Nicholas Thompson, the chief executive of The Atlantic, gave a presentation to employees last month in which he disclosed some uncomfortable truths about the state of the magazine.
Subscription growth, which had skyrocketed in 2020 thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and the presidential election, had come back down to earth. For the first time, the number of subscribers had plateaued and started to slightly decline. And even with last year’s substantial surge, the magazine had lost more than $20 million and was on track to lose another $10 million this year, according to slides of the presentation shared with NBC News.
But Thompson was optimistic, according to four employees who saw the presentation and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The company would lose just a few million dollars in 2022, Thompson projected, and turn a small profit in 2023. When that happened, he said, every staff member would be given $10,000 or a 10 percent salary bonus — whichever was bigger.
“We are on a path to profitability, or sustainability,” Thompson said in an interview. “Our losses have narrowed every year. We’re vastly ahead of where we thought we would be.”
The Atlantic needs to make $50 million in annual subscription revenue in order to break even, according to Thompson. Hitting that target has become more complicated since Trump left the White House and the pandemic let up. New subscribers are coming in at about a quarter of the rate they did last year (10,000 a month, on average), and the magazine faces challenges keeping some of its existing audience, which may have less of a need for The Atlantic’s journalism in a post-Trump, post-Covid world.
“We did four years of business last year,” Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, said in an interview. “One of the core challenges is, how do we keep all those new subscribers?”
That is a challenge being felt throughout the news industry. For the last six years, Trump’s chaotic candidacy and presidency provided a life raft for this industry, as did the pandemic. Cable news networks saw a surge in viewership while publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post enjoyed strong subscriber growth. But with Trump out of office and the pandemic in retreat, both television news viewership and digital and print readership are in decline — resuming a multidecade slide for the news business.
The Atlantic is in the privileged position of having a wealthy benefactor: Laurene Powell Jobs, the philanthropist, investor and widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who bought a majority stake in the magazine four years ago. But Powell Jobs, who has a net worth of around $22 billion, did not buy The Atlantic as a philanthropic endeavor, three sources familiar with her thinking said. She bought it in part to demonstrate that there can be a sustainable model for journalism if you invest in it.
When Powell Jobs bought her stake from veteran publisher David Bradley in 2017, the magazine was turning a $10 million profit but was in steady decline. Her solution was to hire about 100 new staffers, a move that would push the business into the red but with the promise of future growth. (In May 2020, two months into the pandemic, the magazine also laid off 68 employees, or 17 percent of its workforce.)
In private conversations, Powell Jobs has referred to herself as a “generational leader” of the magazine. She meets with Thompson and Goldberg frequently and has professed a love of The Atlantic’s journalism. But she isn’t willing to cover its losses forever, the sources said.
Goldberg has privately expressed fear that Powell Jobs and her organization, Emerson Collective, might pull the plug if the magazine doesn’t reach profitability within the next four to five years, Atlantic sources said. Goldberg disputes this characterization: “I’ve said many times that Laurene and Emerson Collective both have strategic patience and have made the support of quality journalism their main goal here, but that they also believe that readers will pay for high-quality journalism,” he said. “They expect The Atlantic, a maker of high-quality journalism, to become profitable over time. I think Laurene is an excellent owner who is in this for the long run.”
“We’re so proud of our colleagues at The Atlantic,” Peter Lattman, Emerson’s managing director of media and the vice chair of The Atlantic, said in a statement. “Despite last year being one of the strongest in its 164-year history, we still believe its best days are ahead.”
For The Atlantic, profitability means about $110 million in overall revenue, according to Thompson’s presentation. How the magazine plans to hit this goal is a mystery to a few employees and to news media executives who saw the Atlantic’s numbers and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Atlantic brought in just under $75 million in revenue in both 2019 and 2020, according to Thompson’s presentation. Roughly $50 million, or two-thirds, came from advertising, events and other business-to-business revenue streams. But Thompson anticipated only incremental increases in this area over time, up to about $60 million in 2023. The bulk of new revenue will have to come from subscriptions, he said.
At present, The Atlantic has about 750,000 subscribers: Roughly 450,000 digital subscribers who signed up after the magazine launched its $50 paywall in 2019, and another 300,000 legacy print subscribers who pay $35 to $40 annually on average, according to Thompson. (The Atlantic is working to convert these legacy subscribers to full-paying digital subscribers.)
All told, annual subscription revenue in 2020 was less than $25 million, according to Thompson’s presentation. Buoyed by 2020, the company hopes to get that number to somewhere above $35 million this year.
The challenge is that the trend lines are starting to move in the wrong direction.
Last year, the path to $50 million in subscription revenue didn’t seem all that challenging. From March 2020 to January, the magazine was adding about 30,000 subscribers a month, with more than 45,000 added in both June and July and a whopping 61,000 in September, when it published a bombshell story about Trump having called soldiers who were killed in action “losers” and “suckers.” Trump vehemently denied the report and attacked The Atlantic, Goldberg and Powell Jobs personally, resulting in a financial windfall for the magazine.
On top of its exhaustive coverage of the Trump administration, The Atlantic also published some of the most thoughtful and incisive coverage of the pandemic. Staff writer Ed Yong won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting related to the pandemic and the virus. Its Covid Tracking Project became a crucial source of data.
Without Trump or the pandemic, the path to $50 million is significantly harder. Since February, the magazine has brought in about 10,000 subscribers a month — roughly analogous to its growth rate before the pandemic. Meanwhile, its retention rate for existing subscribers is about 75 to 80 percent, Thompson said. The net result, according to Thompson’s presentation, is not growth. It’s a static or slightly declining subscriber base.
In conversations with staff these days, Goldberg repeatedly stresses the importance of hitting 1 million subscribers to ensure the magazine is financially sustainable, sources at the magazine said.
Thompson suggested an alternative strategy: “I never really think about 1 million subscribers. I think about $50 million in subscriber revenue,” said Thompson, who became CEO in February. “There are other ways to get to $50 million ... 800,000 subscribers who pay $62.50, 500,000 subscribers who pay $100.”
Such an admission suggests an awareness on behalf of The Atlantic’s leadership that the 1 million subscriber goal may now be out of reach.
“When I interviewed for this job, Laurene said, ‘I want the place to be sustainable,’” Thompson said. “I made it clear that I would do as much as I could to get us toward sustainability.”