He said The Atlantic will throw nearly a hundred such events this year. Earlier that morning, in a conference nook inside the Hyatt, James Bennet, the editor of The Atlantic, had led a panel discussion about President Obama’s handling of the economy, featuring the Atlantic writers Clive Crook, Megan McArdle and Joshua Green. Here and there, members of Mr. Smith’s sales staff, including reps from San Francisco and Detroit, sat at tables alongside top marketing executives for the likes of Xerox, Cadillac, IBM and TD Ameritrade, who were in town for the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. The Atlantic event was sponsored by Audi, Shell and the pharmaceutical company Astrazeneca.
Mr. Smith said that when he first started at The Atlantic, event and digital revenue made up a small part of total coffers. This year, with print revenues holding steady in the down market, digital and event revenues are expected to make up nearly half of the total haul. For the month of April, according to Mr. Smith, The Atlantic brought in more revenue from digital advertising than it did from print.
“On the business side, it’s been about taking this content and marketing it and monetizing it across multiple platforms,” he said. “And not considering the print platform as the legacy platform that you have to protect or the most important platform that others have to be subservient to. It’s the other way around.”
MR. SMITH GREW UP in Paris; his father was president of American College (now American University); his mother, who was British, was an artist. He went to boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover and to college at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
Before getting into publishing, Mr. Smith briefly pursued a career in diplomacy, including stints at the U.S. embassy in Burkina Faso and at the Operations Center in D.C. under U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. But government work was too slow for his liking. Not long after graduating from college, he wrote a letter to the International Herald Tribune, hoping to land an editorial internship in Hong Kong and launch a career as a foreign correspondent. But the only opening in the Hong Kong bureau was on the business side. Mr. Smith took it.
“I ended up serendipitously discovering that I was actually much more of an entrepreneur than a journalist,” he said.
At the age of 24, Mr. Smith rapidly built the Tribune a booming conference business in Hong Kong, which led to a promotion back in Paris, and eventually to a job with The Economist. For the next several years, Mr. Smith managed global strategy for the Economist Group, working on its magazines and Web sites, and overseeing its expansion in America.
Around the turn of the century, Mr. Smith, feeling antsy, left The Economist to help the eccentric entrepreneur Felix Dennis launch a version of the British print aggregation magazine The Week in America. In five years under Mr. Smith, The Week achieved profitability.
At the same time, down in Washington, D.C., profitability was eluding David Bradley. In the late ’90s, he had purchased The Atlantic from Mort Zuckerman. It was already losing money when he bought it, and continued to do so during the first seven years of his watch, to the tune of $8 million to $10 million a year.
In 2007, Mr. Bradley traveled to New York to meet Mr. Smith for dinner at the Carlyle. Mr. Smith was getting ready to leave The Week. Increasingly, he was devoting much of his time to Breaking Media, a digital media company he founded, which publishes the blogs Dealbreaker, Fashionista, Above the Law and Going Concern. He was also considering a job at BusinessWeek. Over the course of the three-hour dinner, Mr. Bradley persuaded Mr. Smith to move his family to Washington and try and do something no one had seemingly done in 150 years-figure out how to make The Atlantic profitable.
After two years under Mr. Smith’s leadership, The Atlantic is still losing money-but a whole lot less of it. According to Mr. Bradley, the magazine and its Web site are now losing just under a million dollars a year. “That is the farthest reach of my imagination,” said Mr. Bradley. “I’ve never seen growth like that. It’s in the teeth of the recession. He’s really good.”
“It’s the long march,” said Mr. Smith. “You’ve got to basically be experimenting and innovating in every possible way, across every part of your business and your editorial operations. You have to try and fail, and try and fail, and try and succeed.”
Succeeding at toppling Politico might be an even taller task than making a British newsweekly profitable in a hostile American market in the wake of 9/11, at a time when established newsweeklies were crumbling.
“This Washington information market is a dynamic, growing, highly competitive, cutthroat market,” said Robert W. Merry, who until last summer served for more than a decade as the CEO of Congressional Quarterly.
Prior to Politico’s arrival, said Mr. Merry, Roll Call had the dominant position in the market in terms of advertising. Congressional Quarterly had the dominant position in terms of circulation. And the National Journal had the dominant position in terms of buzz. Politico quickly changed all of that. “Along comes Politico; they basically created more buzz than the National Journal,” he said. “They spent more money on marketing. They did more to get their people on television. They were able to steal a march on the National Journal.”
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