For the sake of the argument, though, what if he hadn’t? Yeah, the Atlantic’s installation in the Washington offices of the Atlantic Media Company collapsed the distance between the magazine and the rest of Bradley’s publishing empire. But Bradley was going to continue remaking the Atlantic in his image, wherever it was located.
That said, the magazine’s new location carries obvious risks — something that Bennet, the Atlantic’s editor, readily acknowledges. “Any magazine that’s published from Washington risks getting sucked into the field of gravity of Washington,” he tells the Phoenix. “I share that concern, and I expect our readers and others are going to be keeping close watch on us to make sure that doesn’t happen.” (The recent flurry of political covers, Bennet adds, reflects the fact that “it’s a big campaign year; it doesn’t mean the magazine’s being reorganized, or that we’re becoming a political magazine.”)
But if the architects of the new Washingtonian Atlantic want it to transcend its inside-the-Beltway location, they also want it to become timelier. “I think one of the trends you’re seeing under [Bradley’s] ownership is that he’s making the magazine more tied to the stream of current events,” says Justin Smith, the new president of Atlantic Consumer Media. “The Atlantic will continue to cover general-interest, interesting intellectual stories as told by our writers. But we’ve made an attempt to focus more of the stories on more topical, more relevant issues. . . . We want to make sure that the magazine, when it arrives in people’s hands, reflects and echoes a larger conversation taking place in the country and around the world.”
Given the Atlantic’s history, this vision is more radical than it sounds. Smith’s description of Bradley’s vision stands in stark contrast with a point correspondent Robert D. Kaplan made during that reading in Cambridge. Kaplan’s contribution to The American Idea is “The Coming Anarchy,” an ominous 1994 piece on worldwide social deterioration. In its embryonic stage, Kaplan told the audience, the piece was a story on water shortages; over the course of 10 months, it expanded to become something bigger. He was only able to write it, he said, because — as an Atlantic writer — he had the luxury of not being beholden to current events:
This magazine never expected scoops from you, and it never expected news from you. You could come with an idea that had nothing to do with the headlines, that sounded like the most extraneous kind of thing about a part of the world that nobody was following, and the idea was taken seriously. . . . I learned, at the Atlantic, that if a piece couldn’t hold up for a year, it wasn’t worth writing in the first place. . . . In no other magazine would people have had the patience for this.
This raises an interesting question: if Kaplan pitched “The Coming Anarchy” today, would the Atlantic let him write it? But Kaplan’s words also suggest what being based in Boston used to mean for the magazine. When the Atlantic was founded 150 years ago, Boston could lay legitimate claim to being America’s cultural and intellectual capital; it was also a center of finance. This same national eminence made it natural for the Atlantic’s founders — a high-powered group that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — to imbue their new publication with an explicitly national focus.