where the web and print operations are very separate,” Cohn says. “They’re not here.” In Atlantic Media’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, he works closely with James Bennet to make sure the magazine and website complement each other and that they adhere to The Atlantic’s core values. Cohn also oversees The Atlantic Wire, a separate website that aggregates intellectual commentary from across the web, to ensure that its content is in line with the print publication’s ethos.

While there is a clear understanding of values, Cohn and Lauf say very little about what type of product The Atlantic is today. Whereas 20 years ago — or a hundred, for that matter — it was a tangible print magazine that readers “consumed,” today — through — it also facilitates conversations between bloggers and readers, changing how the publication is perceived. Or maybe not. It’s hard to determine the degree to which the public associates the bloggers with The Atlantic because even though all eight write for the print magazine, their online readers may not know that. They also may not access their blogs through’s home page. For instance, visiting and automatically directs viewers to their blogs.

The issue came to a head in early March when Cohn’s web team redesigned for the second time in a little more than two years. Suddenly, the bloggers were folded into their silos (culture, business, food, etc.) and their posts were published in the same stream as other news from their beats. To say they were unhappy would be putting it mildly. “I consider the new layout of ‘personal’ blog pages to be a serious step backward, since it makes all sites look the same and drains them of personality and visual interest, plus making them much harder to read,” wrote James Fallows, the international issues blogger, shortly after the redesign.

Cohn denies that his team was trying to rein in the individual brands. “The goal of the redesign was to make it more logical, to make it easier for users to get around our site,” he said in an interview just days after the revamp. “It was our view that we were trying to integrate content that wasn’t easy to discover.”

Despite this claim, Andrew Sullivan was also outraged — albeit less civilly than Fallows. In a short post written just after the redesign launched, he thanked the web team members for all their hard work and then assured readers that the staff would reinstate his blog’s old look “because I won’t stop giving them hell until they do.” Sullivan’s unhappiness was of particular concern because his is The Atlantic’s most popular blog. In March it drew more than 10 million page views, about half of’s 20 million total page views for the month. His clout, combined with his anger and that of the other bloggers and their readers, prevailed, and Cohn’s team retreated after just a few days. They had spent months putting the streamlined framework together, but overnight the prominence of the individual blogs was reinstated.

Unlike Fallows and Sullivan, Ta-Nehisi Coates saw the redesign a few times before it launched and never once suspected that the editorial staff was trying to limit his individuality. He simply saw the streamlining as a business decision. “In all honesty, the redesign makes it easier when you’re dealing with advertisers,” he says. Coates also thinks the skeptics look at the reversion to the original layout from the wrong paradigm; instead of seeing it as a sign of the bloggers’ power, he says it should be viewed as indication of Cohn and Lauf’s remarkable flexibility. Coates has worked on several redesigns at different publications and he says he has never seen editors so responsive to their writers and readers. He thinks the change of plans “said a lot about Bob and Jay and their security with the product.”

Coates also shrugs off the suggestions that his blog has only a tangential connection to The Atlantic and that the bloggers could survive without the publication’s name behind them. “First of all, we wouldn’t have any money,” he says before breaking out into laughter. He then adds that his blog is dedicated to the magazine’s historical values. “What motivates me in my print work is what motivates me in my blogging: an intense curiosity.” James Fallows concurs. He has written for The Atlantic for more than 25 years and says its values are so deeply ingrained in him that they are his default in any medium. When writing online, “I’m the same person with a somewhat different tone,” he says.

Coates thinks the blog format makes readers miss this connection. Because his online column doesn’t always have polished prose and because it includes personal comments about things like his anger over waiting in line at the Charlotte Airport, there may be an assumption that it doesn’t adhere to The Atlantic’s principles. He denies any such allegations and offers an analogy: “When you make a book into a movie you can’t literally put the book on screen. You have to change the format.”

Regardless of their connection — or lack thereof — to the print magazine, the bloggers have certainly enhanced The Atlantic’s popularity. Its historical rival Harper’s can’t say the same. The two magazines are on completely different trajectories and the web is responsible for most of that difference. While all of the print magazine’s content is accessible for free at, Harper’s has erected a pay wall on its site, blocking access to all of its content online. And while The Atlantic has created and encouraged interaction between its writers and readers, Harper’s magazine and website provide virtually no opportunity for community development.

Peter Osnos, whose weekly media column appears on, says The Atlantic’s editorial team has been able to capitalize on this difference because they understand that their bloggers drive readers to the rest of the website. “People come to the site for Andrew,” he says, “but they stay to read other people as well.” Sullivan takes things a step further to direct readers to the print magazine. Numerous times in the past year he has urged his blog readers to buy a print subscription. “In my online view,” he wrote last March, “there’s nothing like reading a real essay on paper.”

The divide between the website and the print magazine won’t matter much if The Atlantic can’t make money going forward. Lauf, who is responsible for monetizing the web operations, says “there aren’t imminent plans to put content behind a wall.” To make up for the revenue that is lost by allowing potential subscribers to read the magazine online (along with the web-only material), The Atlantic depends on its integrated advertising and sales team, which groups print and online sales together (except for just one strictly digital ad manager). They have been working together for just over a year now, and are starting to put up some impressive numbers. Lauf says last year’s overall ad revenue was up 17 percent over the year prior — about flat on the print side but up more than 125 percent in digital ad sales — and 2010 is looking even better. At the time of his interview, the sales team was closing the May print issue and had sold all of April’s available digital ad space, increasing overall profits by 34 percent over the same period in 2009.

This turnaround is, obviously, good news to David Bradley, because he certainly didn’t intend to buy a magazine that keeps losing money. Despite the recession, Lauf says last year was “one of the best” in Bradley’s tenure, and adds that it’s safe to say it was one of the best in “many years before last year.” It appears, then, that The Atlantic is counting on its website to improve its business outlook. But doing so will not be a simple task. Although digital ad sales are way up, Cohn admits that “it’s no secret to say the print magazine contributes more revenue than the website.”

Lauf prepares for the future with an entrepreneurial spirit, and The Atlantic’s staffers have caught the vibe: Coates says the magazine is the first place he’s worked at that feels like a small business. Unlike some magazines that shy away from the myriad technologies that are revolutionizing journalism, The Atlantic is eagerly embracing them, and Lauf is optimistic about their potential. “Don’t look at it as a wall that’s falling on you,” he says. “Run toward these opportunities.”

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