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With 1 million subscribers, The Atlantic eyes what’s next

The Atlantic’s one-million milestone is just the foundation for further growth. Now the company is honing its strategy to double, then quadruple this number.

May 16, 2024 | By Jessica Patterson – Independent Media Reporter

In the age of artificial intelligence, it could be argued that the calculus of content is changing. 

Since the advent of publishing metrics, the goal has always been more: more page views, clicks, keywords and SEO. And while AI can automate various aspects of content creation and production to save digital media companies time and resources, the convenience of the technology has also allowed for a firehose of low quality content to proliferate. 

A recent NewsGuard report, which rates the trustworthiness of websites, revealed that AI chatbots are being used to create junk websites, filled with low quality AI-generated content and stuffed with programmatic advertising. In addition, NewsGuard reported that 140 major global brands are supporting these junk websites with little to no human oversight, “which appear to be entirely financed by programmatic advertising.” 

But, amid the sharp increase of these junk content farms, is there a new opportunity for quality journalism to quietly reclaim its place at the fore? It’s certainly on the minds of the leadership at The Atlantic. 

In April, The Atlantic announced it had reached 1 million subscribers and become profitable, by investing in areas where the company had “fairly high confidence of good returns,” according to CEO Nicholas Thompson. The 167-year-old publication currently boasts financial stability and is well-positioned to think about where it is headed as it approaches its 200th birthday.

The Atlantic’s one-million milestone is just the foundation for further growth. In a recent memo to staff, Thompson and Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote:

“The key to continued success is to be constructively dissatisfied with the present, and so both of us believe very strongly that our 1 million subscriptions represent merely the foundation of future excellence and growth.”

Goldberg says that he would like The Atlantic to double, then quadruple its current size, saying the company needs to figure out how to reach larger audiences around the world. “I want to set a course as The Atlantic heads towards its bicentennial in 33 years. Now is the time for us to decide this is where we want The Atlantic to go and this is how we’re going to get there,” he said. 

In terms of excellence, The Atlantic’s awards speak volumes to the quality of the journalism it produces. For the third year in a row, The Atlantic was awarded General Excellence for a News, Sports, and Entertainment publication at the 2024 National Magazine Awards. No one else has done that in this century, Goldberg remarks. 

“So, we have the recognition of our industry that we’re doing something right, and I feel like this is the year when we need to really focus on: what are the next large steps we take?” Goldberg said. “Because we’re in a very good spot. But I don’t want to spend the next five years defending the hill that we’re on. I want to move to some other mountain entirely.”

And, that means not just defending their reputation for journalistic excellence, or growing iteratively. It means figuring out how to reach enormous audiences around the world – and getting a whole lot of them to subscribe. 

Subscription strategy with an editorial focus

Prior to the pandemic, Atlantic Chair David Bradley and Laurene Powell Jobs decided they should move into the digital subscription space. They’d had a lot of success through scale – growing web traffic and advertising, Goldberg said. The company hired Alexandra Hardiman, (currently New York Times’ Chief Product Officer), as Chief Business & Product Officer in 2018-2019, to build The Atlantic’s digital subscription model. 

“We launched basically six months before the pandemic started when advertising collapsed. And we did very well in those early months. There was a lot of demand,” Goldberg recalled.

The 2019 metered model offered three annual subscription plans for readers: digital, print and digital and a premium tier, which offered exclusive access to podcasts, product discounts and priority access to events among other perks. The Atlantic earned 300,000 new subscriptions in the 12 months that followed.

The following year, the pandemic impacted the publication’s in-person events and advertising, forcing layoffs of 17% of its staff, and losses in the millions

Now, overall revenue is up more than 10% year over year. The company says advertising booked year-to-date is also up 33% year over year. And, subscriptions to The Atlantic have increased by double-digit percentages in each of the past four years. In fact, they’ve surged 14% in the past year alone.

By 2023, The Atlantic was back on the path to profitability. According to Axios, The Atlantic adjusted its paywall to be more flexible for subscribers and was working to add new revenue streams. Then, roughly 60% of its revenue came from subscriptions, which included print magazines and digital subscriptions through Apple News.

Flexible paywalls meet journalistic excellence

The strategy was to have the best, smartest, most dynamic, flexible subscription, acquisition and retention strategies, Goldberg said. “We’ve always believed that you can have the best systems in the world for acquiring people easily, but if you don’t have a quality product to sell them, they’re not going to come, they’re not going to stay.”

“We pivoted, I would say, to a total quality model on the web. We were doing good stuff on the web for years. We had a large team of young reporters doing news analysis and quick summaries and that sort of thing. But I’ve always believed that the aspect of The Atlantic that differentiated us from everyone else was a commitment to having the highest standards and producing the most complicated, interesting, aesthetically-pleasing, well-written journalism. I think that strategy has borne fruit,” Goldberg said.

The Atlantic focused on editorial excellence, publishing stories that exemplified depth and range and drove news cycles. It recruited high-profile writers including New York Times’ Jennifer Senior and Caitlin Dickerson, who won Pulitzers in 2022 for Feature Writing and Explanatory Journalism, respectively. 

“My goal here is to build the greatest writers collective in the English language. We’re halfway there,” Goldberg said. “I don’t need the biggest one. I just need the best one. There are tremendous numbers of readers of English, who want access to our writers, and so as long as there’s an audience for quality journalism, quality non-fiction, we will be okay.”

Reaching new subscribers with newsletters 

In addition to a flexible digital subscription strategy and editorial excellence, The Atlantic invested in new newsletters for subscribers in 2021, bringing nine newsletter writers into the fold. Newsletters help reach different audiences, build loyalty and repetition. And as Goldberg pointed out, The Atlantic is launching new ones all of the time. Thus far, the strategy appears to be a moderate success.

“One of the best things to happen out of that is we found more great staff writers, Yair Rosenberg, Xochitl Gonzalez and Charlie Warzel, just to name three and so, it ultimately brought their following,” Goldberg said. “They’re integrated into our writers collective in a way that’s great for our readers and great for our journalism.”

High-quality content reckons with AI

As digital media companies reckon with the changes artificial intelligence brings, deciding on how to adapt or adopt, it’s becoming clear that high-quality journalism retains immense value in the AI era. It offers authenticity, context, and deep analysis that AI-generated content lacks. It provides meaningful insights, informs people and counters misinformation.

Despite the one million subscriber milestone, Goldberg isn’t ready to relax. “It’s not like a breath out. We’re not breathing easy because you’ve got to run scared in this business,” he said. “But those three things, the subscription health, financial health, journalism health and recognition, give us a great place to have meetings where we can actually think through, alright, what are we going to do with The Atlantic on its approach to its 200th birthday.”

“Because it is a very unstable industry, obviously, and I worry about small mistakes or small missed opportunities snowballing over the years. I worry about missing the opportunity to do something newer and bigger.”

While mum on details, The Atlantic is actively engaged in discussions with AI companies. Thompson told The Wall Street Journal that The Atlantic is experimenting with artificial intelligence and is “building an experimental website and app with AI features, such as AI-based games and search.” 

Few of The Atlantic’s contemporaries are left. As Goldberg points out, many venerable magazines that came after The Atlantic – like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post – have disappeared. 

“So it’s kind of a miracle that The Atlantic has made it through the beginning of the internet age successfully. It survived the Great Depression and the Civil War and World War II. And, so we really have to focus on what is it that made it survive? And what do we do to increase its chances of surviving and flourishing into the next phase?”

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