After the 2016 election, a flurry of reports noted Donald Trump’s election was breathing new life into our decaying media industry now that they had important work to do, in a quest to save America from tangerine-tinged fascism. Via NBC News, here’s an update on how that’s working out at one of America’s prestige publications:
Nicholas Thompson, the chief executive of The Atlantic, gave a presentation to employees last month in which he disclosed some uncomfortable truths about the state of the magazine.
Subscription growth, which had skyrocketed in 2020 thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and the presidential election, had come back down to earth. For the first time, the number of subscribers had plateaued and started to slightly decline. And even with last year’s substantial surge, the magazine had lost more than $20 million and was on track to lose another $10 million this year, according to slides of the presentation shared with NBC News.
Left unsaid, of course, is how foregoing all sense of ethics, propriety, restraint, and good judgment possibly hurt their business model. Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg is no doubt still hunting down on-the-record sources for his anonymous report on Trump calling dead American soldiers “suckers” and “losers” after more than 20 people in the Trump administration publicly denied it.
Other notable highlights from last year include staff writer David Frum declaring last October, “The people on far right and far left who publicized the obviously bogus @nypost story were not dupes. They were accomplices. The story could not have been more obviously fake if it had been wearing dollar-store spectacles and attached plastic mustache.”
Of course, let’s not forget staff writer Adam Serwer’s new collection of Atlantic essays, “The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America,” which should be commended for its nuanced and… just kidding, Serwer’s book is about as subtle and accurate as performing LASIK with a chainsaw.
Anyway, it’s hard to say what exactly is going on behind the scenes at The Atlantic, but as someone who’s worked at three different political magazines — two of which ceased publication after their wealthy benefactors pulled the plug — perhaps I have more insight than most. The truth is that political magazines almost always lose money and have relied on benefactors and other fundraising to stay in business. However, for a long time I never really thought of The Atlantic as a “political” magazine, the way one might think of, say, National Review or The New Republic.
Prestige general-interest magazines — The New Yorker, Atlantic, Vanity Fair, etc. — have historically had big advertisers and decent subscription bases and made real money once upon a time. Per NBC news, The Atlantic still has about 750,000 subscribers, which seems like it could still bring in a lot of revenue.
However, if there’s one thing allegedly prestigious publications are known for, it’s profligacy and bloat. The Atlantic’s CEO told NBC the magazine needs to make $50 million in annual subscription revenue just to break even, which exceeded even my jaundiced expectations for mismanagement masquerading as self-importance. For the salaries they must be paying, you’d think those pieces they are publishing from “Police Abolitionists” would at least be well-edited and fact-checked.
There was a time 20 or so years ago when The Atlantic was enough of a general-interest magazine that it was willing to publish any number of influential conservatives — Mark Steyn even had a regular column for a while. Obviously, the internet-led general collapse of the news industry since that time hasn’t helped their finances, but the big issue seems to me that The Atlantic took a winning business model, the General Interest Prestige Magazine, and voluntarily turned it into a losing one, i.e. a Woke Political Magazine.
Remember in 2016 what a big deal it was that The Atlantic had only twice before endorsed a presidential candidate? Me neither, but The Atlantic endorsed Hillary Clinton anyway.
Anyway, I’m not sure any of this matters because The Atlantic is currently owned by America’s best-known dowager, Laurene Powell Jobs. She can afford to grind very expensive axes and might well find it worth $50 million a year to purchase real estate on America’s airport gift-shop shelves calling half the country racist.
But it’s hard to pretend that the financial situation at The Atlantic isn’t a sign of the diminishing influence of “prestige journalism.” As David Burge put it, “I’m no Henry Luce, but I think I could operate a magazine full of B+ Oberlin term papers for less than $50 million per year.”