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Atlantic EIC James Bennet discusses the future of magazines with Medill students

A packed room of eager Medill students welcomed Atlantic editor in chief James Bennet last Monday in the McCormick Foundation Center forum. Bennet visited Medill faculty and students for a couple days to engage in a longer form of discussion around the future of magazines in the digital age.

According to Bennet, part of the appeal of the wildly popular Atlantic, which is getting 25 million unique visitors each month online, is that its editorial voice is grounded in the history of the magazine. The Atlantic was founded in the 1850s by a group of Boston abolitionists who declared, “the Atlantic will honestly endeavor to promote what its conductors believe to be the American idea.”

“We spent a lot of time debating what [this declaration] meant and clearly when the Atlantic had made its contribution, was when it was advancing big, provocative ideas,” Bennet said to the crowd. “It was challenging assumptions about the way the world worked and imagining other ways it might work. Over time, we boiled this down to the idea that what the Atlantic does is try to promote the clearest thinking on the most consequential questions.”

The Atlantic runs a multi-part operation. The print magazine generates traditional paid content through advertising and subscriptions while online content is freely available. The AtlanticLIVE team plans events around the globe to engage the public with the brand.

In the face of a rising skepticism around the longevity of the printed news publication, Bennet says subscription revenue is still an important vein for maintaining the Atlantic, with the caveat that “it is a mistake to think any one thing is going to be the thing that maintains sustainability.”

This is why his main push for the Atlantic has centered on innovation while maintaining the legacy.

“I do think print is, if anything, seeing a kind of renaissance now,” Bennet said. “You see magazines, ours being one of them, but others as well, investing more in design. They’re making the print products more beautiful.”

The print renaissance has been increasingly recognized as a movement based in aesthetics paired with quality content. “It’s a recognition that the audience who wants print wants an object that has inherent value.”

The Atlantic maintains its beautiful print business while also boasting a comprehensive online presence. At the start of the Internet boom, the Atlantic put together a team of writers with a vast range of views to blog on their site.

“We wanted to carve out a space that was more heterodox, where there was a real collision of ideas,” Bennet said. “That was the beginning of the experiment and it worked. It was fun and exciting and energizing for our entire operation.”

Since then, their online presence has significantly expanded, exploring social media.

“Another way we use social media is sourcing stories,” Bennet said. “We have a really great team of editors now who know what kind of stories we’re interested in and network to freelance writers that we tap into and pitch to us all the time.”

Referencing that first team of bloggers, Bennet also discussed diversity at the Atlantic and in the industry with event moderator and Medill Professor Charles Whitaker. Bennet says their aim in hiring bloggers was to find people who could write for the magazine and the site, to keep a consistent DNA across platforms. He said he was highly disappointed with himself to discover his team was entirely white, a problem across the industry.

When a spot opened up, he took the opportunity to bring diversity to the team and hired Ta-Nehisi Coates, a hugely popular Black writer. Coates is known for his long form pieces that critically discuss race in the United States.

Bennet and Whitaker agreed that there are many people in the industry with good intention who aim to cover issues impacting all Americans, but that staffs in the magazine industry especially are lacking the diversity to adequately achieve this goal. For example, Bennet came into the job with the goal of changing the racial profile of his staff - he says his mistake was assuming it would happen organically.

“It doesn’t happen without a very deliberate effort,” Bennet said. “And it’s not because the people aren’t out there, and it’s not because they aren’t awesome, it’s just because like anything good, it takes work and focused effort.”

Bennet closed with a strong message for the journalistic crowd.

“I think good journalists are great students, that’s what we do, we learn all the time,” Bennet said. “We have the privilege of passing that information on to the people.”

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