How Atlantic Media magazines, websites hire for intellect, generosity, digital dexterity

Doctoral students on the fence about pursuing a teaching career may have a future at the Atlantic Media Company.

Prior journalism experience or a journalism degree isn’t necessarily required for the job of helping launch its newest product, a global business venture called Quartz, Senior Editor Zach Seward said in a telephone interview. “We’re trying not to presume a specific skill set,” he said. “If someone happens to be getting his or her Ph.D in economics and planning to go into academics, but we can entice them instead to be a journalist at Quartz, that’s an interesting model for us.”

Quartz is not the first media company to court Ph.D candidates (Bloomberg Government does too), but the process illustrates how The Atlantic is reinventing itself and rethinking the way it does business, including the way it hires, which has led to it being one of today’s most innovative media companies. Journalists want to know how to get a foot in the door there, while executives at struggling media companies want to know the secret to The Atlantic’s success.

The secret is rather simple: Hiring smart people who aren’t jerks.

Atlantic Media President Justin Smith, who joined the company in 2007, is known as the change agent. He initially declined the job offer but changed his mind when chairman and owner David Bradley wrote him a three-page letter and agreed to run the company like a start-up. That has resulted in the departure of some high-profile talent, but it has also led to the hiring of some high-profile talent, including Seward, who left The Wall Street Journal earlier this year where he was social media editor. At The Atlantic, Seward gets to create and build a new product from scratch.

At the forefront of the company’s hiring policies is the desire to build a culture around values – force of intellect and a spirit of generosity – that is, at times, difficult to articulate. These values have taken on heightened significance in the digital era because journalists and non-journalists – who haven’t always spoken the same language, or cared to – must now not only be comfortable sitting in the same room with each other, they are expected to contribute to the conversation about the best ways to serve the company’s consumers. Shared values can help create common ground.

‘You know it when you see it’

Seward is perhaps the embodiment of the company’s philosophy of the entrepreneurial journalist. He helped launch the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and currently teaches digital journalism as an adjunct professor at NYU.

Named to Forbes’ list of ‘30 Under 30’ in the media, Seward got his job based in part on a personal relationship; his current boss, Kevin J. Delaney, also hired him at the Journal.

“The Atlantic is more than a century old and it has a long tradition of great journalism. But in the last several years it has made a really strong switch and put a ton of focus on digital in a way that you don’t see everywhere,” said Seward on why he left the Journal. “That really spoke to me. That was reassuring and made a strong case for coming aboard.”

The Atlantic’s hiring process has evolved over time. It started with company brass phoning the top journalism schools in the country in search of the best students, then flying them into Washington, D.C., where they were wined and dined by Bradley and, if all worked well, a job or fellowship offer was extended for entry-level talent.

“Recruiting and hiring people are the most important things we do. Everything else flows from that,” said James Bennet, editor-in-chief of the 155-year-old The Atlantic Magazine. Bennet has had to deftly manage employees who are adept with new media tools/strategies and those who aren’t—two totally different groups with different skill sets. What they have in common is the company’s mission, which has allowed for the creation of highly successful digital products, TheAtlantic.com and TheAtlanticWire.com, which reached new benchmarks in 2011, and was joined by a new venture, TheAtlanticCities.com in September. In the final quarter of the year, unique visitors to the three Web properties are on pace to average 11.3 million viewers per month (as measured by Omniture), more than double the average in 2010, according to a company press release.

Bennet said he usually waits for job candidates to apply for openings through traditional means, but that staffers also post vacancies on their Twitter feeds.

The two central ideas behind the company’s hiring process are the “sorts of values that are, at least in my experience, keys to success in the digital environment,” Bennet said in a telephone interview. “With force of ideas, you’re looking for highly original people who are excited by new ideas both in the kinds of things they want to write about and cover and also their orientation towards the practice of journalism itself.

Restricted by page-count, not everyone writes for the print magazine, Bennet said, there are also some employees who are dedicated to online products due to the nature of the beast. But many veteran journalists and new hires may write for both the print and online publications.

“They’re thinking about new ways to do journalism all the time and they’re excited about engaging with every new tool that comes along,” continued Bennet. “Whether it’s a new piece of technology, a new form of sharing, a new form of social engagement, a new way of thinking about storytelling in the digital environment. Again, it’s a kind of orientation that you really can see in people.”

As for the spirit of generosity, the overriding common denominator for all employees at the magazine, Bennet said, is the desire to be part of something bigger. “The kind of work that they’re doing, the kind of content that they’re creating has a kind of moral purpose to it. They really want to make the world a little better place,” he said. “… In an environment where you have to take a lot of chances and take a lot of risk, it’s important to have help from your colleagues and also to know that your colleagues have your back.”

In a recent interview with Talking Points Memo, Atlantic senior editor and technology writer Alexis Madrigal explained it this way:

“If you believe your company’s motto, you are probably an idiot or at least naive. But you know what, I really feel like we have a mission at The Atlantic that’s real. Our owner has two principles that I have taken to heart: force of intellect and spirit of generosity. There are plenty of smart people out there on the Internet, but I feel like we distinguish ourselves when we use that spirit of generosity to temper our instincts to know it all. I’m thinking about the way that Jim Fallows or Ta-Nehisi Coates work with their communities of readers and also how their minds work, the way they let characters stand in 3D and don’t flatten them into tools for their own propositions. The most amazing thing is that smart empathy is a rare and powerful thing on the Internet, so the moral posture also generates buzz and traffic. For me, that is the best thing about working at The Atlantic: I get to do what I think is right and for whatever mix of branding and history, people want that for us.”

Seward agrees that it is hard to put a finger on the exact formula the company uses to attract and hire the kind of people who fit in well here.

“From what I can tell, you know it when you see it,” said Seward. “Over time, you develop radar for it. Fundamentally, nobody wants to work with assholes. A good working environment is really a supportive, smart environment where you feel like it’s worth being in the room with these people because your work itself is going to improve just by being in that environment.”

Letting digital natives lead

When it comes to recruiting and retaining people who are “Atlantic material,” Tim Hartman, president of The Atlantic’s Government Executive Media Group, said it is critical for executives to create a collaborative environment, “a safe place where everybody is thinking about what changes are happening in the digital space and how we harness that change to service our readers.”

Hartman said the key people to have in the room are digital natives, people who have proven success in the digital age. Digital natives come in all age brackets and can include veteran employees who are intellectually curious, as well as young people who came of age in the digital era. Hartman said he hires digital natives in every function of the organization — technologists, project managers, writers.

Government Executive was one of the first companies to experiment with digital as far back as 1996. But the big push came when Smith joined The Atlantic. In the last two months, Government Executive has re-launched Nextgov, which provides content for the government technology industry. It is now making better use of social media tools, and more than 50 percent of its revenue comes from digital, Hartman said.

“Digital is a discipline now; I think for many years it was considered to be experimentation, an area where you can be creative,” he continued. “But the reality is that digital publishing has matured to a point where there are established best practices and you need people who know the best practices and will champion digital excellence across your organization. Then you need to champion those people, as a leader, and give them a big megaphone to lead the organization.”

Managing the tension and one-trick ponies

One of the biggest obstacles to transforming in the digital age is changing the corporate culture, Poynter reported in March.

Perhaps nobody knows that better than Ron Fournier, the former Washington Bureau Chief who is now the editor-in-chief of the National Journal Group. Fournier is in the process of filling his newsroom with insanely curious people who can report and think on multiple levels — people who can do it all, from sending out an urgent news alert via email, to writing a quick blog post or a 4,500-word piece for the magazine. “We look for people who know that, at the end of the day, our goal is to find new ways of making money with incredibly solid, incredibly good journalism.”

He acknowledges such high expectations have created a tension in the newsroom, one that editors try to alleviate by helping journalists better manage their time.

“We’re very honest with folks who come here about what we expect of them, so they know what they’re getting into,” Fournier said. “And they know if they are going to be able to stay in this business much longer – it’s changing so much – that it’s to their benefit to be able to sometimes crack their knuckles and write a long-form narrative or crank out something really fast.

“Most journalists who want to make a living in this business know they need to know how to do a little bit of everything — graphics, shoot photos, write quick, write long, write deep, and write funny,” Fournier said. “I don’t think it’s hard to find people who want to learn to be more than a one-trick-pony.”

Fournier said that National Journal utilizes several different recruiting techniques, including hiring ‘wickedly smart’ people away from other companies. Quartz is doing the same.

Digital first recruiting

While hiring is still guided by the two principles, recruiting efforts differ slightly by property. Quartz will employ at least 25 people, Adweek reported last month. Seward said that number was fluid. While hiring doctoral students for the new business site is part of the model, editors also rely on word of mouth, references they receive from colleagues, reporting and editing tests, as well as the old-fashioned application process. These approaches, however, may not always lead to a diverse pool of job candidates.

Smith, the company’s president, said recruiters attend annual conferences hosted by organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists and UNITY. Data on the percentage of journalists of color at the company was not immediately available, but a spokeswoman said the company is striving for more diversity.

Like the digital media space itself, The Atlantic’s hiring process is evolving, still its approach appears to be working. Much has been written in recent months about the company’s consecutive quarterly growth in both digital and print advertising as well as its transformation from a declining traditional media organization into a cutting edge digital one.

Whether you’re a journalist or a media executive trying to figure out how to survive in the current terrain, Smith said the key to success is not being tied to a fixed tradition or a fixed approach.

“They must be open to change, open to the possibilities that have been made evident by technology, and comfortable in a fluid, experimental and ever-changing environment,” he said. “It’s about more than just different platforms. New platforms do define the new medium. But platforms themselves require different and varied approaches.”

Correction: Tim Hartman is President of Government Executive Media Group, not General Manager.

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  • Anonymous

    A reputable publication that adheres to an amicable relationship with employees and audience. Impressive. Given the amount of resources and effort they invest in hiring, do they take time to ever reply to those that aspire to join the ranks?

  • Guest

    fun fact: a lot of atlantic staff has a reputation for being some of the douchiest people at northwestern’s medill school, so…no, atlantic. you hire some loud, obnoxious people who lack a sense of self-awareness who i no longer have the pleasure of encountering.