Five reasons why media companies should pay attention to The Atlantic

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