New Atlantic Guy David Bradley Joins Magazine Big Shots

David Bradley, the new owner of the 142-year-old Atlantic Monthly , is a budding magazine mogul. In 1997, he purchased The National Journal , a Washington, D.C., specialty publication with around 6,500 subscribers paying $1,047 per year, and turned it into a little magazine with buzz. He pulled off this feat simply by throwing big money and big-name journalists, like British economics writer Clive Crook, legal writer Stuart Taylor and political writer Michael Kelly, who has agreed to be the next Atlantic Monthly editor, at it. While he enjoyed revving up this small journal, which painstakingly details the legislative process for an audience of lobbyists, wonks and lawmakers, Mr. Bradley was worried that with such a small circulation he could not hang on to his newly hired star writers; in fact, he lost onetime National Journal editor Stephen Smith to U.S. News & World Report . But now as the owner of one of the last general-interest magazines, he’s able to offer writers and editors a new platform, one that reaches nearly 500,000 paying readers. Many of them have grown accustomed to using The Atlantic Monthly as a sedative–but still, there they are, actual readers. And now Mr. Bradley has the right to consider himself a player.

Mr. Bradley, 46, purchased the Boston-based magazine from press baron Mortimer Zuckerman for an undisclosed sum. They closed the deal Sept. 27. Interestingly, while Mr. Zuckerman plays the intellectual on television, Mr. Bradley has the actual credentials: an undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College; a Fulbright scholarship that saw him studying in the Philippines; an M.B.A. from Harvard; a J.D. from Georgetown Law School. But Mr. Bradley and Mr. Zuckerman are alike in their ambitions.

“David has ambitions in the magazine-publishing world. He loves magazines,” said Stephen Smith, who has worked for both Mr. Zuckerman and Mr. Bradley. “He’s been an enormously successful businessman. But he’s also very engaged with the world of ideas and politics. I think he wants to get involved in magazines because that’s what that world is about. He’s not dissimilar to Mort in that way.”

The night the deal closed, Mr. Bradley dined with longtime Atlantic Monthly editor William Whitworth in Boston. “He said all the right things,” said Mr. Whitworth, who has run the magazine since 1980. But the deal marks the end of a long career for Mr. Whitworth, who worked under William Shawn at The New Yorker and seemed for a time like he would be Shawn’s successor. Instead he went to Boston. Now, after the three-hour meal with the new owner, he said he is “optimistic for the magazine.”

Mr. Bradley, according to people who have worked with him, is a quiet and nonpartisan man. “He’s a very grounded guy,” said Mr. Smith. “He’s not flashy. There’s no razzle-dazzle about him at all. He’s very direct and honest. He’s got a gentle manner that I think will really soothe the staffers at the Atlantic .”

Mr. Smith was right. His first meeting with the shocked Atlantic staff the morning of Sept. 28 went well. “He was extremely honorable, thoughtful, soft-spoken and measured, without seeming the slightest bit calculating,” said Atlantic Monthly senior editor Corby Kummer.

Mr. Kelly, the incoming Atlantic editor, once edited The New Republic , but as he is a cranky, sometimes right-leaning journalist who is no fan of Al Gore, a favorite of New Republic owner Martin Peretz, he did not last long in that job. Mr. Peretz apparently fired Mr. Kelly after he refused to run an unsigned piece by Mr. Peretz dismissing Mr. Gore’s involvement with the Democrats’ soft-money troubles. At the time of their bitter parting, Mr. Peretz said of Mr. Kelly: “The truth is, Michael Kelly wouldn’t recognize a big idea if it hit him in the face.”

As New Republic editor, Mr. Kelly also presided over the brief, notorious career of young fabulist Stephen Glass, who made things up. As one New Republic staff member told The Observer at the time: “Mike would say, ‘Go out and do a story on the church of George Bush,’ and Stephen Glass would, in fact, find the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ.”

Mr. Kelly said he considered the magazine he is about to start editing to be a beast quite different from the last magazine he ran. “An editor who tried to make The Atlantic Monthly into The New Republic is doing a gross and bad thing,” Mr. Kelly said Sept. 28, just before leaving Washington, D.C., for Boston. “The first thing for me is to operate within that context.”

(When asked about Mr. Bradley’s purchase, Mr. Peretz said, ” The Atlantic Monthly –good luck.”)

Mr. Kelly, who now serves as the editor of National Journal as well as a columnist for The Washington Post , said he planned to spend three days a week in Boston and two in Washington from now on. Of Mr. Bradley, he said, “He is an involved owner,” adding that his boss “respects the role of an editor.”

Magazines represent a second career for Mr. Bradley. In 1979, after his long years of postgraduate lucubrations had finally burned themselves out, he started his own research firm in the library of his mother’s apartment in the Watergate building in Washington. In starting the business, he was just relying on the one craft he had learned as a perpetual student–research–as a way of making money. Soon his company was hiring graduate students to research arcane matters at the command of top corporations. The little company in Mom’s apartment became a $100-million-a-year concern with 800 employees in the granite-and-marble offices of the Watergate office complex.

“As Brookings is to the Federal Government, so we aspired to be to the top 3,000 companies in the world,” Mr. Bradley told Capital Style magazine in an interview last year. (He would not get on the phone with The Observer by press time.)

But this wasn’t enough for Mr. Bradley. He became friendly with Mr. Smith, who was then editing Civilization . “I think his interest in magazines was sparked initially by his enjoyment of The New Republic some years ago,” said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Bradley had a friend, the Washington, D.C.-based magazine consultant Richard LePere, approach Mr. Peretz about buying The New Republic , but Mr. Peretz wouldn’t bite.

When Mr. Bradley purchased National Journal and went to work assembling an all-star staff, he was surprised at how ripe journalists were for his picking. “Some of these people I’m meeting have never been taken out for a recruitment dinner, have not had people compete for their talent, have not had people read their copy before they meet with them, have never met the publisher or owner of their publication,” Mr. Bradley told Capital Style . “There’s an arrogance in the publishing field that I think comes with having too much of an easy time keeping talent. There are only a few places, call it 20 outlets, where the best talent wants to work, and there are only 400 great jobs, and there are 10,000 people who want those jobs.”

This past February, Mr. Bradley took public another corporate research firm he owned, Corporate Executive Board Company, in an unusual offering that made him $142 million. That’s the money he had to play with when he decided to interest Mr. Zuckerman and his man Friday, editorial director Harold Evans, in making a deal.

The Atlantic Monthly was in difficult times when Mr. Zuckerman bought it for $3.6 million in 1980. At roughly the same time, Harper’s Magazine , with which it shared a kind of joint-operating agreement to sell ads, briefly went out of business before being resurrected as a nonprofit. There was much lamenting about the end of the general-interest magazine, a complaint that hasn’t really gone away even though both of the monthlies survived, although not as money-makers.

Mr. Zuckerman lured Mr. Whitworth away from The New Yorker , promising him complete autonomy–a promise on which he made good. “Mort has been just fabulous,” the editor said, before apologizing for sounding like an “apple polisher.”

“I never heard one word of complaint from him about how much I was spending,” said Mr. Whitworth. “No whining, whimpering. No complaints at all.”

Although Mr. Zuckerman announced that Mr. Whitworth would remain at the company, the editor said, “I might prefer a modest retirement than some fancy job.” Mr. Whitworth added, “I definitely am not going to be writing. If there’s one thing we don’t need more of, it’s books and articles.”

“Zuckerman catches a lot of flak. But nobody can lay a finger on him about The Atlantic ,” said Mr. Evans, who said that they hadn’t really been looking to sell the magazine when Mr. Bradley came a-calling. They didn’t know Mr. Bradley, but decided he wasn’t “Attila the Hun,” remarked Mr. Evans. And so they decided to sell the thing.

In this time of niche marketing, one imagines that The Atlantic Monthly will have a hard time making a profit. As its departing editor said: “Any magazine that’s not a business magazine or a fashion magazine is likely to have business challenges.”

But Mr. Smith thinks if anyone can turn The Atlantic Monthly into a money-maker without sacrificing its seriousness, it’s Mr. Bradley, the student who wanted to be a media macher .

“Print is a tough racket these days,” said Mr. Smith. “David has a proven track record for having a knack for working the revenue side of companies with astonishing success. If any new owner stands a good chance of making The Atlantic a business, it’s David. I really mean that.”