Atlantic Media: Tradition + Innovation = Success

M.S. in Publishing students gather for a photo with Atlantic Media executives.
M.S. in Publishing students gather for a photo with Atlantic Media executives.

“There’s still a lot of money in print,” said Jay Lauf, Senior Vice President & Group Publisher of Atlantic Media and Publisher & President of Quartz. Lauf was one of six Atlantic Media executives who gathered to help NYU School of Professional Studies M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students learn more about how a magazine founded in 1857 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell, among other American icons, became the flagship brand of one of the most innovative media companies in the nation. Like most major media companies, Atlantic Media is exploring a vast range of digital revenue opportunities…while still cultivating the rich returns from print advertising.

Through the conference room windows, students had a full view of long rows of desks where members of the staff busied themselves with their tasks. Like most media and technology companies these days, Atlantic Media has adopted the open-office format as a way to emphasize the collaborative work ethic noted by William P. Mulvihill, Associate Publisher of The Atlantic and one of our speakers. “We compete for ads, but we are siblings in nature,” said Mulvihill, referring to the news outlets within Atlantic Media.

Mulvihill and Lauf were joined by Emersson Barillas, The Atlantic’s Executive Creative Director of Integrated Marketing; Emily Epstein, Senior Editor of The Atlantic; Kevin Delaney, Editor-in-Chief and President of Quartz, the company’s global business news brand; and Marissa Aydlett, Quartz’s Vice President of Global Marketing and an NYU Summer Publishing Institute alumna.

In a wide-ranging Q&A with the students, The Atlantic team touched upon topics like sustaining and growing newsstand sales in challenging times. In fact, the magazine’s newsstand sales are up by 28 percent. The key, Lauf explained, is to produce provocative, well-researched pieces that drive conversations and press. A great example, he said, is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which was published simultaneously in print and online, and gathered a lot of attention. That print issue became the biggest-selling copy in 7 years.

As Lauf explained,  the decision to publish the piece in print and online helped “spark large-scale conversations” and TV coverage. The print version drove a lot of traffic to The Atlantic website. Nevertheless, not all articles are published in both print and online.

“Web and print are generally separate,” said Epstein, who works on the website. “The magazine has topics picked out a year in advance. We have daily meetings for the website.”

The Atlantic‘s app strategy is to combine both the print and website versions. “You can lay back, read the digital edition of the print, but also take in quick online news,” said Barillas.

The Atlantic also carries out 80 to 100 events to generate other revenue streams, varying from small, intimate events like a roundtable dinner on the state of healthcare to bigger events such as the Aspen Ideas Festival. The events garner prestigious speakers and focus on noteworthy discussions, such as a town hall discussion on energy and politics in Detroit, moderated by The Atlantic editors and staff writers. In addition to entrance fees, the events benefit from sponsors with deep pockets.

Turning the conversation to the highly successful digital news brand, Lauf said: “Quartz was born out of the same ethos [as The Atlantic].” Founded in 2012, Quartz is designed for mobile and tablets because, as Delaney puts it: “The growth of news is in mobile. Half of our readership is on mobile and 61 percent of global executives get their news on their phones.”

Quartz currently has 10 million readers and does not have a paywall. “You can’t grow with a paywall,” Delaney said, explaining that Quartz has surpassed their competitors like Financial Times and the Economist in terms of traffic. “Who’s ever shared something behind a paywall?” Barillas interjected.

Instead, Quartz generates revenue through advertising, sponsored content and syndication deals. The team pioneered a unique advertising experience for readers, which has been replicated elsewhere. Instead of the traditional banner ads, Quartz tries to replicate TV and magazine ads, displaying large, colorful images. The brand also took a non-traditional approach by forgoing a homepage at first, knowing that most readers come in through side doors including social media. In fact, 90 percent of Quartz readers come from side doors. A modern homepage was later launched. To make it more useful, the team created The Brief, a list of news summaries, which readers can find in the homepage.

The Atlantic and Quartz collaborate on social media by promoting each other’s stories. All of the speakers agree that you can’t drive traffic without social media, and that goes for all their products. “There’s no difference between throwing an event and promoting it, and publishing a story and promoting it,” Aydlett emphasized.

Though the speakers admitted that they work in an uncertain industry, Lauf ended the afternoon visit with a quote as memorable as the visit itself. “You exercise your right and left brain [in this industry],” he said. “I’ve walked away smarter every day, and I get paid for that.”

by Sabine Cherenfant

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