Magazine Analysis: The Atlantic

My last semester at Towson University, I’m finally in a class I’ve heard about since my sophomore year: Magazine publishing with Thom Lieb. Lieb taught me a lot in digital publishing and news editing — and he helped me with my application so I could be a part of the Online News Association Student Newsroom.

The March 2017 issue of The Atlantic.

This semester, we have to do three magazine analyses. For our first go, I chose one of my favorites, The Atlantic.

I’ve liked The Atlantic for awhile now — I don’t remember what it was, unfortunately, that brought me to them in the first place. But some of my favorite pieces of journalism — like The Obama Doctrine — have come from its pages.

The analysis is below, broken into sub-categories. You may have to click-through the read more button.


According to data from SRDS, The Atlantic had an audience of 1.8 million in Fall 2016. About 1.1 million were women and the remaining 700,000 were men. The magazine is written for an educated audience with disposable income. According to SRDS the median adult income for subscribers is $100 thousand. It’s read mostly by adults in their fifties, with a slight tilt toward female readers, according to PocketPiece. Per PocketPiece, the Atlantic’s digital audience adds about 30 thousand more readers to its monthly average. The first two ads in The Atlantic’s latest issue (March 2017) are for technology (Microsoft) and car insurance (Geico). Microsoft points to an educated audience and the insurance ad points to an adult audience — no teenage reader is going to care about car insurance. Slack also has an app — because Slack is trying to get more businesses to use it. The Atlantic’s subscribers are team managers who would make those kinds of decisions — because the Atlantic likes to target “Thought Leaders.”


The original mission statement, from 1857, states: “The Atlantic will be the organ of no party or clique, but will honestly endeavor to be the exponent of the American idea.”

Today, they don’t have quite so cut-and-dry a mission statement, but they say that they engage its audiences with “breakthrough insights into the worlds of politics, business, the arts and culture.”

While The Atlantic does focus on all of these areas, it’s become, lately, a more political magazine — though that is more likely a consequence of our national political climate, not of any editorial change in direction.

The Atlantic prides itself in being a spot for “brave” and “bold” ideas. It’s made very few endorsements — including Hillary Clinton over Trump and for the abolition of slavery. While the current editorial staff does seem to skew left (Ta-Nahesi Coates, McKay Coppins, etc.), The Atlantic still does its best to be as nonpartisan as possible.


The Atlantic mostly has longer pieces — there are not many quick reads in its pages or on its website. The magazine features long explainers (“The Confidence Gap”), policy dives (“The Obama Doctrine”) and reported essays that deal with cultural phenomena (“Red State, Blue City”). But it also regularly contains film and literature reviews and celebrity news (well, kind of. Does Megyn Kelly count?). There are no specific features that re-occur.


The Atlantic is owned by Atlantic Media, which also owns Quartz (online publication), Government Executive and Defense One (both other magazines). The Atlantic employs over 200 people.


This issue has 103 pages, including the cover. Of those 103, about 25 are advertising (I say “about” 25 because not every single page is advertising. There are 22 pages of full ads, the remaining “about three” come from half page and two-column ads) This gives The Atlantic just about a 1:4 advertising/editorial ratio.


They do a…pretty good job of matching their philosophy of fierce independence and moderation. This most recent issue, though, is a small departure. Yes, there are a few general interest, non-partisan stories — the story of a Texan who went to fight with ISIS, a profile of Megyn Kelly, a book review, a couple of tech stories — the usual. However, the cover is called “How to Build an Autocracy” and the second feature immediately following that is called “How to Contain Trump.” Not exactly nonpartisan. However, given the education and income levels of most of The Atlantic’s subscribers, it’s fairly safe to assume that the editorial team knows their audience leans more left.


I think the strongest point of The Atlantic’s design is that it keeps advertising outside of feature stories. The big, meaty stories — like what’s featured on the cover each month — are kept free of advertising content. I think that helps their case that the Atlantic is not a part of any clique or party a significant amount. By keeping the ads out of their big stories, The Atlantic can demonstrate a lot of editorial independence. I think that they stay true to their audience (adults, educated) by keeping stories from jumping around (thought leaders don’t have time for that!) and by keeping the text of their stories — even in feature images — clean and readable.

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