The Atlantic has been around for 155 years, and for most of that time it’s been a print publication. Do you still define The Atlantic as a magazine?
I don’t. The magazine is obviously a very important medium and is part of our history, but everything we’re doing in digital is about expanding the brand. It’s really about The Atlantic across multiple mediums as a sensibility. The Atlantic stands for quality content and we’re finding new ways to do that every day.
The Atlantic has been seen as a leader when it comes to legacy media brands adapting to digital. What do you think you’ve understood and done right that others haven’t?
Lots of things! One of them is actually being small and nimble and having a very collaborative approach. Being a smaller company, the stakes have been high, and that pressure has actually been good for the brand.
The Atlantic has invested in editorial and product to drive digital growth. You see a lot of magazine brands that just try to take their offline content and put it online and put relatively little effort into the editorial on their websites.
The Atlantic has invested in editorial and product to drive digital growth. Tweet
This is a brand that today has more paid journalists than ever. Part of that is because of our digital operations and growth. Part of it is being able to try new things and being willing to occasionally fail, and part of it is the investments that have been made to support it.
The Atlantic has been a leader in the shift toward “native advertising.” You’ve also become a cautionary tale in the wake of the Scientology snafu. What did you take away from that experience, and did it dampen your enthusiasm for native advertising at all?
Going through it helped clarify things on multiple levels. First, it was a reminder that a brand like The Atlantic has a history and legacy, which means it’s held to different standards.
When I look at competitors, I don’t necessarily look at magazines. In the digital realm, the sites that we look at occasionally with interest or envy are sites like Buzzfeed or Upworthy, and not because they are directly competing against us, but because they are innovating and winning in that space.
We were a very early player in the native advertising space. It was easy to look at what our competitors were doing and say, “Okay, this is how Buzzfeed’s doing it,” and to be blind a little bit and think those standards could be exactly the same for us.
The truth of the matter is, it’s not the same. We had spent a ton of time, prior to Scientology, talking about and revising our standards and trying to develop the right approach, as we were moving very quickly.
For me the blind spot was thinking that as long as everything was labeled appropriately, we were okay. But at the end of the day, that missed the key point, which is that it needs to be appropriate for our target audience.
Access to your iOS apps is included with a print subscription. Are they simply serving the same audience on different devices, or pulling in a different kind of reader?
They are serving separate segments of the audience, ultimately. I hate the word “mobile” because it encompasses so much. For me the native iOS apps are really about separate paid revenue streams, with the two primary ones being The Atlantic magazine application and then our more recent Atlantic Weekly iOS application.
Both of those are really focused on being the service for people who want to subscribe to a regular digital product.
We, like everybody else, got into developing native apps back during the launch of the iPad. Today, it’s an important product, it’s a profitable product, but ultimately it’s not going to be the saviour of our industry, either.
And that’s part of us being here – the future of our world is having to develop multiple products. We have to be looking at much smaller customer segments and we have to find ways of serving and monetizing those diverse segments.
It’s not just about advertising, it’s not just about a paid strategy, it’s about multiple different strategies layering up and creating a more robust business model.
Tell us about The Wire, which curates content and social conversations from around the web. Lots of web-native sites, like Gawker and The Daily Beast, already occupy this space. Why is it important to curate as well as create content?
The news cycle and the way journalism is followed has changed significantly with the web. It used to be that the only sources for news were a few distinguished outlets and they basically determined what was on the agenda.
The Wire is really aimed at trying to break through the noise. If Twitter is a primary source for you, the cycles are very fast, there’s a lot out there and it’s hard to keep up. Part of The Wire’s approach is about keeping tabs on all those sources and being the go-to site to find out what is going on at any given moment.
Generally I think most news outlets are moving towards having elements of this kind of approach.
What would you say is the biggest advantage of being a legacy publisher when it comes to being successful in the digital space? What’s the biggest drawback?
The biggest advantage is having name recognition. Although it’s interesting – since I’ve been here, I’ve constantly had people say to me, “You know, I never really knew The Atlantic very well, but in the last couple of years they’ve been putting out consistently great stories.”
To be fair I wasn’t a huge follower of The Atlantic five years ago, either. I don’t think what’s changed is our content. What’s changed is the web. Social platforms have made it a lot easier for our content to get more exposure. And in fact, The Atlantic has an audience that is significantly larger than it ever has been at any other time in its history, which for a legacy magazine brand, where many of them have had falling circulation, is not typically the case.
What holds us back? Being a startup and having the ability to have certain metrics that you can operate towards that aren’t necessarily about being profitable is a freedom. It’s a short-term freedom, but it’s a freedom.