David G. Bradley, the chairman and owner of Atlantic Media, is announcing this morning that he is selling a majority stake in The Atlantic to Emerson Collective, an organization led by philanthropist and investor Laurene Powell Jobs. Bradley will retain a minority stake in The Atlantic and will continue as chairman and operating partner for at least three to five years. In a letter to his staff, Bradley wrote that Emerson Collective will most likely assume full ownership of The Atlantic within five years.
Bradley, who bought The Atlantic in 1999 for $10 million from Mortimer Zuckerman, is credited with transforming the Boston-based monthly magazine of politics, arts, and letters into a profitable digital-journalism and live-events company of global reach, even while continuing to publish The Atlantic’s award-winning print magazine, which was born four years before the Civil War. “Against the odds, The Atlantic is prospering,” Bradley wrote in his memo. “While I will stay at the helm some years, the most consequential decision of my career now is behind me: Who next will take stewardship of this 160-year-old national treasure? To me, the answer, in the form of Laurene, feels incomparably right.”
Bradley, who is 64, wrote that he and his wife, Katherine, recently realized that their three sons were not interested in media ownership, and so they would have to look “farther afield” for a next generation of Atlantic leadership. Bradley reported to his staff that he and his advisers had compiled a list of 600 potential investors, but ended up approaching only Powell Jobs as a potential partner. The parties did not disclose the final sale price or valuation of Atlantic Media.
Powell Jobs (53), the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, founded Emerson Collective in 2004. The organization, based in Palo Alto, California, invests in both nonprofit and entrepreneurial efforts to bring about immigration and education reform, and is focused on a host of other issues as well. Emerson Collective also has significant investments in media, from movie-production companies such as Anonymous Content to start-ups such as The California Sunday Magazine. The organization has also provided support to several nonprofit journalism outlets, including the Marshall Project and ProPublica.
In a statement, Powell Jobs noted that Ralph Waldo Emerson, a co-founder of The Atlantic, inspired the name and the mission of her organization. She praised The Atlantic for the breadth and scope of its purpose: to “bring about equality for all people; to illuminate and defend the American idea; to celebrate American culture and literature; and to cover our marvelous, and sometimes messy, democratic experiment.”
Powell Jobs is not the first person associated with the technology industry to enter the legacy journalism market in Washington, D.C., where The Atlantic is now based. In 2012, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought a controlling stake in the New Republic, an investment that held great initial promise but soon soured. More auspiciously, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the ailing Washington Post in 2013 and quickly invested, with significant success, in its journalism and in its digital reach.
Powell Jobs’s investment in The Atlantic comes at a fragile time for advertising-supported media. Facebook and Google now take in more than half of all mobile-advertising revenue. According to the tech and media analyst Mary Meeker, those two companies’ ad revenue is growing faster than the rest of the market’s combined, squeezing publishers. And many of the most quickly growing brands are fueled not by advertisers, but by venture-capital firms that can sustain large short-term losses in an uncertain media landscape.
Unlike both the New Republic and The Washington Post, The Atlantic is not ailing at the time of this sale. According to the company’s president, Bob Cohn, the privately held company is profitable, and has seen marked growth in audience and revenue in recent years. The magazine’s print circulation has been increasing, even as the industry average has declined. The publication’s website audience has grown 36 percent in the first half of 2017 alone, drawing a record 42.3 million visitors in May. Over the past decade, the company has worked to diversify its revenue sources. In 2006, 85 percent of The Atlantic’s revenue came from print advertising and circulation. This year, print will account for less than 20 percent of incoming revenue; the company’s digital, events, and consulting divisions make up the remaining 80 percent. In the past decade, the company’s annual revenue has quadrupled, to nearly $80 million.
The deal struck between Bradley and Powell Jobs does not affect Atlantic Media’s other brands—Quartz, Government Executive, and National Journal—which will continue to be held solely by Bradley, and could ultimately be divested separately. Emerson may eventually take over full ownership of The Atlantic; CityLab; Atlantic Media Strategies, a consulting business; and AtlanticLIVE, the company’s live-events operation.
Bradley’s decision to seek a financial partner who would ultimately take over the operation entirely is one that he has discussed publicly on occasion. In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, Bradley said that he hoped to turn a profit on his investment in The Atlantic by selling it in six to 10 years. Friday’s deal seems to fulfill that plan, albeit on a truncated timeline.
Bradley also announced that the current leadership team of The Atlantic—Cohn, its president; Hayley Romer, its publisher; and Jeffrey Goldberg, its editor in chief—would remain in place. Peter Lattman, who leads Emerson’s media efforts, and was a financial reporter at The New York Times and then the paper’s media editor, will retain his position there and become vice chairman of The Atlantic.
In his statement, Bradley said that Powell Jobs will most likely visit the Washington and New York offices of The Atlantic in September. Bradley closed his note to the staff by saying, “What I loved about Laurene from the first is that her confidence was forged on a different coast.” He added, “And, if anything, her ambition is greater than my own.” Making reference to the generally bleak commercial forecast for journalism in the United States, he wrote, “Let’s make it our work to prove the wisdom of our era wrong. And when my time comes to leave, that would be a happy note on which to say ‘good-bye.’”
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