Thinking Alike in Washington and Hollywood

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The National Journal was founded in 1969 as a pricey weekly for inside-the-Beltway news bureaus, bureaucrats, lawyers, and lobbyists who would pay a hefty annual fee to assure that their staffs were fully briefed on big issues (a single copy would circulate with names stapled to the cover to be checked off). Across the continent, the Hollywood Reporter (and its traditional competitor, Daily Variety) served a comparable purpose for the entertainment industry. At a relatively high subscription price, insiders were able to keep track of the minutiae of their respective businesses. Now both enterprises are in the midst of total makeovers with a common goal: providing essential (or irresistible) information to targeted audiences that expect quality material and whose industries are prepared to support substantial advertising rates and expensive subscriptions to sustain them.

Atlantic Media (where this column appears on TheAtlantic.com among the correspondents who write regularly as "expert" commentators) is one of Washington's media success stories of recent years. David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media, has invested millions of dollars in The  Atlantic magazine, upgrading the website so that it now has 4.5 million unique visitors a month and some of the biggest names in the blogosphere. Atlantic Media has developed a strategy for selling print and digital advertising, as well as hosting conferences, often with the enterprising Aspen Institute. But the big news--in the critical scorecard of business--is that Atlantic Media apparently has turned around the magazine and made the website a lucrative destination. According to the New York Times, Bradley believes the magazine will make money this year, in part because of the surge in digital revenues.

Meanwhile, National Journal, while still a staple of K street offices and libraries, seemed to be losing its edge, at least in revenue terms. Circulation, thought to be about 12,000, was stagnant. Its website lacked the immediacy expected by today's readers, and the impact of the print and digital model has been losing traction. Responding to these trends, Bradley and Justin Smith, president of Atlantic Media (who came to The Atlantic in 2007 from THE WEEK, where he was the universally admired founding U.S. publisher) decided to give National Journal a major overhaul. They intend to maintain its standing as a serious source of inside the Beltway information and analysis, but with a metabolism reflecting what readers now demand. Under the direction of Ron Fournier, who was recruited from the Associated Press, where he was Washington bureau chief, National Journal has hired an impressive cast of Washington journalists with established personas to supplement their resident specialists. There will be an enhanced free site, along with premium content available to subscribers. The objective is to upgrade National Journal's visibility while preserving its status and the hefty four-figure price it can charge for subscriptions and advertising because of its valued audience.

In Hollywood, a strikingly similar reinvention (appropriately glitzy as befits its location) is under way at the Hollywood Reporter. The new editor is Janice Min, who a decade ago took US, a slightly racier version of People, and turned it into the favored guilty pleasure of millions of mainly women in gyms who consumed it on elliptical trainers and stationery bicycles. According to the New York Times, under the business direction of Richard Beckman, who was a long-time publishing executive at Conde Nast, the Hollywood Reporter will reappear as a weekly glossy magazine and a daily PDF focused on what the entertainment business wants to know: who is doing what to whom, in a format that is breezy but packed with information. Instead of circulation in the mid-teens, I'm guessing the objective will be at least to double the readership in print and PDF. The daily will retail for $5.99 and an annual subscription, the New York Times reports, will be $249.

National Journal and the Hollywood Reporter both have incentives that makes these challenges work taking. In Washington, Politico has established itself as a high-value print and Internet enterprise that, from all accounts, has matched its buzz quotient with revenues that make it the envy of every media entrepreneur with the intention of finding profit in the evolving news culture. In Hollywood, there are at least three blogs--Nikki Finke's, Sharon Waxman's TheWrap.com, and IndieWire.com--that have proven themselves formidable competitors to Daily Variety and theHollywood Reporter. Whatever the revenues of these new outlets, they clearly are making a mark. Interestingly, the Hollywood Reporter's parent company, e5 Global Media, also owns The Hill, another of the Washington up-and-comers, with a background in publishing newspapers for the legal profession.

What Washington and Hollywood have in common is a community supported by industries that need to reach them through advertising. In Washington, it is advocacy groups and the military-industrial complex; in Hollywood, it is the film and television business that cannot thrive without marketing budgets that need consistent reinvestment with each new season to catch the edge of popular interest.

In 1963, the founders of the New York Review of Books made a critical decision in what they imagined would be a regular journal of ideas including political essays and the latest books. By adding "Books" to the name and keeping the cost of ads at a level that publishers could afford, they assured a steady stream of book advertising that no other periodical in the publishing industry can match. The audience is targeted, the ads are handsome, and the prestige and profitability of the New York Review of Books has endured for decades.

National Journal has a targeted market. So does the Hollywood Reporter. In these cases, the publishers know that the audiences are still willing to pay for print publications, especially if they can also get the immediacy of online updates. These are premium audiences, and advertisers seem ready to pay extra to reach them. Or, at least, that is the bet that savvy publishers are making on both coasts. Even in this turbulent marketplace, some risks make sense.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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