How David Bradley and Justin Smith Saved 'The Atlantic'

A sinking magazine comes back from the brink (or why all print media stories don’t have to end badly)

Photos: Daniel Rosenbaum/The New York Times/Redux Pictures


Four years ago, David Bradley, the chairman and sole owner of the Atlantic Media Company, came up to New York from Washington, D.C., to have dinner at The Carlyle with Justin Smith, who was then president and publisher of The Week. Bradley was desperate. For eight years, he’d been trying to staunch the flow of red ink at what was then called the The Atlantic Monthly, only to see the losses increase (one year, to more than $10 million). He admired Smith’s work at The Week, a news digest that publisher Felix Dennis had imported from the U.K. in 2001, and wanted to hire him to, hopefully, turn around the magazine.

“Nobody had ever heard of The Week before, and they were stealing market share from us,” Bradley recalled in a recent interview at his office in the Watergate Complex in Washington, overlooking the Potomac.

But Smith had other plans, and he said no. He’d already decided to take a job as worldwide publisher of BusinessWeek, which hadn’t yet been sold to Bloomberg. Bradley persisted. The next day, he emailed Smith a three-page, single-spaced letter in which he implored him to change his mind and move with his family to Washington to work for him.

“I told him he had the talent to be the whole show,” says Bradley, who felt Smith would be but a cog in the wheel at BusinessWeek. “And he cheated himself by not doing it.”

Smith responded to Bradley with a challenge: He would bring The Atlantic, which had been founded in the 19th century, into the 21st if Bradley were willing to run it like a startup. “I told him, this is the first time a private ship can have the opportunity to disrupt the Royal Navy,” Smith says. 

Bradley agreed and, soon after, Smith was on board as president of Atlantic consumer media. It was a good move by both. Smith had told Bradley he’d make The Atlantic profitable by 2010. He hit that goal, even in the face of the recession, making $1.8 million, and putting it on track to make $3 million this year.

“What he did to expand the influence of The Atlantic, both in print and online, was extraordinary,” says Norman Pearlstine, chairman of Bloomberg Businessweek, who’s known Smith for years. “He’s a guy who clearly comes out of the business side, but he thinks as much like an editor as a businessperson.”

When the story of The Atlantic’s turnaround is told, the credit tends to go to the 58-year-old Bradley. But Bradley himself believes his greatest talent is finding talent, and he gives the majority of the credit to Smith, who he calls “unmatchedly gifted.” In 2010, Bradley promoted his wunderkind, making him president of Atlantic Media, giving him responsibility as well for the National Journal Group and a third, smaller unit, Government Executive, a biweekly trade magazine and website.

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