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May 14, 2020, 10:29 a.m.

The Atlantic’s executive editor talks conspiracy theories, journalistic norms, and new products for all those new subscribers

“I had people believing outlandish, harmful things who were repeating back to me the values that I, as a journalist, have. Your mind melts.”

When The Atlantic added 36,000 new subscribers in one month in March, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg attributed the surge to the publication’s deeply reported “big-swing” coronavirus coverage.

The challenge for the magazine, which relaunched its paywall last fall, is trying to transition that pandemic-fueled attention. It’s at the plate again with Shadowland, a multi-article project about conspiracy thinking in America, launched Thursday. For the first time in months, the homepage is dedicated to something other than COVID-19.

I spoke to the magazine’s executive editor (and former Nieman Lab staff writer) Adrienne LaFrance about her cover story on the conspiracy theory QAnon and how conspiracies — and the Trump presidency — have changed the way she thinks about reporting and editing. She found QAnon to be much more than “a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chatroom inhabitants.” “To look at QAnon,” she writes, “is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

LaFrance also shared that, though the coronavirus traffic bump peaked before mid-April for most sites, The Atlantic gained another 34,000 new subscribers last month. She highlights some new news products The Atlantic has added to strengthen its connection with its (many) new subscribers.

My conversation with LaFrance, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Sarah Scire: Tell me about how this piece came to be. Do you, as executive editor, usually write cover stories?

Adrienne LaFrance: I don’t have as much time to write as I used to, but I’m really glad that I got to dig into this one. I’ve been fairly obsessed with how conspiracy theories spread for a while now. It’s something I looked at for Nieman Lab and I also had a column for Gawker about misinformation on the internet.

The whole premise of Shadowland, this series that we’re launching, is that we know that conspiracy theories are dangerous along a number of different dimensions. People have heard ambiently or directly over the past several years of the Trump presidency that conspiracy theories are spreading easily and quickly and that they pose real-world harm, and we really wanted to dig into that. We thought about how to tackle this issue in a way that’s different from what people have already seen. That was the goal.

For me, QAnon as a group just seemed fascinating. Its existence is predicated on the internet. I wanted to figure out what it was beyond a sort of real-time conspiracy theory that people could participate in.

Scire: You pull out the connections between religion and QAnon in a number of different places in the piece. How did you choose that framing?

LaFrance: It came through my reporting, honestly. The more I reported, the more it led me to this apocalyptic worldview and the more I found parallels to other religions where people are obsessed with end times.

I also went in wondering, “How many people who are participating in this really believe it?” It seems so outlandish that I think I went into my reporting holding out hope that it was mostly people either straight-up trolling people online and knowing it was not legitimate but — sort of like fan fiction — having fun. How many true believers versus LARPers or whatever are out there? But through my reporting, it became evident that there are many really deeply earnest believers. That realization also led me toward looking at this through a religious lens.

One other thing I’ll say was a driving force in my thinking was the importance of taking it seriously. Often we encounter absurdities and the impulse can be to wave it away and say, “Okay, if we ignore that thing that seems harmful or ridiculous, eventually it’ll peter out.” But that was also something that people said about birtherism and now Donald Trump is the president. Anyone who can agree that conspiracy theories are harmful for democratic society should be engaged with these kinds of groups and not dismissive of them.

Scire: Right, you mention your time as a city hall reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat. You write that there was a debate in the newsroom over covering “this ‘birther’ madness” back in 2011. What did you think was the right answer then?

LaFrance: I remember thinking at the time that I always lean toward covering things. As journalists, our job is to seek truth and report it and that includes incidences of racism and people obviously making false claims for their own political aspirations. There was a moment where Trump was going to team up with Dog the Bounty Hunter and do the birtherism thing together. It very much felt like a side show, and there was a sense of “How much oxygen do we give this thing versus a big local story.” I definitely thought, “Oh, this will just fizzle out. It’s crazy and humans are sophisticated enough to ignore an obviously politically motivated lie.”

And that was wrong. I was wrong about that. I didn’t understand the way that even an obvious lie can spread when deployed in a savvy and emotionally targeted way. Trump knew his audience for birtherism and he found it and he used it very effectively. If you look at the rise of all sorts of propaganda and misinformation we see online now, it’s very much informed by the way birtherism was deployed then.

Scire: How do you think about reporting on conspiracies now that you’ve stepped into a role where you’re not just reporting but also editing and helping decide what gets covered at The Atlantic?

LaFrance: It’s a great question because this is something we thought about for Shadowland. We wanted to be very clear that we’re covering conspiracy theories, not spreading them.

I still think, as journalists, we have an obligation to report what’s happening in the world. For example, there’s a lot of people who talk about the daily briefings — when they were still happening daily — and whether that amounts to giving a platform for misinformation. As a member of the public, I would never want journalists to decide that I shouldn’t be able to watch the President of the United States engage with the press.

At the same time I have been thinking a lot about, for example, the extent to which, as journalists, we have this bias toward coherence and we try to pick quotes that are meaningful. With a president like Trump, especially, I think we do have to think about airing quotes in full — even when they’re incoherent — because that’s as important as the meaning of the quote itself.

There are all kinds of norms that have been shattered by this presidency where journalists are having to rethink how we do things. I certainly tend toward covering what’s happening and not shying away from controversial or disturbing truths. But it’s important to be very clear, for example, when you’re covering conspiracy theories about what’s true, what’s not, where there’s evidence, and where there’s not. 

Scire: I imagine that the audience that The Atlantic reaches is, by and large, not the audience that believes in conspiracy theories. 

LaFrance: I don’t know that that’s right. The people who study conspiracy theories will tell you that it is not just about education or ideology, but that conspiracism or being prone to conspiracism happens along a different dimension. My hope is that people who read The Atlantic are doing so because they know that we’re a trusted source and that they want accurate information and to challenge their perspectives. A propensity for conspiracy thinking is not so simple as not having the information in front of you. I think it’s a bit more complicated so I’m sure there are people who read or at least encounter The Atlantic who have some conspiracy-thinking qualities. I don’t think it’s most of our audience.

Scire: You covered a lot of ground in reporting this piece. You spoke to Hillary Clinton, you knocked on the door of a sergeant who wore a QAnon patch to meet Mike Pence, attended a Trump campaign rally in Toledo. Throughout, you’re talking to some people who undercut, it seems to me, your ability to believe that what we do as journalists — collecting and assembling facts and then communicating them — works to dispel false information. This is a meandering question but at one point, you ask someone if there’s any evidence to support a claim that Hillary Clinton ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr., he flips the question around and asks, “Is there any evidence not to?” How do you respond to that? What was your reaction as a journalist?

LaFrance: In the moment, honestly, I started laughing. The very premise of being a journalist is that you’re reporting the truth, right, and that you’re guided by empirical values. I felt like I was going in circles a lot of the time. There were a few moments where I felt a moral obligation to say, “There’s no evidence to support this!” but I didn’t feel like I needed to convince them. And I don’t think I could have if I tried.

I think one of the mindbending things for me about QAnon wasn’t just that people didn’t want to engage with a rational line of thinking, but that the way people describe why they were drawn to QAnon seemed rational. I heard a lot of people saying “I just want to know the truth” or “I’m really skeptical and I want to do my own research.” There are clearly some people who feel good because they believe they have access to insider knowledge. On its face, that sounds journalistic! Journalists love knowing secrets and being in on insider knowledge. Journalists are motivated by seeking the truth. Journalists are very skeptical. I had people believing outlandish, harmful things who were repeating back to me the values that I, as a journalist, have. Your mind melts.

Scire: You write that “QAnon adherents see Q’s anonymity as proof of Q’a credibility —despite their deep mistrust of unnamed sources in the media.” Did that distrust of anonymous sources change the way you think about using them at The Atlantic?

LaFrance: We do use anonymous sources, as a last resort. There are a number of reasons why you would be willing to protect a person’s identity. You do have to be able to explain it to the reader in a way that makes sense.

And, yes, the whole issue of anonymity in QAnon fascinates me. There are so many contradictions within the QAnon universe, but one is being distrustful of journalists because of unnamed sources, which is very much a Trump thing, and Trump himself was his own unnamed source. The people I refer to as true believers of QAnon just didn’t seem concerned with finding out the identity of Q. There was a sense that, “Well, we know he’s legitimate so it doesn’t matter who he is.” I found that surprising, but it came up again and again.

Scire: I spoke to [The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief] Jeffrey Goldberg about the big month the magazine had in March. What did April look like? I’m also curious how you’re thinking about strengthening the connection to new readers and new subscribers so that they stick around.

LaFrance: This is one of the most exciting questions to answer, honestly, because we are doing a lot. We had a momentous month, again, with nearly 34,000 new subscribers on top of the 36,000 new subscribers in March. So, yes, we have a lot of subscribers that we want to deepen our relationship with. I think you can see it across the stories that we’re telling and the different products that we have.

The daily newsletter is one example. Caroline Mimbs Nyce does an amazing job with it. From asking readers what their questions about coronavirus are to collecting recipes from Atlantic staffers to share, she’s trying to take a more personal approach.

Another example is Social Distance, our podcast that we started very quickly and launched at the beginning of this crisis — right around the time when everything was locked down.  We’ve heard from people again and again that it’s become this ritual for them to get to listen to James Hamblin and Katherine Wells talking to each other and others. People have told us they feel like they’re like hanging out with their two friends. Obviously audio is an intimate format anyway, but I think that show encourages a kind of closeness with subscribers and readers or listeners.

You also have our newly launched column by Arthur Brooks, “How to Build A Life.” At the Atlantic, we cover the most consequential forces in society and we’re focused on our democratic health and big questions but we’re also in this territory of talking to people on the individual level. The Brooks column and the Dear Therapist column are examples that have both done extraordinarily well.

And the last example is that we’ve extended our crossword puzzles. They’ve been so popular. Our crossword editor Caleb Madison has added Sunday crosswords and introduced a feature called social play where people can play together remotely. That’s obviously resonant in this moment where people are being kept apart because of the pandemic.

Scire: How does a big project like Shadowland fit in?

LaFrance: I’m so excited about Shadowland not just because I’m obsessed with the subject matter that it covers, but because it proves a thing that we are doing more and more of here, which is getting a cross disciplinary group of brilliant people into a room to make something big.

It started with an editor, a writer, a product designer, another product designer, an art director, [and] an engineer. We just said, let’s invent the most ambitious version of telling the story as we can. The product that they built weeks later is every bit as ambitious as we set out to do. I’m just really excited for the whole world to see. More big things is the mandate around here.

POSTED     May 14, 2020, 10:29 a.m.
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