Thursday, December 11, 2008

Changes at The Atlantic Monthly

To be entirely honest, I’m not sure what is happening at The Atlantic Monthly. I’ve been a subscriber for several years, but some of the changes the editorial staff has been making leave me scratching my head and wondering if I want to continue reading. In an attempt to distinguish itself from the likes of Harper’s and The New Yorker, the magazine has moved away from the literary roots of founder William Dean Howells (who wrote the most boring ‘classic’ in American history) yet failed to become something different though equally good.

While the foreign policy reporting is among the best on any magazine that regularly read, especially the work of James Fallows in China and eastern Asia, the sort of staff and freelance pieces that have been published in a transparent attempt to gain more widespread readership are sinking the whole publication. Earlier this year, the editors were widely criticized for putting Britney Spears on the cover. And while I understand the need for the cover to attract readership on the newsstands, it is not as if the sort of people who gravitate to such a cover are going to be looking at the section in which The Atlantic is usually placed.

This month’s issue has a fantastic piece on the crumbling economy by Henry Blodget, but also contains an anemic story of Disneyland’s ‘World of Tomorrow II’ by P.J. O’Rourke and a love letter to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga by Caitlin Flanagan. And while Flanagan’s piece isn’t without interest, it doesn’t seem to be the sort of criticism that should anchor the back section of the magazine. Not to mention be paired with Christopher Hitchens’s thoughts on Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (a book I shall have write about sometime).

But the crème de la crème is a seriously long piece on MMA fighter Quinton Jackson, who fights under then name of ‘Rampage.’ Now I understand that mixed martial arts is becoming hugely popular, but is this really the audience that will be receptive to such a piece? According to the advertising in the issue, not likely. Here is a list of the ads, all full page, that run with the story:

• Rosetta Stone software to help one learn a language quickly
• Knopf’s new book Looking for Lincoln
• Bose headphones for superior sound
• Three nonfiction books from Hachette Books
• Books from Da Capo Press including The Letters of Allen Ginsburg & Mona Lisa in Camelot
• Johns Hopkins University Press
• tours of Costa Rica
• The ecology magazine Discover

I’m not an expert at analyzing audiences by any means, but it doesn’t seem too likely that the sort of person
interested in MMA fighter Rampage is going to be interested in ecology or Allen Ginsburg.

So what’s the story here? Are we seeing an attempt to shift the audience towards a demographic more desirable to advertisers with deeper pockets than Da Capo Press? Surely, yet at the risk of alienating the older, richer demographic that has been The Atlantic’s bread and butter for 150 years.

Once a year, magazines publish a statement of ownership, management, and circulation in small print on
one of the back pages. It just so happens that it was included in this issue. Over the past 12 issues, the subscription rate average stood at 375,373, while the November issue was sent to 382,185 households (difference of 6812, +.18%). However, the overall distribution stood at 551,619 over the previous 12 months, and only at 547,842 for last month (difference of 3777, -.01%).

These aren’t huge movements by any means, but it would suggest that recent trends to broaden the readership base haven’t done much to improve subscriptions or circulation. Yet each month the letter column is flooded with people decrying things like the Britney Spears article, a sign that at least a portion of the base is becoming uns
atisfied with the product. While I’m sure motorcycle and dirt bike advertisers would pay more for a full-page ad than Bose headphones, it won’t matter if the magazine fails to draw the readership it needs to justify the inclusion of Rampage-esque material.

The everyday content of The Atlantic’s website is based around Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder, two bloggers. The former gets millions of hits a month and provides interesting insights into politics and current events, while the latter is a damn good reporter who covers politics and is my personal go to source for analysis. The magazine is failing to establish a consistent brand, with the content of the magazine being very different from the content of the website, and thus at least one audience will likely abandon it.

The Atlantic had best hope it isn’t the people who have been with it for a long time, because they don’t have a great chance to lure that desirable younger crowd.

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