Thursday, January 24, 2008
A Venerable Magazine Energizes Its Web Site
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
A year ago, The Atlantic's Web site was, to put it gently, weak - in content, staff, traffic and advertising.
Today, with big-name bloggers and video, it barely resembles the same site, having evolved into one of the livelier places on the Web for public policy debate and news analysis. And the number of readers going to the site has quadrupled.
Readership will get another boost starting Tuesday, when TheAtlantic.com will abolish the fire wall that has allowed only subscribers to the print magazine to see most of its articles online. It will make its archive accessible, too.
Executives hope that a rise in traffic brings to The Atlantic, one of the nation's oldest publications, something it hasn't had in many years: a profit.
The Web site "functioned for too long as just a marketing arm for the print magazine, rather than publication in its own right," said James Bennet, the editor in chief. For years, he said, "it was a very small number of people, working very hard, who kept it alive."
Other magazines that report on public affairs and culture, like The Economist, Harper's and The New Republic, also have fire walls; The New Yorker does not, although some articles cannot be read online.
By comparison, a year ago The Atlantic made fewer articles available to nonsubscribers and offered less Internet-only material. It had no blogs. But in February, it hired Andrew Sullivan, the iconoclastic, sometimes conservative commentator, who is one of the nation's most prominent journalists. Justin Smith, the president of Atlantic Media, estimated that the addition of Mr. Sullivan's blog accounts for 30 percent of the increased traffic.
In April, James Fallows, a national correspondent for the magazine who has a big following, moved his own blog to TheAtlantic.com. Several other bloggers, on both the political left and right, were added over the course of the year. The result has been a sort of digital conversation, with writers testing themes that later turn into long-form articles, and responding - sometimes negatively - to each other's postings and to articles in the magazine.
"A highly turbulent Web site where people are engaging in argument with each other turns out to work very well with the idea of a polished monthly magazine about the same kind of political and cultural debate," Mr. Bennet said.
The site has added video and put more articles outside the fire wall, including archival pieces by the likes of Mark Twain.
The number of visitors jumped to 308,000 last month from 72,000 in December 2006, according to comScore Media Metrix. (Like most publications, The Atlantic says the true numbers are much higher.) The print magazine sells about 400,000 copies, a figure that has more or less held steady.
Mr. Smith said The Atlantic had long done a poor job of selling ads online but is hiring more ad sellers, and Goldman Sachs will sponsor the elimination of the fire wall, buying all the ad space this week.
"The magazine is still in the red, in the $3-to-$5-million range," he said, but he hopes to be in the black in five years.
The Atlantic seems to have stabilized after a period of turmoil. The previous editor in chief, Michael Kelly, stepped down in 2002, and the owner, David G. Bradley, left the post vacant for more than three years. (Mr. Kelly was killed in Iraq in 2003 while reporting for the magazine.)
While the managing editor, Cullen Murphy, ran the magazine, it won numerous awards for excellence but circulation dropped sharply. In 2005, Mr. Bradley moved The Atlantic from Boston, where it was founded in 1857, to Washington, leading Mr. Murphy and many other staff members to leave.
For a few months, it seemed that no one was in charge, until Mr. Bennet was hired less than two years ago.