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The Atlantic Will Lay Off 68 People

The main stage of the 2018 Atlantic Festival.
Coronavirus 2020

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The Atlantic will eliminate 68 positions, or about 17 percent of its workforce, according to a memo sent to staffers by Atlantic Media chairman and owner David Bradley. The contraction, which Bradley says is due to the coronavirus pandemic, will hit its events division, AtlanticLIVE, very hard. The company plans to shut its video department and says a “small number of newsroom positions” will be affected. Sales and marketing staff will also take hits.

Staffers will be notified by 11 AM if their position is to be eliminated, Bradley writes: “If you have not heard from your division leader by that time, your position at The Atlantic is secure.” Executives at the company will take pay cuts, and a pay freeze will apply to all who stay. Bradley apologizes to those who will leave in the memo and to those who will stay without pay increases. “We held on a long time to the thought that The Atlantic could budget modest increases,” he writes. “I apologize that’s not working out.”

Departing employees will receive 16 weeks’ salary, plus two weeks for each year they’ve worked there after their first. The company will pay their COBRA through the end of 2020, provide job-search support, and allow them to keep their Atlantic laptops.

The retrenchment takes place amid record online traffic and soaring subscription figures for the publication, which Bradley writes was not enough to “overnight and near-complete undoing of in-person events and, for now, a bracing decline in advertising.” The Atlantic “reached 132 million readers across March and April,” he writes, and “The readership of individual stories regularly surpassed the whole of our magazine readership when I first arrived.  In the last 90 days, 57 stories reached more than a million readers, 35 stories more than 1.5 million readers.” Subscriptions since the company instituted a paywall have averaged 20,000 per month, a five-fold increase over the rate before the paywall.

Bradley says the company has now set a goal of a million subscribers by December 2022, which he describes as “accelerating its move to a consumer strategy. Like The New York Times and The Washington Post, The Atlantic’s long-term intention is that a majority of revenues comes from its readership.”

Bradley’s memo:

A Right Heading – but, a Hard Hour

My Atlantic Colleagues,

This writing is hard two times over.  It is the hardest writing in my 22 years with The Atlantic.  And, for some of us, it will prove harder to read than for me to write.  I’m very sorry that, through this memo, The Atlantic is announcing a layoff of 68 of our colleagues.

There is, as well, promising news to share as to The Atlantic’s prospects.  But, worried that I not bury the lede, I should begin directly:

The Memo in Brief

#1  The Atlantic is accelerating its turn to a consumer revenue strategy (and, focusing its premium business services on our premium business clients).

#2  It is true that the decision is driven by exceptional growth in print and digital subscriptions since our September introduction of a paywall.

#3 But, it is accelerated—and made necessary—by the overnight and near-complete undoing of in-person events and, for now, a bracing decline in advertising.

#4  This morning, we are informing 68 of our colleagues that we will not have a place for them on The Atlantic’s new course.  The contraction affects mainly our events, sales, and editorial staffs.

#5  For the rest of us, the 80%, there is some sacrifice, as well, including pay cuts for executives and a general pay-freeze for the rest through the remainder of the year.

Here, and at the close, I want to tell our departing colleagues how deeply sorry I am.  If we saw any prospect that your jobs would return in a reset Atlantic, we would have found another way forward.

Today’s Departures

I’m writing here, in advance of any one-on-one communication.  Our senior management will reach out to everyone leaving The Atlantic by 11:00 this morning.  If you have not heard from your division leader by that time, your position at The Atlantic is secure.

A group of us has given more thought to a generous severance package than to any other matter covered in this note.  But, in the economic climate of the moment, I hesitate over the word generous.  I don’t know what would be generous enough.

The Severance Package in Brief

#1  The Atlantic will pay a minimum of 16 weeks salary to all departing employees – plus two weeks for each year of service beyond the first year.

(Our standing policy is 10 weeks plus two additional week’s salary for each year of service beyond the first year.  We are adding six weeks to everyone’s severance as some measure of support during this singularly-difficult year.)

#2  The Atlantic will cover health care for departing colleagues by paying COBRA through the end of the calendar year.

#3 Job Search Support through RiseSmart for three months

• a national career counseling and transition firm

• resume and cover letter support

• LinkedIn profile support

• interview coaching

• one-on-one career counseling

#4 Job Search Support through The Atlantic

• resume support through Atlantic HR staff

• coaching, brainstorming, with a corps of volunteer Atlantic leaders, managers, and editors

• creation of “resume book” of all departing staff members wanting to participate

• dedicated networking assistance/resume distribution through HR networks in New York and Washington

#5 Ownership of Your Atlantic Laptop for the Duration (its duration)

Exceptional Colleagues

There is no fault on the part of people leaving the firm.  What makes this so particularly difficult is that these are exceptional and beloved Atlantic colleagues.  They are exactly the same good people who were selected to join us at the outset.  Measure for measure, they have contributed to The Atlantic as have those who are remaining.  It is only that the ground has shifted.

I had thought that I would spend some substantial part of this memo explaining the reasoning behind our decision.  But, I think it may speak for itself.  The particular timing is clear – a global pandemic that has shuttered the economy generally, advertising acutely, and in-person events altogether.

It is true that The Atlantic is accelerating its move to a consumer strategy.  Like The New York Times and The Washington Post, The Atlantic’s long-term intention is that a majority of revenues comes from its readership.  But, in the absence of a pandemic and global crisis, we would have found some kind of kinder contraction.  Surely, we would have paused over furloughs instead of severance if we believed the positions were coming back.

To those who are leaving, you will always be part of that group that navigated America’s first and great magazine of letters into the modern era.  Had we office doors these days, they would—and will be—always open.

The Many Years Ahead

Even after 163 years, The Atlantic is abundant with promise.  In one sense, almost only with promise: that which remains is growing – our readership, our subscriptions, premium advertising, programmatic advertising, and the high-end products and services of Re:Think and Atlantic 57.

Moving from the publication to the personal, is there another shoe to drop?  I don’t think so.  We have been considered in our response to the COVID-19 crisis in an effort to think through now, at one time, all the departures that flow from Atlantic’s reset strategy.  As best we are given to see the future, The Atlantic now is refitted.

Still, I’ve been made modest by the global crisis.  And, you know the uncertainty as well as I.

Tide at Full Flood

Across the years, I’ve seen tides of reader traffic come in, and tides go out.  But there are moments—9/11, the Obama election, the Trump election—when a surge of readers resets The Atlantic’s reach.  We’ve never seen anything like this moment in time.  Thanks to exceptional, even inspired, editing and writing, The Atlantic reached 132 million readers across March and April.  The readership of individual stories regularly surpassed the whole of our magazine readership when I first arrived.  In the last 90 days, 57 stories reached more than a million readers, 35 stories more than 1.5 million readers.

This journalism is our purpose.  It is why all of us—editorial and business staffs—come to work.  There are moments when the journalism—and its reach—allow us inordinate confidence.  In my judgment—20 years on this watch—I believe this is one.

Acceleration

So, what is changing as to Atlantic strategy?  The larger answer is speed.  Given the success of the paywall to-date, and given our more-recent growth in readership, we have decided to bring forward our target of a million subscribers to December 2022.  The greater number of you, the editorial, product, engineering, and growth staffs, are implicated.  You might ask how ambitious is the goal?  Highly ambitious.  Even bracing.  This is the sound of shifting gears in our consumer strategy.

So far—very early—we begin well.  The Atlantic Monthly spent 150 years getting to 450,000 subscribers.  In the eight months since we introduced the paywall, we’ve added 160,000 new subscribers.  Before the paywall was introduced, we averaged 4,000 new subscribers a month; since the paywall, we’ve averaged just under 20,000.

To the good, what we are seeing runs closer to the success of the larger national newspapers than it does to the general experience of magazines.  But, in truth, there is a long way to go.

Premium Service

In resetting The Atlantic we also mean to reset the work our business groups perform for our largest clients.  This, too, should grow.  More, as Hayley will convey to her staff, we intend large ambition at the highest end.

For the decade that most publications enjoyed easy digital ad growth, The Atlantic cast its net wide.  Our advertising and live teams targeted a client universe of 800 companies, bringing in as many as 300 accounts.  It is that long tail of advertisers that is migrating, over time, to the social media platforms.

Where we have enjoyed growth is in the work of original creation – conceiving of large, customized, Atlantic-standard, campaigns for our largest clients.  Increasingly, this work is complex, requiring our advertising, marketing, events, and consulting staffs to work together.  These are the best talent in our industry.  In an earlier time, I read—unobviously—three biographies on Walt Disney.  As to original creation, there is a little piece of Disney in this staff.

Similarly, Atlantic 57 is thriving.  Even in the face of the global downturn, its service to clients is growing.  The group will be remarkable to see when, instead, it has wind to its back.

My senior colleagues and I bring least certainty to AtlanticLIVE.  For a moment, let me pay tribute to this exceptional group.  AtlanticLIVE is one of The Atlantic’s treasured assets, led over the years by some of my most-treasured colleagues.  For a decade, it has been the premier events business in American publishing.  For those leaving, I want you to know the fullest measure of our admiration and gratitude.

In one week in March, maybe two, the ground fell out from under live events—live anything—worldwide.  Of necessity, our events work went virtual.  It turns out, there is substantial room for original creation in a zoom-led frame on life; to begin, we are able to bring our writers into conversation with our readers – at a scale no hotel ballroom can match.  Even so, all of us hope for that day when we can create, or contribute to, signature events such as The Atlantic Festival and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Michael Finnegan, Aretae Wyler, and Hayley Romer will convene (zoom) meetings of our B-to-B staffs to set out growth ambition and plans.  Even at a million subscribers and 100 million readers, The Atlantic will need and depend on its business partners as far into the future as the eye can see.

These Final Thoughts

I will be joining division leaders for a series of zoom calls with all of you later today and tomorrow.  But, let me begin that conversation, here:

To those who are leaving, I am sorry.  I am sorry to lose you.  I am sorry about the market you are entering.  I’m grateful for this time in your career that you’ve given us.

To those remaining, but with no increase in pay, there too I am sorry.  We held on a long time to the thought that The Atlantic could budget modest increases.  I apologize that’s not working out.

_______________________________

I know that the pandemic is indiscriminate in its course, cutting through various industries and geographies.  But, as has been the case for decades, our media economy is especially hard hit.  This has been a stubborn fact the whole of my time in the sector.  So, why does any of us choose to be here?  It’s just that journalism, its own infection, is hard to shake.  We get to play some part—sometimes large—in our country’s pursuit of truth.  That is ennobling, worthy, and terrifically hard to equal.

And, there is this second stubborn fact:  for 163 years, The Atlantic has been in the pursuit of truth.  Through a sine curve of ups and downs, we’ve grown four-fold in staffing, twenty-fold in readership, so far this century.  This story marches on.

I close with my respect and appreciation to you all.

David

Correction: This post originally said laid-off employees would have their COBRA paid through 2022; it will be paid through 2020.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.