The SXSW session titled “Can Great Journalism Make for Great Business?” told how The Atlantic monthly transformed itself from a failing magazine to a global brand with soaring readership.
Scott Havens, President of The Atlantic, told the amazing story of how the 150-year-old magazine went from less than 500,000 readers as a regional magazine to over 30 million readers, with 30% of the growth coming from outside the US. This was accomplished in about 5 years by distributing content through digital, print, and live events via a variety of separate but related journalistic brands.
The magazine was purchased by a venture capital firm for $10 million in 2005. The mission was to preserve the brand capital of the historic literary magazine—publishers of original works by John Muir, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other literary icons—while expanding the brand to a wide, diverse, and profitable audience. An investment in great digital and journalistic talent was made to re-invent, rebrand and relaunch the magazine.
A number of online and offline specialty brands were established to capitalize on The Atlantic‘s sophisticated, affluent, and diverse core audience. Over 20% of The Atlantic‘s revenue comes from sponsored events, which fuel a tremendous amount of quality content. And the rapid trajectory of the magazine’s digital publishing actually expanded the print audience as well (this phenomenon is also the case at The New York Times).
Havens outlined some core principles that were adhered to in order to quickly build a profitable “content empire.” They include: (1) assemble world-class talent and have a “demanding but patient” culture. There is a commitment to “not settling” when it comes to talent—everyone has to commit to the culture and mission; (2) value raw talent over experience. “The publishing business can be taught.” Havens maintains, “but talent is God-given”; (3) “fail fast” and move on—value speed and immediacy, avoid analysis paralysis; (4) generate social referrals instead of advertising to drive brand awareness; (5) stretch the brand as far as possible without breaking it. Build the widest, most engaged audience; (6) flatten the organization for speed and urgency. Collaboration and open doors are the culture; and (7) “culture, not strategy”. Focus on people and operating principles over spending time constructing a strategic manifesto. Let the business grow organically. This credo is in itself a strategy.
I saw Scott Havens give pretty much the same presentation at the Digital Leaders Summit a few months ago in San Francisco. However, at SXSW he was much more focused on mobile and video, feeling intense urgency to use the mobile channel and video medium to reach as many people as possible with compelling, real-time content that is highly shareable. Havens says TV is the next big frontier for The Atlantic, with its massive reach and huge budgets. The Atlantic aims to use TV to stream highly interactive content that creates social buzz.
KEY TAKEAWAY: The Atlantic turned its first profit in a decade in 2010, proving that a tired old brand can relaunch itself with smart distribution of smart content.