The Atlantic: A 157-Year-Old Startup

For traditional print media, the digital revolution has been a full-frontal assault on the fundamentals of their editorial and business models. Digitization has been a disaster for most of these companies. So it is noteworthy that one of the oldest magazines in the U.S.--The Atlantic--is among the handful that are truly thriving.

Boasting 28% ad revenue growth last year, The Atlantic is one of a few major magazine brands that started seeing more revenue coming from digital than from print. "Digital is the fastest growing part-up close to 47%," says Hayley Romer, VP and publisher at Atlantic Media. In terms of overall ad revenues, digital is approaching 75% of the pie. That is extraordinary.

Content is still at the core of Atlantic Media's great post-print era success story. Several years ago, the magazine relaunched with a new emphasis on big idea cover stories and a determination to carry that sensibility across other platforms, including online and live interactions. It spawned digital spinoff brands such as CityLab, The Wire, and Quartz, as well as a series of events such as the Aspen Ideas Festival. Each is aligned with the parent brand, but they operate like independent brands. "What is unique about The Atlantic is 157 years of credibility, but the innovation of any startup today," says Romer.

Atlantic Media has embraced native advertising, even after it stumbled early on with an infamously controversial post sponsored by the Church of Scientology. Now, much of the major growth in digital advertising is coming from its in-house custom content production work for major brands such as Porsche. For the famed automaker, the Re:think marketing services division helped develop a package that involved print, online content, and a live event. "The philosophy for us is that native is a sensibility not a fallback," says Romer. She believes it works and gets premium prices from clients because it translates the sensibility of The Atlantic's editorial style and approach to help people think in new ways about a sponsor's company or brand.

The diversification model is really what is driving Atlantic Media's digital push. Romer and her sales team have no problem navigating the new terrain of programmatic ad platforms. The brands put inventory into both private and open exchanges. They depend on the cost per mille (CPM) they think their contexts deserve, and Romer feels that media buyers are moving toward quality inventory.

Likewise, the event series is booming. While some events are ticketed and represent an emerging source of revenue, most of the business comes from sponsors that want to be aligned with the publisher's pursuit of ideas. In cases such as the Aspen Ideas Festival, brands have the opportunity to come in contact with more than 3,000 hand-selected influencers.

What is most interesting about The Atlantic's turnaround is how much of it is still grounded in the reputation and content of the core print brand. The Atlantic seems to get this too. It installed two journalists, James Bennet and Bob Cohn, as co-presidents to help keep that content-first sensibility across all channels. Bennet says that the success of the events business comes in part from this approach. AtlanticLIVE has had local conferences and roundtable dinners centered around everything from STEM careers to the privacy implications of the connected car. "People have made the mistake of thinking of them as marketing functions," he says. "We thought of them as part of the larger editorial mission of The Atlantic-a different way of doing Atlantic stories."

This approach is proving that there is life after print; however, it is complicated, and it involves more than just pushing out the same old content into every emerging channel. It is more about how a media brand identity can be brought to bear in discrete markets and channels. The Atlantic has been adept at branding itself as a media company that is about big ideas-and then seeing how this approach can play out in sectors such as business, cities, and live meetings and brand publishing. It seems to be an object lesson in the need for every media company to really get at the core of its own value proposition. 

Related Articles

For as long as I have been covering digital media, the paid content question has been relentless. Will consumers ever really appreciate and pay directly for the costly journalism they crave? There have been many encouraging but false starts.