High Tide at ‘The Atlantic’

In the winter of 2009, David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic Media Company, and Justin Smith, one of his top executives, met for a late-night dinner at Kinkead’s restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue to plot the opening gambits in a Beltway media war.

Mr. Bradley wanted to talk about the future of the National Journal, which he’d bought in 1997. Of all the media properties he had ever owned, the studiously earnest, weekly political magazine was one of his favorites. But recently, much to Mr. Bradley’s dismay, it had been taking a serious drubbing from an upstart rival.

“It was much happier to do what we were doing until Politico arrived in the world,” Mr. Bradley recently told The Observer. “Politico introduced a whole new standard of, I wouldn’t say quality, but I would say velocity and metabolism. I responded way too slowly.”

That night, three years after Politico’s launch, Mr. Bradley asked Mr. Smith two things: Was he committed, long term, to staying with Mr. Bradley in the District? And was he ready to fight Politico? Mr. Smith answered in the affirmative to both questions. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bradley named Mr. Smith president of the entire Atlantic Media company. Henceforth, the cherubic 40-year-old executive would be running the National Journal, the Hotline and Congress Daily.

‘They are going to be at the more racy, tabloid end of the spectrum. That seems to be the position they have chosen. I think we’ll be more of the authoritative end.’ —David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media Company

Mr. Smith immediately set up nine task forces, charged with reviewing everything from the National Journal Group’s sales force to its cost structures to its newsroom operations. Forty days later, Mr. Smith handed over some 80 pages of findings to Mr. Bradley.

The first phase of the counteroffensive against Politico is now under way.

During the last week of April 2010, Mr. Smith consolidated the three newsrooms of the National Journal, the Hotline, and Congress Daily. Along the way, a handful of jobs were eliminated, and staff members were asked to reapply for new positions or apply for buyouts. In an interview with Betsy Rothstein of Fishbowl DC, Charles Green, the editor of the National Journal, said that some print columns were being scrapped and more emphasis would be placed on the Web. He said that the company was also on the hunt for a new editor in chief to oversee the unified editorial operations.

Elsewhere, Mr. Smith was scouting New York to beef up his sales staff and his digital managers. Along the way, he hired New York-based graphic designer Michael Bierut, of Pentagram, to help rebrand all of the National Journal Group properties.

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THE NEWLY RECONFIGURED Web site is scheduled to debut in September in time for the midterm elections. Currently, much of the original news gathered by the National Journal Group staff is hidden behind a paywall. That will soon change. “We will still have work going on behind the paywall,” said Mr. Bradley. “But for the first time, we’re going to compete in front of the wall.”

How will the new, free Web site, targeting a national audience, differ from Politico?

“They are going to be at the more racy, tabloid end of the spectrum,” said Mr. Bradley. “That seems to be the position they have chosen. I think we’ll be more of the authoritative end.”

Contacted for comment, Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei disagreed with Mr. Bradley’s characterization. “People come to us because we break news, we are authoritative and we help readers understand how Washington really works,” he said. “I think Bradley’s description is clearly motivated by business interests.

“That said, we take all competitors seriously,” he added.

To be sure, Mr. Bradley is not the only publisher in Washington tossing and turning at night and thinking of ways to eat Politico’s pie. Bloomberg LP is currently expanding its D.C. staff. The Washington Post keeps rolling out new political Web offerings. Even The New Yorker recently showed up in D.C. to throw its first ever White House Correspondents dinner party.

In a recent interview with The Observer in the lobby of the Park Hyatt in Washington, Mr. Smith said that while ad markets have been cratering around the country, spending inside the beltway has been booming. Mr. Smith said that according to Atlantic Media’s internal research in 2009, the Beltway print-ad market (as defined by Politico, Roll Call, the National Journal, The Hill and Congressional Quarterly) was up 28 percent over the past year despite the recession.

“As much market share as Politico has taken,” said Mr. Smith, “I would argue that we’re in the very early days of the digital transformation.”

During his two years overseeing The Atlantic, Mr. Smith expanded the magazine’s events staff. “The difference between us and others, particularly in New York in the consumer magazine space, is that they throw it in as value-added to capture advertising dollars,” said Mr. Smith. “We do some of that, but we build such distinctive events that we charge money for them.”

High Tide at ‘The Atlantic’