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)

Not everyone, however, believes Smith is The Atlantic’s knight in shining armor.

Nick Denton, for one, the founder of Gawker, feels Atlantic Media has not made enough changes. “They’ve had some audience success with the Atlantic Wire,” he wrote in an email. “And Andrew Sullivan was a draw until Bradley lost him to the [Newsweek] Daily Beast. But I’m still not sure whether there’s a theme that unites all The Atlantic’s digital initiatives. The group’s greatest asset is David Bradley’s social power; if he could persuade his friends to contribute regularly online, The Atlantic would be worth reckoning with.”

The company also faces a major challenge with its National Journal Group and, indeed, the past year has been spent trying to replicate the success that The Atlantic has enjoyed online at the company’s other primary business. For more than 40 years, the flagship National Journal magazine had been an authoritative source of Beltway news for politicicans and policy wonks, commanding a subscription price of $2,165 per year. Bradley bought it in 1997, his first media acquisition, and it did all right—until 2007, when Politico, which turned the business of reporting on Washington on its head, began to erode its business. By 2010, advertising and circulation revenue had plummeted.

“It was a huge wake-up call,” Bradley recalls, as if still dumbfounded by it all. “I’ve never been part of a company that lost so much of its value in 15 months.”

To get it back on its feet, Smith set up nine task forces to review the National Journal from top to bottom, making it what he would call a “petri dish of experimentation.” He overhauled the group, turning over almost half the National Journal’s staff and hiring Ron Fournier, the former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, as editor in chief. The group’s three newsrooms were merged into one and NJ launched a free website to compete with Politico.

Most radically, with other players like Bloomberg LP and the Economist Group bulking up their offerings to the market, Smith converted the group from an individual subscription to an organization-based membership model. Organizations would pay for their employees to access the National Journal Group’s three media properties, which used to cost more than $10,000 annually, plus extras like policy briefings, seminars, and research for the time-starved.

The membership idea grew out of Bradley’s experience from the service-based research firms he founded in his early years, The Advisory Board and The Corporate Executive Board companies. One of the most interesting aspects of the membership model is its flexible pricing, which suggests that fees are negotiable and that if a member is having a bad financial year, Atlantic Media will continue to service them without charge. Bradley actually sees that aspect of the plan as low risk. “I have a lot of experience there,” he says. “People are honorable. Virtually no one takes advantage of you.” The group also has set up a system to get ongoing feedback from members. Fournier, who as an AP vet is used to the membership-based model, says he’s “stoked” about the change. “What’s scary about getting closer to your readers? That’s kind of what we got into the business for,” says Fournier.

There are more changes to come. Smith wants to double Government Executive’s business within the next five years. He hired a new president, Peter Goldstone, who plans to relaunch the magazine this October, add digital elements to all its products, and roll out other new products.

The year ahead will be a test for the National Journal as it battles new Washington rivals, and while Smith claims his offering is distinct, he’s not ignoring the competition. “There’s no doubt we’re going to be bumping into each other,” he says.