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Summary:

While it has gotten attention recently for the launch of its new online business offering, Atlantic Media has been making a lot of innovative and interesting moves in transforming its business from print to digital — moves that other media companies would do well to emulate.

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There has been a lot of buzz around the recent launch of a new online business publication called Quartz, in part because a new global business-news provider doesn’t come along that often, but also because it comes from the team behind The Atlantic — a 155-year-old magazine that has managed to beat almost overwhelming odds and become something of a digital success story. Although there are other digital-native media entities that are doing interesting things, including BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, there’s an argument to be made that Atlantic Media is one of the most interesting traditional media players for a number of reasons.

The New York Times has drawn a lot of interest because of its paywall, something that has made it a kind of flag-bearer for that method of trying to generate revenue, and the Washington Post and The Guardian are on the opposite end of the spectrum, since they remain adamantly opposed to paywalls and are both trying to find other means of dealing with the digital disruption the newspaper industry finds itself in. And on the magazine side, publishers like MIT’s Technology Review have rejected the popular “apps will save us” mantra and decided to pursue a different approach.

Atlantic Media is interesting in part because of the sheer breadth of things it is doing when it comes to digital, and also when it comes to alternative forms of monetizing its content. And it’s not just experimentation for the sake of experimentation: at a time when declining print revenue is flashing a giant red warning signal for print publishers of all kinds, the company also appears to be growing both its traditional revenue and its digital revenue — and by significant amounts. Digital ad revenue grew by almost 50 percent this year. According to owner David Bradley, the company’s revenue has doubled in the last four years to $40 million, and about 65 percent now comes from digital.

Five reasons to pay attention

There are probably more than five things Atlantic Media is doing that are interesting — for example, giving excellent writers like Alexis Madrigal and Ta-Nehisi Coates relatively free reign to write about even obscure (but fascinating) topics is a bold and interesting move in itself. In any case, this is my attempt to summarize a few of the aspects of what the magazine is doing that are worth paying attention to:

  • No paywall or pay-fence: This is fairly obvious, but The Atlantic — a magazine that has a well-established print-based business that presumably still generates a substantial amount of revenue via advertising (as most newspapers do), seems to have no interest in putting up a paywall, while newspapers are throwing them up as quickly as they can. In fact, one of the first things Bradley did when he took over the money-losing publication was to remove the paywall, and in three years traffic climbed by 2,500 percent. With Quartz, the company says it deliberately wanted to avoid what former Wall Street Journal editor Kevin Delaney calls “the friction of a paywall.”

  • New forms of content: In the not-so-distant past, magazines and newspapers were happy to just throw their existing content onto the internet as “shovel-ware,” and some continue to do so. Atlantic Media has focused instead on trying to adapt what it does with content to take advantage of the web — its Atlantic Wire has been a big contributor to its online success, in part because of a smart approach to aggregation and social media, and it has also launched dedicated sites like Atlantic Cities. And Quartz is the latest example of this principle in action, as is its focus on “obsessions” instead of beats.

“It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, without any legacy costs, massively trumps print.” — David Bradley

  • Forget about apps: Although it has a traditional “digital edition” app for the magazine, Atlantic Media seems to be much more focused on creating web-native offerings like Quartz that work well regardless of platform — something that publishers like Jason Pontin are also focused on, thanks to the lackluster performance of many traditional media apps. In my experience at least, Quartz looks and works fairly well on the web, tablet and phone, and that cross-platform nature is crucial for any publication that is looking towards the mobile future.
  • Native advertising: As virtually every media entity has discovered over the past couple of years, traditional ads aren’t working very well — and that problem is compounded when you move to mobile, where even Facebook has been having difficulty. BuzzFeed and some other players have been experimenting with “native advertising,” by trying to create ad-related or branded content that looks and behaves more like the regular content readers or users are accustomed to. It’s not easy, but there are signs that it is paying off for The Atlantic.

Obviously, not all of these lessons are going to translate to every traditional media entity — The Atlantic is a monthly magazine, and therefore there are different dynamics from a daily newspaper, not just when it comes to content but advertising as well. But there is much that is worth imitating, or using for inspiration, not the least of which is the attempt to make content online something different from just repurposed print content, and the desire to experiment.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Denise Chan and Giuseppe Bognanni

  1. I thought this article was spot on until you got to the point about apps. Atlantic’s app is so much more than a “Digital Edition” App, has won them awards, and I think has been the central key to their recent success. Did you actually look at the app? Native, not some crappy HTML5 app. It is Flipboard, mixed with their awesome magazine issues, mixed with InFocus, an awesome Photo Journalism blog, comments, subscriptions, etc etc..

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    1. I’m sure there are worse journalistic developments than publication-specific apps, but there aren’t many that wasted so much time and money.

      — MrJM

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  2. I love the Atlantic and everything it’s doing. All the best to a forward-thinking group of people.
    But I wonder how much of this will work for local publications that lack appeal to high-end advertisers — as the Atlantic has — and that serve a geographically limited reader base. (I doubt it’s possible for local newspapers to increase traffic 2,500% by dropping a paywall.)
    And unless you’re in a large market, alternative revenue from events is going to be very difficult to capture.

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  3. the atlantic DID NOT grow digital revenue by almost 50%. not even close

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    1. Citation please.

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  4. Have to laugh at this “buzz” for a site (qz.com) that doesnt load (at least on Friday)…

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  5. We should pay very very close to the Atlantic and the way it does business. One of tge Atlantic’s “journalists” was Megan McArdle, was Koch-Brothers paid shill, trained at their Institute for Humane Studies and then given a leadership role at the Koch Brother’s America’s Future Foundation.
    Furthermore, the Atlantic runs the official PR at the Aspen Institue, another Koch Brother supported institution.
    So yes…we should certainly be paying attention to what the Atlantic does, and no doubt the Atlantic is now making lots of money. The devil pays top dollar.

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    1. Yes, because The Atlantic is and has always been a shill for corporate interests and economic conservatism… which you prove by pointing out the one (past) blogger who was libertarian on its staff.

      How exciting — I didn’t realize it was cherry-picking season already!

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  6. Reblogged this on BrownGoods and commented:
    Interesting stuff here.

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  7. Every time I land on the Atlantic, I’m impresses by the quality of the content. Glad to read they’ve found a way to pay for it.

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  8. http://news.yahoo.com/thinkprogress-gets-hit-googles-red-screen-doom-174454304.html

    Sourced from the Atlantic Wire, completely unreadable, and not at all proofread. Despicably bad. All The Atlantic’s brand means to me lately is that they fired the costly people with grammar skills and are being written by Honey Boo Boo’s poor relations in exchange for roadkill and moonshine.

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  9. I like so thumbs up to The Atlantic.

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