The Atlantic Monthly … American Ground

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Kelly
Title: The Atlantic Monthly … American Ground”
VTR: 9/26/02

I’m Richard Heffner. I’m your host on The Open Mind. And I suppose that today I must ask my guest himself to identify precisely what he does. For when my ever wise and resourceful young friend, Julia Rothwax took me to see and hear Michael Kelly for the first time not so long ago, it was in his much celebrated role as the enterprising, highly acclaimed Editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Now, however, The New York Times tell us that he is stepping down after three years in that role. And what years they have been for this venerable institution, which as an American historian I essentially identify with such Boston based intellectual aristocrats of the nineteenth century as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. So, what’s a Mike Kelly been doing there?

Well, perhaps the answer to that question is best told in the fact that The Atlantic Monthly is now, as another publication described it, on “the fast track”. It one of the hottest American magazines of substance and ideas. Winning prizes for reporting, public interest and feature writing. Doing well in circulation and advertising figures and thrilling its readers with “American Ground”, it’s massive 60,000 word three-part series about that unbelievably inspiring American phenomenon, the massive clean-up at the World Trade Center sight. About which perhaps The St. Louis Post Dispatch put it best as “one of the most compelling, dramatic and uplifting pieces of writing you are ever likely to read.”

And perhaps Mr. Kelly’s Atlantic Monthly has been best summed up itself as “aimed at people for whom the written word matters.” Or as a “niche” publication for people who like to read. But what role can it ultimately play in a nation with an attention span that doesn’t often tolerate an American Ground. And what role does Mike Kelly assume he will now play? Mr. Kelly.

KELLY: Should I take the first one first, or the second one first?

HEFFNER: Well, let’s, let’s … you make the decision.

KELLY: I’ll, I’ll talk about, briefly, about my own role. Effective this issue, the November issue, which is just out on the newsstands now, I’m going to step down as Editor and become Editor At Large. And that sounds more dramatic or more meaningful, I suppose than it is. Reality is that some months ago, about four months ago, Cullen Murphy and I … who is the Managing Editor … and David Bradley, the owner, started talking about moving into a next phase in which I would be able to get a little more time away from the day-to-day running the magazine and little more time to spend on long-term strategy for the magazine. And for the larger media company that David Bradley is trying to build and that I’m trying to help him as his chief Editorial advisor. And in addition, I wanted to spend a little more time beginning a project of my own … writing a book on the early years of the American steel industry, which I want to get done for Random House in the next couple of years.

We talked about it, the three of us, and these talks sort of grew out of a natural development. When David bought the magazine three years ago and hired me as Editor, I began working very closely with Cullen Murphy, the Managing Editor there and I discovered, as everyone who works there knows, that he is an extraordinary Editor. And he and I developed a quite close relationship. And for, I suppose, at least the last year or so, everything that we’ve done in the magazine has been much more a collaboration between the two of us than any sort of hierarchical arrangement or me, sort of ordering it up and Cullen making it happen. We are in and out of each others offices and hair all day long with ideas about this and that.

And that conversation had had, as I say, on its own sort of evolved into this kind of happy collaboration. At the same time I had very much the same relationship with David Bradley, the owner, a close, even intimate collaborative relationship. So the three of us thought we would see if we could do something a little unusual, which would be to structure a new arrangement, but one that would still … that would give me the time to do these other things. But one that would still keep me very involved, heavily involved in the shaping of the magazine. And the magazine going forward. Involved even on a day-to-day basis, but freeing me up from some of the line editing and actual decisions about each issue.

We actually started doing this in, I suppose, April or May, but we didn’t talk about it. We, we wanted to see if it would work. We were pretty sure it would. It was all based on personal chemistry, all three of us felt comfortable about that. We knew it was unusual, but it had already … going into it we had a sense it would work for us.

And so we started trying it, and it evolved over May, June, July, the summer. And that is the arrangement, in fact, in which we put out the last four issues of the magazine. Around about August or so we started talking again about it … about timing … and agreed that we were all very comfortable with it and happy with it, and the time had come to formalize it. And to, if not, if not announce it to the world … we don’t do anything as grand as announcing things to the world in Boston …

HEFFNER: The New York Times does.

KELLY: Well, that’s true, but they’re a New York publication as I understand …

HEFFNER: Gotcha.

KELLY: We would, we would let it be known … change the masthead. And for us, internally at least, the change is not that big a deal. I’m still doing what I’ve been doing for months. And Cullen is doing what he’s been doing for months. But we felt at some point … and that would go on … for months and years … but we felt at some point that the masthead should change simply because I believe and I know Cullen does, too, at the top of the editorial masthead the reader has a right to see a name that they can look and say, “if I hate that caption on page 34, it’s that guy’s fault. If I hate the cover, it’s his fault.” Everything in this magazine is signed off on, every comma … by this one person. And that’s that name. And since I was no longer doing that. Since I was not editing the magazine in that way anymore, we felt that we would go ahead and just make the change in print.

But in actual, in our actual day-to-day lives, and in the running of the magazine, we’re going to simply keep on doing what we’ve been doing for months now, and I suspect that will go that way for some time in the future. Which means that I’ll be very heavily involved in it, as I am now. I’m in the office two or three days a week … often at least two days a week. I’m on the phone, e-mail and so on with Cullen and other editors and writers every day and with David. We’re very much involved in the same … the three of us … three way conversation. And, and everything down, everything from where does this magazine go two years out to “what should the January cover story be?”

HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk about where this magazine should go two years out. Indeed, where American magazines generally will be going. You, you asked me whether you should answer the first question …

KELLY: Yes.

HEFFNER: … or the second question. And, the first question which has to do, of course, with “can we take” …

KELLY: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … the kind of high intellect, exciting material that you’ve put out. I gather we’ve done it as a nation for a couple of years now. But this is, this … these pieces, these issues on “American Ground” break new ground, don’t they?

KELLY: Absolutely. That’s that … I mean for our magazine, in particular, that is the most ambitious piece of journalism we’ve every commissioned and the longest article that we’ve ever run apart from the excerpting of Robert Caro’s first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. But as a piece of journalism, it’s by far the longest and most ambitious. And I think in American magazines in general, it has to be regarded as a very unusual thing, right now. I mean this is a sort of ultimate expression of long-form narrative in the, in the classic way that people associate with an earlier time, a different time.

HEFFNER: A better time?

KELLY: I don’t know “a better time”, that’s fairly cosmic. But it was a better time for writers …

HEFFNER: MmmHmmm.

KELLY: … which I suppose I should care about more than anything. But, but I think, and I sort of … we all sort of think that there is a logic to this and a logic to where this magazine goes and other magazines go that is not, that is real and is pragmatic. That this is not a, a sentimental exercise in making a magazine for another time. If you think back for a minute, a couple of years ago … I’ll start with this.

When David Bradley bought The Atlantic from Mort Zuckerman, this was not very long ago at all … a scant three years, but in sort of the eons of the media fad-ism, it seems like a very long time ago, because at that time that conventional wisdom was not only that long-form narrative was dead, but almost that print itself was dead, at least as far as magazines were concerned. That people did not read anymore in that way … that people read in the E-world. People were writing articles predicting that books would go out of fashion, we’d be reading E-books by now. Or soon enough. And that this whole kind of thing, not just The Atlantic, but the whole species was some sort of great mastodon.

We never thought that was true and the first big bet that, that we … being the new people who came in … David Bradley and me and a few others, made was essentially to, to bet that you could still make a magazine that was true to what The Atlantic had been and should be …

HEFFNER: Long-form, then.

KELLY: Long-form. Serious. Substantive. A magazine for readers. But that you could make it relevant to today and ultimately you could make it commercially successful. And that bet is rooted first of all in a notion that people read. Not everybody. And you said earlier … you suggested that The Atlantic was a “niche” publication. Or you used the word “niche”. I think that’s right, in an interesting way. And, and I would argue that it’s right in a positive way for a magazine like us. I think you, you can go as far as to say successful magazine today are all “niche”. And where magazines … where general interest magazines have gone wrong, or are going wrong is in trying to get away from the notion that the exist to serve not every reader in the world. Not the largest mass market you can possibly get. But, but their own slice of it. And the publications that do extremely well for themselves, and I mean extremely well in terms of making something of editorial integrity, but also in terms of making money, are magazines that understand that they are aimed at a specific group of readers who want a specific thing out of a magazine.

I would say The Economist is an excellent example of this. It is not a magazine that remotely tries to be for everyone. In fact it tries to be only for people who are sort of self-selected economist-type readers. But it makes something that they can be very proud of. And they sell it for $120 a year. And their circulation is growing somewhere between six and ten percent in this country. Extraordinary success. Their business model is as close to recession proof, or dismal proof as a magazine can get. In other words, when they don’t get ads, they still break-even or make money. That’s an interesting model and its especially interesting because they are getting all of those economic benefits, financial benefits at the same time that they are avoiding what so many general interest magazines are being forced to do, which is to compromise themselves editorially. They don’t compromise at all. If The Economist bores you, you don’t have to read it. Someone else can pay the $120.

We thought, I think, we still think that, that something like that, and I don’t mean The Economist per se, I’m using it as a kind of metaphor. But that sort of understanding is where The Atlantic could go. In other words …

HEFFNER: What, what would be its special interest?

KELLY: Well, it is not an interest that you can define by category, in that sense. Or even by … as The Economist does … in terms of a sort of an absolutely clearly defined world view. What The Economist does is takes the events of the world that happened in the week, and run them, and package them very intelligently through the filter of a very specific world view. I’m not talking about that specifically for us. It’s a little more amorphous for us, but it’s real. And it goes back … it’s more about a type of person than, than specific terrain.

HEFFNER: You mean a type of reader?

KELLY: A type of reader, a type of human being, even. But I’m talking about readers. In other words, I’m saying that you want to do with a magazine like The Atlantic is, is very consciously not make a magazine for everyone. But make a magazine that says, that starts with an assumption that happens to be true, that there are millions and millions of people in this country who are serious readers, lifelong readers and not readers just for pleasure, readers for reasons of ambition, life ambition, career ambition, social ambition … readers to get ahead in the world. And readers for pleasure. The two are not mutually exclusive. These are people we know in life. These are people, if you want to put it in marketing demographics, they’re highly educated, they tend to be, at least. They tend to be affluent on the whole. They tend to be very engaged in the world … in all sorts of ways. Engaged … they pay attention to politics, they pay attention to ideas, they pay attention to everything that’s going on around them. And they try to pay attention in a serious way.

I’m not describing a forgotten tribe here, or a figment of a marketing imagination. These are the people who … they may live in Boston or Phoenix or Philadelphia or some small town. They live all over the country. And they may work in all sorts of ways, but they are defined by this way of approaching the world. When they get up in the morning, they read maybe two newspapers; their local paper and The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. They very often read a news weekly or The New Yorker, some kind of weekly publication. They very often read, at least a couple of obvious “niche” publications … Architectural Digest or something; New York Review of Books. They get their news from print, not from TV. They take it seriously. They actually read in-depth, a section of the paper. They read the OpEd. That’s a real group of people. And if you could make a magazine that was aimed at that group of people and that they came to regard as indispensable on, in our case, a monthly basis, in the same way that they regard The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal as indispensable on a daily basis, then that is not a … that is not an idea that is out of step with our times. That’s an idea that can fit quite well with our times.

HEFFNER: Is their number sufficiently legion to satisfy the needs, the commercial needs of such an enterprise as yours?

KELLY: Oh, absolutely. We, we would be satisfied with a small fraction of The New York Times readers. The numbers are there, of course. Let’s see if I can put it in concrete terms. Well, you start with the idea that you don’t need two million readers or subscribers. You need some number of subscribers. We have about close to 600,000 right now. We may actually not need more than that. We do need … we do need to be able to say to advertisers that our readers, even if we … whether we have 600,000 or 500,000 or 800,000 … our readers are passionately attached to the magazine; that they are devoted to it and take it very seriously.

We start off with a terrific advantage … is that there has been always a core about which … of readers about which that is true. But we’re in a conscious effort now to build upon that and to build that core out. And to do this in pretty much the only way we can. If, if you believe what I’m talking about that, that this kind of reader will pay money … and I would like to say pay more money than they’re paying now for a magazine that they regard as indispensable to understanding the world, then you have to work very consciously, aggressively to create something that is exceptional for them. It cannot simply be another nice read.

HEFFNER: But let me ask you then whether the, not the mission, but the impact of the publication is minimized by your acceptance of the notion that these are people, by and large, with more money, more education, more interest, what about the “great unwashed”, the rest of us.

KELLY: Actually … looking at you, I’m going to question whether you’re a member of “great unwashed” or not …

HEFFNER: Well, I have to claim that, anyway.

KELLY: [Laughter] Ahmmm, but I would, I would say that this is not, this is a novel concept in, in magazine. And that there … nor, nor I think is there anything remotely wrong with it. Magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books; for that matter The New Republic, and more overtly cause-driven or ideological magazines, and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, have always been aimed at … to use a politically incorrect term … an elite audience with an understanding that an editorial mission here is to change or advance or progress the conversation on that level and let it work it’s way out. This has worked well not only for magazines, but for the Republic. One of The Atlantic’s first great causes, along with the transcendentalist movement was the abolitionist movement. The Atlantic championed that for years and helped take what had been a, a small Boston-based or essentially regional based radical movement, and de-radicalize it. Move it into the larger mainstream to the national conversation. But it did that quite explicitly by aiming the advance of the conversation on the level that The Atlantic was aimed at. Which was, which was not the level of the “great unwashed.” In those days, the “great unwashed” was illiterate.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you about success or failure. Your success is extraordinary. And for me the proof of that is the delight I get in reading it …

KELLY: Well thank you.

HEFFNER: … and I hadn’t read it for a long time. Is there room … you mention The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, which I can’t put in that delightful reading category, but is there room?

KELLY: I, I think that there is. I mean I think that there’s … I don’t believe it’s a zero-sum game in the first place.

HEFFNER: You don’t?

KELLY: No. I really don’t. I don’t believe it’s us against The New Yorker; us against Harpers; or us against … there are not that few readers in the country. I do, I do think that magazines have not done as good a job as they can in, in finding their audiences. But I don’t think that our gains are at the expense of another magazine in our … if you want to say category … or vice versa. I think there is room. And I think that that … I’ll return to the example, again stressing that I’m using it in a loose metaphoric way, not as concrete example for us. But I’ll return to the example of The Economist, which came into this country as a rank outsider and has done extremely well for itself; growing because it, because it understands that it’s not working with some finite sum of readers. There are millions and millions of potential readers for them out there. If they go after them and they go after them aggressively.

HEFFNER: Well let me ask you this, is there a point in time at which, in the future, you’re going to know whether your theories are really working?

KELLY: Yes. We’ve talked over the past six months inside the magazine about where we go in the next year or two. And pretty clearly in a year or two we’ll know. We know, we have a pretty good sense of where we are now, which is that we do think we’re doing something right editorially and that it’s getting attention and getting an increased …

HEFFNER: Clearly.

KELLY: … passionate connection with readers. We now have to see over the course of a year or two whether we can work with the economic model the magazine; work with the way it makes and spends money. And right now we’re spending a great deal more on ???? Editorial than we have in many years. So it’s a very expensive magazine to make. And say that if we are right, if we can … if we can gain enough, enough passionate, committed subscribers, real subscribers, core subscribers who ideally are a) willing to pay a better price for the magazine and b) are sufficiently large enough, and that does not mean in numerical terms they have to be larger than what we have now; but are sufficiently large enough as a core group, of real committed subscribers that spend a lot of time with the magazine that we will attract, as we have been attracting successfully so far in the last six months or so a kind of dedicated group of advertisers who want to reach those readers.

HEFFNER: Well, our deadline here is one minute. That’s all the time we have left. When should I get you back here to tell me …

KELLY: See if we’ve made it work?

HEFFNER: Yeah. Seriously.

KELLY: Ahmmm … I’d say it would be fair to ask me back in a year. And if it hasn’t worked, I’ll tell you.

HEFFNER: Okay.

KELLY: I think it will.

HEFFNER: Well, I hope it will.

KELLY: Because I get to define what “work” means. But I’ll define it up front. It doesn’t … I mean it doesn’t mean … it means being on a path towards something that is sustainable. And sustainable in revenue terms as well as editorial terms.

HEFFNER: Sustainable with a very rich man behind you?

KELLY: No. Sustainable in business terms. I mean that doesn’t mean it would make anybody a fortune, or it would make money every year, but that it is not going to be a dilettante publication; it’s not going to be a vanity press.

HEFFNER: Will you come back in a year and we’ll …

KELLY: I’d be delighted.

HEFFNER: … examine that.

KELLY: All right.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much, Mike Kelly.

KELLY: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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