Also striking, in terms of the Atlantic’s overall tone, is the magazine’s growing affinity for the kind of buzzwords prized by management consultants and the MBA programs that produce them. (This might be a good time to mention that David Bradley, who’s owned the magazine since 1999, has an MBA from Harvard and made his fortune as a consulting entrepreneur.) A 2007 State of the Union package, for example, was dedicated to “innovators.” The Atlantic’s December 2006 cover story listed the 100 most influential Americans of all time. And Rauch’s philanthropy story was actually part of a bigger Values Issue, which also featured a how-to piece on ethical investment by Wall Street Self-Defense Manual author Henry Blodget. (“Socially responsible investing is neither as profitable nor as responsible as advertised. But if you insist, here’s how to do it right.”) If the stories on Rice and Rove would have been at home in the big newsweeklies, at least conceptually, Blodget’s piece would have been a natural for Forbes or Portfolio.
And then there are the graphs. Lots and lots of ’em. The 2005 State of the Union package featured graphs with only one story, a P.J. O’Rourke piece titled “Continental Divides,” which examined myriad social indicators (crime rates, income disparity, marital status, etc.) around the US. Two years later, the graphs were everywhere: in Ross Douthat’s piece on investor Craig Venter’s search for an energy-generating microbe (charting, among other things, Americans’ use of wood in 1805), in Amy Waldman’s piece on post-Katrina education in New Orleans (five graphs!), in Jeffrey Rosen’s piece on Chief Justice John Roberts’s consensus-building style (only two, but real whoppers), in Joshua Green’s piece on political veterans looking to subvert the two-party system (just one), and in O’Rourke’s piece on the demographics of innovation. If you’re a quantitative sort, you might treasure all this finely granulated numerical detail. But if you’re not — or if you are, but believe literary nonfiction should be a realm of words rather than numbers — you might disagree.
Top-100 lists, graph metastasis, Aspen Institute–ese . . . what on earth is going on here? Is the Atlantic’s move to DC transforming it into a supersize U.S. News & World Report?
Maybe it is — but first, some important disclaimers. For starters, if the aforementioned shifts reflect the magazine’s overall direction, they also remain incomplete. The January/February 2005 Atlantic, which put Clarke’s imagined 2006 history of the war on terror on the cover, also had a piece on the death of Clintonian triangulation by then–Hotline editor Chuck Todd; the June 2007 issue, which featured the Condoleezza Rice cover story, also boasted a story on Internet scam-baiting by cultural critic Ron Rosenbaum. And — for the time being, at least — every issue of the Atlantic still features back-of-the-book material (book criticism, travelogues, food writing) of impressive intelligence and depth.
It’s also vital to note that the Atlantic’s relocation is merely one subplot in the bigger tale of Bradley’s tenure as publisher. Since purchasing the magazine in 1999, Bradley (whose Atlantic Media Company includes The Hotline, National Journal, Government Executive, and several other publications) has made some notable big changes: he appointed the late Michael Kelly as editor, convinced James Fallows to rejoin the staff, lured correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg from the New Yorker and current editor James Bennet from the New York Times, stopped publishing short stories, raised subscription prices, and shrank the circulation base in an attempt to shore up the magazine’s long-term financial health. And, despite his infamously reassuring introduction to the Atlantic’s Boston staffers — he reportedly said he was “the man who is not bringing the Atlantic to Washington” — he moved the Atlantic to Washington.