Atlantic Owner Scours Country For Cinder-Editor

“Yesterday, I had drinks with a New York Times fact-checker,” said David Bradley, the multimillionaire owner of The Atlantic.

In April, Mr. Bradley had announced that he would be uprooting the magazine from its ancestral soil in Boston and replanting it in Washington, D.C. By year’s end, The Atlantic is supposed to be on the banks of the Potomac, in a second-floor suite at the Watergate.

Nine-tenths of the Boston editorial staff, more or less, will be staying behind and taking severance. So Mr. Bradley does need to find a fact-checker. He also needs a copy desk, some mid-level editors, a managing editor—and an editor.

“And while I’m at it, I’m interested in finding more reporting talent,” Mr. Bradley said.

It was a Thursday morning, Aug. 18, in the second-floor restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Mr. Bradley was at the end of another leg of an ongoing intermittent, coast-to-coast “listening tour”: part recruiting drive, part educational field trip.

The educational effort goes two ways. People understand The Atlantic in general terms: grave, illustrious and closing in on its 150th birthday. From that flows an idea what a mass of job openings at The Atlantic would mean. New magazines start up all the time. Now, the oldest magazine on the Eastern Seaboard gets to rebuild from the ground up.

Yet the man behind the shakeup—whose preferences and judgments will determine the magazine’s future—is obscure. The tour is a way of introducing himself, too.

“To many people in the journalism world, he is not either a known or a familiar figure,” said James Fallows, himself the walking embodiment of The Atlantic’s long-form style.

Mr. Bradley is not, that is, an old face from Elaine’s, but a lifelong Washingtonian who made his fortune inside the Beltway, in research consulting. And he doesn’t look like an old face from Elaine’s: He is a mild, white-haired man of 52, invariably described as “soft-spoken.” He did, in fact, speak softly, in composed sentences, with gentle caveats and quiet bursts of clarification. He wore a pink necktie to breakfast and ordered granola and berries, with a cup of tea.

“It’s almost remedial,” Mr. Bradley said of his ongoing expedition. “You know, I did 25 years in a profession that—I guess I learned some things, but it’s largely not helpful to what I’m doing. I’m trying to catch up, knowing this field, as if I’d been doing this since 22.”

So Mr. Bradley has been soliciting names, making the rounds and seeking advice. He has spoken to some 20 people, he said, ranging in age from 22 to the mid-60’s, and intends to end up speaking to “40 or 50.” He has met, he said, with top editors and young researchers, plausible job-hunters and people so securely entrenched elsewhere that they can offer detached advice.

Remedial—but almost. “I don’t think it’s infinitely hard,” Mr. Bradley added. “It’s a hundred names that get repeated. It’s not 2,000 names that get repeated.”

On a smaller scale, Mr. Bradley has been through this before. He hired Michael Kelly before he even owned The Atlantic—to be his editorial director, confidant and advisor at his obscure (but profitable) National Journal Group, purveyor of small-circulation Washington-insider publications.

In a marathon recruiting session—the most expansive version of the legend had them talking for 12 hours—the unknown owner convinced the famous editor, freshly fired by New Republic boss Marty Peretz, to stick with him till he could buy a more expansive platform. Two years later, Mr. Bradley bought The Atlantic and installed Mr. Kelly.

“This is the problem Michael and I used to fret about: What’s its purpose?” said Mr. Bradley. After “what Michael Kelly used to call a great 19th century,” Mr. Bradley said, The Atlantic through the decades had fallen behind a speeding-up news cycle. “It retreated in ambition,” Mr. Bradley said. “And it retreated from the news.”

Mr. Kelly had advanced on the news, Mr. Bradley said, by finding ways “to focus the cover stories on the large issues. It’s hard to do, but there are certain ways you can come at it: Behind-the-scenes stories are interesting, even if they’re two months later. Big-frame, big-think analytic pieces—a Jim Fallows piece—is a good—has shelf-life. Profiles …. So you’re not breaking the news, but you can sort of be in and around it.

“That single insight,” Mr. Bradley said, “allowed the magazine just to take off.” Readership, he said, jumped from 97,000 to its current all-time high of 1.5 million. Newsstand sales more than doubled, from 29,000 to a current 65,000. Meanwhile, Mr. Bradley raised the subscription price from $9.90 to, he said, an average of $29.

“Suddenly you had to read it again,” said New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. “That’s the kind of editor you look for.”

Mr. Tanenhaus, recently hired as editor of The Book Review, was one of the sounding-board visits on Mr. Bradley’s tour. “He has zero interest in leaving The New York Times, so that was not recruiting,” Mr. Bradley said. But Mr. Tanenhaus, Mr. Bradley added, is “turning an enterprise, and he’s got ideas on how you do that.”

“I’m kind of new at this myself …. He could talk to me without embarrassment,” Mr. Tanenhaus said.

Mr. Bradley, despite or because of his shy bearing, seemed eager to confess his embarrassments and shortcomings. From interview to interview in his publishing career, his life story has maintained a consistent, self-deprecating tone: alienation and failure, salted with understated successes.

Over breakfast, he told it in a single take, slightly breathlessly—how he was “a deeply unappealing, Curtis LeMay–like” child in a conservative, Christian Scientist household; how he argued, outnumbered, in favor of the Vietnam War in school assemblies at Sidwell Friends; how he watched the Nixon White House falling as a summer intern.

“I had always wanted to be a U.S. Senator,” Mr. Bradley said. “I wanted to be the young Republican Senator from the state of Maryland. Like from age 12. You know all the embarrassing pictures of Clinton wanting to be President from age 7 or something? I was like that, without the talent.”

Then, he said, having seen what happened to the men who depended on Nixon for their livelihoods, he decided to get rich first. “The theory of the case was,” he said, “I’d do a business for three years, it would be worth a million dollars, I’d flip it—this was the 70’s, so I’d invest the money in 10 percent interest-bearing instruments, which you could do in those days. And I’d have $100,000 a year to live on. Then I’d run for U.S. Senate.”

Instead, he said, his research companies went nowhere, for years. “If you were to draw it on a curve—this doesn’t do you any good for writing, but if you were doing it on a curve,” he said, holding out his hand, “it would be nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.” He swept his hand rightward, wiggling it slightly around an invisible flat line. “You know those slash marks the economists put in to connote the passage of time?” Two choppy slashes in air, then the wiggle—“so nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.

“And then,” Mr. Bradley said, “it just really ramped.”

That late ramping would earn Mr. Bradley some 300 times his original $1 million goal. But before he cashed out, there was the existential crisis: On a plane ride to Tokyo in 1994, he said, he found himself with “nine hours of pure thought … at a terrible age, in your early 40’s.

“And I realized I was never going to be the thing I’d wanted to be,” he said. “I was no longer a Republican, I was an independent by that point. I wasn’t young. And didn’t live in Maryland. But the big thing was, I realized I didn’t have the gift. I’ve got gifts—I don’t mean this as false modesty. But I’m not a leader …. I don’t walk into a room and command a room. People don’t defer to me.”

With that, he recounted, he decided to give up trying to shape world events and to start trying to cover them. First came the National Journal Group, then, courtesy of Mort Zuckerman, The Atlantic.

The National Journal, Mr. Bradley said, “was a profitable niche. It was growing. And with really unbecoming hubris, I said, ‘How hard could this be?’ So I bought The Atlantic.

The Atlantic,” he added slowly, “is the full answer to ‘How hard can this be?’”

Under Mr. Zuckerman, Mr. Bradley said, the magazine had been losing $3 million a year. “In its worst year under me,” he said, “it lost $12 million. So I just took it straight down.”

Yet the move from Boston to Washington is not, Mr. Bradley said, primarily a cost-cutting move. “There’s a little bit of savings, and that’s the easy thing for someone to talk about. Maybe there are two, three hundred thousand dollars of savings. But it will cost well over $4 million to take care of people as we move it. And what that means is, if you just took $4 million and invested it in a 5 percent mutual fund or something, you’d make up for whatever the savings were.”

The real purpose, Mr. Bradley said, is to create a “talent destination”—a critical mass of editors and writers in one place, to help draw others. He aspires, he explained, to create an atmosphere in which ideas and staff can flow between The Atlantic and his other publications. The ideal, he said, would be “a group of people who are at the extreme end of intelligent talent for thinking through the world.”

And with the Watergate already holding nearly 300 of Mr. Bradley’s staffers, he said, he concluded that The Atlantic would be the one to have to move.

“If they had had 290 people in Boston and 39 in Washington,” he said, “I absolutely would have moved it to Boston.”

But the move will also—politely, carefully—allow Mr. Bradley to wipe the Atlantic masthead clean. The owner effusively praised The Atlantic’s Boston staff, particularly for their grace about the magazine’s removal south.

There has been, however, one central sign of Mr. Bradley’s dissatisfaction: Mr. Kelly stepped aside as editor in September 2002, saying he wanted to do more writing and take more of an advisory role; seven months later, he was killed in Iraq. Though managing editor Cullen Murphy took over the top editing duties, Mr. Murphy was never named to the position.

It’s still open. Rumors have brought up the name of Michael Kinsley, with whom Mr. Bradley said he had breakfast in Seattle. “I had a great conversation with Michael …. I can’t tell you how many people have recommended him as the best editor they’ve ever seen,” he said.

But Mr. Kinsley is an unlikely candidate. A veteran telecommuter who declined to move to Los Angeles while running the Los Angeles Times editorial page, he appears to be a poor fit for Mr. Bradley’s ingathering-of-talent plan. And as Mr. Kinsley’s journalistic wanderings start to resemble Larry Brown’s basketball ones, he seems unlikely to settle in for anyone’s long-term rebuilding project.

Mr. Bradley said he doubts he’ll make a decision before the middle of the fall. “I’ve made no offer,” he said. “I’m not even close. None of these conversations right now is ‘Would you like to be editor?’”

Mr. Fallows said he believes the protracted, semi-public quest is preferable to either a competitive “bake-off” approach or a more secretive candidate hunt. “To the extent it’s an unusual process, I think it’s better than the processes that are more usual,” Mr. Fallows said.

“When I announced the move, I had no editor in mind,” Mr. Bradley said. “I decided that I didn’t want to have done the whole setup behind everyone’s back and then have it fait accompli. And so we just said we are going to move, but we won’t move it right away.

“And I offered everyone in the Boston office a job in D.C. if they wanted to come. It’s a little bit of a fiction—I don’t—I mean, it’s not a—it was a genuine offer—I don’t mean to sound magnanimous about it. I knew that most people were rooted in Boston and couldn’t come down. In the event, only four people that I know of are coming, so four out of 39.”

Mr. Bradley described the result as “a little bit what I think of as a present-at-the-creation moment.” (Present at the Creation, he noted, was the title of Dean Acheson’s autobiography.)

That settled, it was time for the search. “I put a researcher on calling around to big organizations: New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, The Wall Street Journal, the large magazines,” Mr. Bradley said, “and saying, ‘Who’s just extraordinary talent?’—editing talent, senior editing talent, next level down. And a lot of next-generation talent, in their 20’s and 30’s, who are building their careers. Some in editing, some in writing or reporting.”

And when Mr. Bradley finds the talent, what would he have the talent do? Even the more vigorous, post–Michael Kelly Atlantic is a slow-moving and ponderous beast, especially next to the nimble weekly New Yorker.

“The comparison here, to this day, all the time—inside The Atlantic, outside The Atlantic, and with friends, writers—is how Atlantic is doing against The New Yorker,” Mr. Bradley said. “And you know, friends will tell me, ‘Gee, I really think it’s getting better than The New Yorker.’ Which it’s not.”

Mr. Kelly used to accuse the magazine of serving “too much broccoli,” Mr. Bradley recalled.

“We are really good on earnest,” he added, digging into a glum cadence. “We have nailed earnest. We’re sober in the front, sober in the middle, sober in the back end.”

Seriousness, Mr. Bradley said, “can be the center, but it can’t be the sort of circumference of what we do …. I get a lot of advice on how to put humor in the magazine. Everyone’s view is, bringing it in on its page, the funny page, doesn’t work. It has to infuse everything, especially the cover lines and the headlines.”

When Mr. Bradley tried to describe effective humor, though, the examples that came to mind were more of editorial acuity, as practiced by The Wall Street Journal or The Economist. “They had a cover,” he said of The Economist, “right after the Clinton scandal broke, which said, ‘If It’s True, Go.’ I wouldn’t say it was witty, but it was smart.”

Mr. Bradley’s admiration for The Economist led him to make one editorial hire already this summer: Clive Crook, The Economist’s deputy editor, agreed to become the owner’s new chief editorial advisor. “I think he may be the smartest mind in public-affairs journalism, public-events journalism … in the world,” Mr. Bradley said.

In discussing Mr. Crook, Mr. Bradley returned again to the memory of his last editorial advisor. “Before Michael Kelly was the editor of The Atlantic, when he was still in Washington, he was my partner on the editorial side. And it really—even when he was angry at me, it really worked from a chemistry standpoint.

“I’ve not had anyone,” he said—the pitch of his voice floated to near-interrogatory—“like that.

“I’ve been trying to get Clive to come over for years now, and he finally accepted,” Mr. Bradley said.

And The Atlantic’s editorial hire will have to wait until Mr. Bradley—politely, inquisitively, thoroughly—finds someone he’s smitten with.

“I’d love to be done mid-fall,” Mr. Bradley said. “But I won’t bring in—it’s too hard to undo an unsuccessful posting. So I won’t bring in someone that I’m 51-49 about. I’d rather wait and struggle through the uncertainty and find somebody everybody’s excited about.”

New York Times pundit standings, Aug. 16-22

1. Frank Rich, score 36.0 [rank last week: 1st]

2. Maureen Dowd, 15.5 [3rd]

3. Paul Krugman, 13.5 [2nd]

4. Bob Herbert, 10.0 [5th]

5. John Tierney, 0.0 [tie—6th]

—T.S. Atlantic Owner Scours Country For Cinder-Editor