July 28, 2017 Last Updated 2:13 pm

The Atlantic to be acquired by Laurene Powell Jobs organization Emerson Collective

Emerson Collective has agreed to acquire majority ownership, but Atlantic Media will continue to hold a minority stake and run The Atlantic for the next few years

The Atlantic has been killing it lately, a real shot of good news in the otherwise depressing state of magazine publishing. Almost monthly, it feels like weekly, TNM has published some bit of news concerning The Atlantic as it adds to staff, redesigns its website, and builds its digital audience.

But a good portion of the news stories end up not as features here but under the top News section because they are generally press releases: The Atlantic hires McKay Coppins, The Atlantic hires Julia Ioffe, The Atlantic opens London bureau with James Fallows as first Europe editor…

The reason for this is that the magazine company is privately owned, so does not report earnings or other required information.

David G. Bradley acquired The Atlantic from Mort Zuckerman in 1999 and began to rebuild its editorial staff. But while Bradley made some very good moves, making Jeffrey Goldberg editor-in-chief has really gotten things rolling. Goldberg has been able to attract top talent and kept the magazine in the reading public’s eye. The magazine said that it had 33 million unique visitors for the first half of 2017, and is now said to be profitable, after losing money for years.

But, let’s face it, if Bradley’s only concern was having The Atlantic’s P&L be in the black very little of this good journalism could occur, little of this talent build-up.

So, it is a bit sad to learn that the magazine has been acquired. But here, too, the news is good, as it appears the magazine will be in good hands.

The magazine has been acquired by Emerson Collective, the organization founded and run by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. The Atlantic leadership team — made up of President, Bob Cohn; Publisher, Hayley Romer; and Editor in Chief, Jeffrey Goldberg — will continue to run day-to-day operations of the company, the announcement said.

Bradley, 64, has been looking for investors to take over Atlantic Media, which includes Quartz, National Journal Group, and Government Executive Media Group, in addition to its namesake magazine. (Though he and his wife have three sons, none appeared interested in media ownership). He seems to have done so quietly, and not with an eye to selling to an existing publisher. It appears that he has chosen a new owner wisely.

“What a privilege it is to partner with David Bradley and become a steward of The Atlantic, one of the country’s most important and enduring journalistic institutions,” said Powell Jobs in the announcement for the acquisition. “The Atlantic was co-founded 160 years ago by a group of abolitionists including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is a primary inspiration for our own work at Emerson Collective. Emerson and his partners, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, created a magazine whose mission was to bring about equality for all people; to illuminate and defend the American idea; to celebrate American culture and literature; and to cover our marvelous, and sometimes messy, democratic experiment.”

Emerson Collective, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, is an “organization dedicated to removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential” — focusing on education, immigration reform, the environment and social justice initiatives.

How this will change the magazine and its management is not really known. But one assumes that leadership at the publishing company was fully informed of what might be happening, and relieved that ownership is bowing out in this way, rather than the usual, depressing announcement that an existing publishing would be taking over.

Here is the memo sent to staff this morning:

My Atlantic Colleagues:

This is not my everyday memo to you. Definitionally, it is a message I can write only once. And, in the event, it is to the good.

I want to let you know that I am entering into a partnership with Emerson Collective, the business and philanthropic venture of Laurene Powell Jobs. For a time, Emerson Collective and I will own jointly, and then Emerson Collective alone, The Atlantic – magazine, websites and affiliated businesses. I don’t think you will see any material changes in your lives; we all continue in our same roles. But, now 64 years old, I find my gaze casting farther forward. Laurene and I have settled on a plan that, as I approach 70, Emerson Collective will take full ownership of The Atlantic and she serve in my stead as leader of the enterprise.

Against the odds, The Atlantic is prospering. While I will stay at the helm some years, the most consequential decision of my career now is behind me: Who next will take stewardship of this 160-year-old national treasure? To me, the answer, in the form of Laurene, feels incomparably right.

My Thinking in Brief

The Atlantic’s long-term future has been on my mind for the last two years. As Katherine’s and my three sons reached majority, we came to understand that we did not have a next generation interested in media. Katherine and I would need to look farther afield.

I don’t suppose it would be a Bradley search if I didn’t burden it with process. A year ago, I tasked a small group of researchers with identifying a list of individuals who might succeed me as the 6th owner of The Atlantic. That the list soon topped 600 names raised the question from me to our researchers: “Is there anyone you think not qualified to own The Atlantic?” But, by anyone’s measure, the top 50 names were remarkable. And, for me, from the first, Laurene Powell Jobs sat atop the list.

It was a friend of many of us here, Leon Wieseltier, who first put me onto the possibility that Laurene might come to love The Atlantic as I have. For its part, Emerson Collective had begun to invest in serious journalism for its own sake. And, as to Laurene personally, Leon said, “If she were to take an interest in The Atlantic, it would be for all the right reasons.” In a January meeting in Washington, Laurene first took an interest.

Sharing Some of the Detail

Writing alone here, at night, I’m struck by how little I know about business partnerships; this will be the first owner partnership in my 40-year career. I wonder the appropriate detail to share with you. But, here is some to begin.

In roughly a month’s time, Emerson Collective will purchase a majority interest in The Atlantic. I will retain a large share of the property; likely, but not certainly, Emerson Collective will purchase my remaining interest three to five years from now.

How might management change? I don’t think at all. I will continue in my current role with my current responsibilities for three to five years. In fact, my agreement with Emerson Collective contemplates the possibility that I may remain in some capacity for some longer time. (When I purchased The Atlantic in 1999, our poetry editor was 93 years old. I’ve some mind to take her role in the event she retires.)

As to our remaining rank of leaders and managers, the agreement contemplates no change. My 8th floor colleagues – Michael Finnegan, Aretae Wyler and Emily Lenzner, the senior Atlantic leadership under Bob Cohn – Jeffrey Goldberg, Hayley Romer, Kim Lau, Margaret Low, Jean Ellen Cowgill, Rob Bole – and all their direct reports – all continue to serve just as they do
now. Michael will report to me, Bob to Michael, and so forth down the line. And, as to the only note of disappointment, Atlantic headquarters continues here in the Watergate, and not in Palo Alto.

(Lest 600 of my other colleagues simply wander away, I should make clear that I – alone – will continue to own the other Atlantic Media properties – National Journal Group, Government Executive Media Group and Quartz. We will continue tomorrow exactly as we do today.)

One final note as to leaders: the day-to-day work of bringing us to an agreement was led by an Emerson Collective executive appointed by Laurene to lead her inquiry into media. Some of us knew Peter Lattman when he was the media editor and then deputy business editor at the New York Times. Though Peter will continue in his role of media strategist for Emerson Collective, he also will serve as Atlantic vice chairman, taking an office with us in New York.

In our last conversation of any note, Laurene and I thought through timing for her to meet you, and vice versa. Our best guess is that Laurene will visit both our Washington and New York offices in September. We have discussed smaller meetings with the leadership and all-staff events thereafter.

A Closing Thought on Ambition

Against expectation, surely against my own, The Atlantic is completing its most-successful decade in 100 years. In relevance, readership and even commerce, it is as if The Atlantic had entered, to take from Churchill, “the broad, sunlit uplands” of publishing. That it could happen now … well, you know the odds.

So, for some time, the strategy question nagging my thought is this: “What could we do in the next ten years worthy of the ten years just gone by?” I assume a Wall Street analyst would tell us, “Not a thing. There is no ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ for serious journalism.”

What I loved about Laurene from the first is that her confidence was forged on a different
coast. And, if anything, her ambition is greater than my own. So, let’s make it our work to prove the wisdom of our era wrong. And, when my time comes to leave, that would be a happy note on which to say “good-bye.”

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