High Tide at The Atlantic

Panels! Plunging paywalls! And plenty of posts! All part of Justin Smith’s plans to prevail over Politico

In the winter of 2009, David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic Media Co., and Justin Smith, one of his top executives, met for a late-night dinner to plot the opening gambits in a Beltway media war.

Bradley wanted to talk about the future of the National Journal, which he’d bought in 1997. Of all the media properties he had ever owned, the studiously earnest, weekly political magazine was one of his favorites. But recently, much to Bradley’s dismay, it had been taking a serious drubbing from an upstart rival.

“It was much happier to do what we were doing until Politico arrived in the world,” Bradley recently told The Observer. “Politico introduced a whole new standard of, I wouldn’t say quality, but I would say velocity and metabolism. I responded way too slowly.”

That night, three years after Politico’s launch, Bradley asked Smith two things: Was he committed, long term, to staying with Bradley in the District? And was he ready to fight Politico? Smith answered in the affirmative to both questions. Shortly thereafter, Bradley named Smith president of the entire Atlantic Media Co. Henceforth, the 40-year-old executive would be running the National Journal, the Hotline and Congress Daily.

Smith set up nine task forces to review everything from the National Journal Group’s sales force to its cost structures to its newsroom operations. Forty days later, Smith handed over some 80 pages of findings to Bradley.

The first phase of the counteroffensive against Politico is now under way.

During the last week of April, Smith consolidated the three newsrooms of the National Journal, the Hotline and Congress Daily. Along the way, a handful of jobs were eliminated, and staff members were asked to reapply for new positions or apply for buyouts. In an interview with Betsy Rothstein of Fishbowl DC, Charles Green, the editor of the National Journal, said that some print columns were being scrapped and more emphasis would be placed on the Web. He said that the company was also on the hunt for a new editor-in-chief to oversee the unified editorial operations.

Elsewhere, Smith was scouting New York to beef up his sales staff and digital managers. He also hired New York–based graphic designer Michael Bierut, of Pentagram, to help rebrand all of the National Journal Group properties.

The newly reconfigured website is scheduled to debut in September in time for the midterm elections. Currently, much of the original news gathered by the National Journal Group staff is hidden behind a paywall. That will soon change. “We will still have work going on behind the paywall,” Bradley said. “But for the first time, we’re going to compete in front of the wall.”

How will the new, free website, targeting a national audience, differ from Politico? “They are going to be at the more racy, tabloid end of the spectrum,” Bradley said. “That seems to be the position they have chosen. I think we’ll be more of the authoritative end.”

Contacted for comment, Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei disagreed with Bradley’s characterization. “People come to us because we break news, we are authoritative and we help readers understand how Washington really works,” he said. “I think Bradley’s description is clearly motivated by business interests.

“That said, we take all competitors seriously,” he added.

To be sure, Bradley is not the only publisher in Washington tossing and turning at night and thinking of ways to eat Politico’s pie. Bloomberg LP is expanding its D.C. staff. The Washington Post keeps rolling out new political Web offerings. Even The New Yorker recently showed up in D.C. to throw its first-ever White House Correspondents dinner party.

In a recent interview with The Observer, Smith said that while ad markets have been cratering around the country, spending inside the beltway has been booming.

During his two years overseeing The Atlantic, Smith expanded the magazine’s events staff. He said The Atlantic will throw nearly a hundred such events this year.

Smith said that when he first started at The Atlantic, event and digital revenue made up a small part of total coffers. This year, with print revenues holding steady, digital and event revenues are expected to make up nearly half of the total haul. For the month of April, according to Smith, The Atlantic brought in more revenue from digital advertising than it did from print.

After two years under Smith’s leadership, The Atlantic is still losing money—but a whole lot less of it. According to Bradley, the magazine and its website are now losing just less than a million dollars a year. “That is the farthest reach of my imagination,” Bradley said. “I’ve never seen growth like that. It’s in the teeth of the recession. He’s really good.” Succeeding at toppling Politico might be an even taller task than making a British newsweekly profitable in a hostile American market in the wake of 9/11, at a time when established newsweeklies were crumbling.

“This Washington information market is a dynamic, growing, highly competitive, cutthroat market,” said Robert W. Merry, who until last summer served for more than a decade as the CEO of Congressional Quarterly.

Prior to Politico’s arrival, Merry said, Roll Call had the dominant position in the advertising market. Congressional Quarterly had the dominant position in terms of circulation. And the National Journal had the dominant position in terms of buzz. Politico quickly changed all of that. “Along comes Politico; they basically created more buzz than the National Journal,” he said. “They spent more money on marketing. They did more to get their people on television. They were able to steal a march on the National Journal.”

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