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April 6, 2020, 1:28 p.m.

For its must-read coronavirus coverage, The Atlantic is rewarded with a huge surge of digital subscriptions

A focus on big-swing stories and “high-intensity, highly fraught journalism” let the magazine put up traffic and subscription numbers more expected from a top national newspaper.

The Atlantic had a very good March.

In an email to his staff, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced:

We have never, in the 163-year history of this magazine, had an audience like we had in March: 87 million unique visitors to our site, and more than 168 million pageviews. The number of unique visitors is astonishing — more than double the previous one-month record. But the most notable statistic, the one with possibly the greatest salience for The Atlantic’s future, is this: Your work has brought in more than 36,000 new subscribers over the past four weeks, even as we have lifted paywall restrictions on our coronavirus coverage.

Those traffic numbers are very impressive. To put them in context, 87 million uniques is not far off what The New York Times (118 million in January, per Comscore), Fox News (104 million), The Washington Post (92 million), or the Daily Mail (89 million) might get in a normal, non-COVID-19 month. (The Atlantic’s media kit cites 33.7 million uniques as of a year ago, March 2019.)

But it really is that “36,000 new subscribers” number that truly stands out. There are news sites in The Atlantic’s peer group that would be thrilled with 36,000 digital subscribers period, much less added in a single virus-wrecked month.

The Atlantic relaunched its metered paywall last September. Readers are given five free articles per month before being asked to choose an annual subscription option: $49.99 for digital access, $59.99 for digital and a print subscription, or $100 for a “premium” option that includes print and digital, ad-free browsing, and other member perks. (The premium option absorbed “The Masthead,” a membership option designed for “die hards.”)

Unfortunately, when I spoke with Goldberg, he wasn’t ready to discuss overall subscription numbers, other than to characterize them as “very good” — so we don’t know what sort of relative increase those 36,000 represent. He said The Atlantic saw a spike in subscriptions when the paywall launched in September, followed by “steady growth” in the following months, with bumps after a redesign in November and around the holidays, when it saw an increase in bundled digital/print subscriptions.

But now, with the magazine’s much-lauded coronavirus coverage driving record-breaking traffic, “We’ve moved into another category entirely.”

Goldberg acknowledged that — “like every other company in America” — The Atlantic is under stress from the coronavirus crisis. Still, he confessed, the boost in subscribers has brought some relief.

“Look, this was — and remains — a source of anxiety for me,” said Goldberg, who succeeded James Bennet as editor-in-chief in 2016. “I’ve been arguing for a long time that we will be saved as an institution by bearing down on quality, quality, quality. Just do the most deeply reported, beautifully written, carefully edited, fact-checked, copyedited, and beautifully designed stories — and the reader will come. They want to be supportive and they want access. And it turns out to be true. Thank God for it.”

About a third of the new 36,000 include both digital and print, the rest just digital. Goldberg said they were undiscounted and individually sold, not the result of any bulk or institutional deal: “One by one by one by one,” he confirmed.

Goldberg said it’s the magazine’s “most ambitious journalism” that has been disproportionately converting readers into subscribers, citing work by Ed Yong, James Hamblin, Kaitlyn Tiffany, Sarah Zhang, Yascha Mounk, and others.

Yong, on a recent Longform episode, said his editors had told him to forget 800-word updates and focus on taking “the biggest possible swing.” (He paused his book leave in mid-March to cover the virus.) One of the largest efforts to track state-by-state coronavirus numbers grew out of work by The Atlantic’s Rob Meyer and Alexis Madrigal. The ambitious approach has made The Atlantic’s coronavirus journalism distinctive and extended their coverage’s digital shelf life despite a rapidly evolving crisis.

The Atlantic decided to drop the paywall for a collection of coronavirus coverage — including blockbuster pieces like Yong’s “How the Pandemic Will End” — but the site still features prompts to “support this vital reporting” with a subscription on each page. Some other coronavirus stories — from an advice column on preparing children for coronavirus changes to an op-ed on the pandemic’s effect on American diplomacy — still count toward paywall limits, though.

“We’ve prioritized free access to the stories that can help people make decisions that keep them safe, physically and mentally, as well the stories holding officials accountable for failures related to the virus,” said Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic. (Semi-disclosure: Adrienne is a former Nieman Lab staffer, and our alumni are fairly thick on the ground at The Atlantic.)

Some subscribers have credited the redesign — which Goldberg called “the most dramatic new look for our magazine in its 162-year history” upon its unveiling — for their support. “Historically, The Atlantic has leaned on the strength of the word,” Goldberg said. “The revolution here was that we found a great creative director, Peter Mendelsund, who understood that the job of design and the art was to make it easier to see and understand the words — not to get in the way of them.”

“I get it — I’m the baker praising his own bread,” Goldberg added. “But it really is beautiful. It’s a delight.”

Many news organizations are seeing record-breaking traffic right now, but Goldberg feels The Atlantic has been able to capitalize on the surge by having the redesign, its paywall architecture, and new systems of “high-touch copyediting and fact-checking” on digital stories in place to take advantage.

The Trump era, he noted, had helped to prepare his staff.

“I feel like our journalists are doing so well in the pandemic coverage because we’ve been practicing for this kind of high-intensity, highly fraught journalism for three years now,” said Goldberg, who recalled telling his staff they were built for the moment, as he had after the November 2016 elections. “It’s not as if we went from a normal period in American life to a completely abnormal one. It was pretty abnormal a couple of months ago too.”

POSTED     April 6, 2020, 1:28 p.m.
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