Having divorced itself from Boston, the Atlantic threatens to become another Washington wonk magazine. Bradley's tendency for tendentious wonkery was revealed two years ago when he turned over most of the magazine's "State of the Union" special coverage to the thinkers at the New America Foundation. It wasn't journalism. It wasn't even the high-caliber National Journal-ism that the Atlantic's sister publication produces weekly. Just because NAF stopped producing the SOTU package doesn't mean that Bradley learned his lesson. Bennet will have to stay up late at night fending off Bradley's affinity for such high-mindedness.
It's only natural to compare Bennet with Kelly, and the good news is that he's more than up to the face-off. To make it brief, in the June 18, 2000, New York Times Magazine, he wrote about the marketing of Hillary Clinton in a piece that equals anything by Kelly, and his steady hand covering the riot that is the Middle East also inspires. But nobody inside or outside the magazine will believe that Bennet is in charge until he makes a few dramatic hirings and firings. An article that demolishes the worth of leadership committees, focus groups, corporate retreats, "breakout sessions," or consultant tradecraft will prove that he, and not Bradley, is in charge.
If I channel Bradley correctly, I think he hopes to make the Atlantic Monthly—make that the Decamonthly, as it only comes out 10 times a year—a luxury good that justifies its high price, like designer water. No thinking magazine on the newsstand occupies this niche, and I suspect that, having raised subscription and newsstand prices, Bradley will start referring to the Atlantic audience as "members" instead of readers. As long as it's a club to which Bennet feels comfortable belonging, this could be a good thing.
This article has been long on diagnosis and short on prescription because I'm not sure where a 10-times-a-year magazine fits in an Internet world. If luxury idea magazine is the direction, the Atlantic should read like literature and look like art, making every issue an event. Magazines with those ambitions kill a lot of pieces. Oh, by the way, James, while you're at it, try to capture the early 21st-century zeitgeist.
Working for a publisher who expects every experience to be positive can be draining, so I hope Bennet is up to it. When Michael Kelly edited the Atlantic,he endured Kindbrenner's many meetings, the lengthy option-exploring conversations, and endless drawings of org charts, flow charts, and 3D grids plotting substance, quality, and time. After three years of decisional gridlock, Bradley-fatigue set in and Kelly returned to the writing life. As it turned out, the nicest, most considerate man in the universe was a narcissistic and needy bore.
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