For a magazine with a 160-year history, you wouldn’t expect that lack of brand recognition would ever be an issue.
As The Atlantic prepares to launch its first overseas bureau in London, its president Bob Cohn acknowledges that it will need to build a reputation in Europe from scratch:
“We’re aware that we don’t have tons of brand awareness in the UK so I think that our people will do as much press, radio and TV, will be on BBC and will be doing radio conversations and events like the one tonight in order to spread the word about what the Atlantic is. The best ad for the product is the product itself.”
Despite The Atlantic’s storied history, it’s only in the past few years that an international launch has been a viable option. In the two years I’ve been reporting on the magazine and its attendant digital properties, its reported proportion of readership outside America has been gradually ticking up.
Now, with a “high watermark” of 28 percent of its digital audience coming from outside the US, the title has decided to make the leap. Cohn explains:
“I don’t think there was a single moment, just a growing ambition that we have at The Atlantic to play a role on the global stage and deliver our journalism to a bigger audience.
“It was the realisation that we’ve had organic international growth that made us say we need to be a bit more deliberate about this.”
That The Atlantic’s proportion of international readers grew slightly faster than its overall digital audience growth (around 30 percent per year for the past five years) wasn’t down to any specific effort to appeal to those readers. Instead, Cohn ascribes it to a global audience of English speakers who are affected by the same issues as their US readers. As he says, it’s foolish to think that global warming or major economic shifts only impact one country at a time. But this new endeavour represents the first “concerted effort” to court those readers.
Cohn says that, while the idea to launch has been mooted for a while, the destabilising effect of a few major global events makes this the ideal time for the launch:
“If we had been up and going for the last few months we certainly would have covered the French election vigorously, both with people on the ground and with editing done here in London. I really think of it as a European effort based out of London.
“It’s a great time to be in this space because the story is so interesting: this is a great time to be writing about the UK and Europe because we’re in a moment of discombobulation. It’s an interesting time to be a journalist and to deliver quality journalism to readers around the world.”
It’s The Atlantic’s history of quality journalism that Cohn is counting on to drive audience growth in Europe and, ultimately, revenue. In the US its reputation for longform, in-depth reportage has ensured its print circulation has been flat for the past few years, even as its newsstand circulation (about 15 percent of total sales) has grown by 20 percent in 2016.
In Europe, however, it will have no such advantage, though Cohn is confident the London bureau can achieve its revenue growth in the first year:
“There are no formal KPIs. We don’t have a traffic goal [but] we do have a revenue goal. They’re modest enough that I’m confident we’ll beat them in year.
“I would say the goal is to produce quality journalism that attracts readers back in the US and here in the UK and across Europe. We’ll hire great people to work with [Jim Fallows] so I don’t have any doubt about our ability to create Atlantic-quality journalism… and how to monetise that and break into the UK sales market.”
Ultimately Cohn believes that the goal is to be in Europe and across Asia, anywhere where there are pockets of English-speaking readers who are interested in The Atlantic’s kind of journalism. As he notes, while The Atlantic’s revenue structure has changed, its mission has not.
“The underlying mission has not changed. 7/8 years ago we derived 85 percent of our revenue from print, either ads or circulation. Now we’re 85 percent other and 15 percent print. That’s just transformation, but we haven’t changed the mission.”
Overall, around half of The Atlantic’s revenue now comes from digital advertising, and it hopes to capitalise on its relatively early entry into branded content when its solution Re:Think becomes available to more advertisers across Europe. He believes that while the UK advertising ecosystem was initially more reticent to commit to branded content, it has finally come round to the idea.
But The Atlantic’s overall diversification goes beyond just the different types of display advertising. At a time when its sister brand Quartz is moving away from events to focus more on AI and other strengths, Cohn says that Atlantic Live is growing, with over 100 events and a full-time dedicated staff of 50:
“It’s a big focus and a big success for us. Maybe because we got in early and captured the market people understand what an Atlantic event is, but our events business grows every year and it’s profitable. It’s 18 percent of our revenue. This isn’t some brand-building exercise we do to burnish the name.
“Separate from print, digital, video and live events, we have a consulting business which is small but growing and contributes around 10 percent of our revenue.”
None of that would be possible, though, without the foundation of quality journalism upon which The Atlantic built its reputation over more than a century. At a time when people are evidently flocking back to quality in an attempt to understand the world in which they find themselves, The Atlantic seems poised to capitalise on that in Europe and beyond.