July 11, 2016

Debate nights are by now a familiar ritual for political journalists at The Atlantic. As the network lights come up in an auditorium somewhere in America, the magazine’s campaign corps begins typing away.

The result? Thousands and thousands of words of debate recap and analysis, filed in real-time, timestamped and arranged in reverse chronological order.

It’s all part of The Atlantic’s approach to covering politics, which hinges on the answer to a single question: How does a magazine cover politics in an era of instantaneous news when it only publishes 10 issues per year?

“We’re a real-time magazine,” said Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic’s Washington bureau chief. “That means we’re able to deploy the traditional strength of magazine journalism at a moment that readers seem to be seeking it.”

This revamped approach to politics coverage has its roots in three big moves over the last year, intended to shape The Atlantic’s editorial approach. In July, Atlantic Media suspended the publication of National Journal magazine — the company’s politics and policy-focused title — and ultimately paywalled the content on its website. Atlantic Media downsized its newsroom, and several National Journal staffers were hired on at The Atlantic as the company sought to enhance the magazine’s position as its consumer-facing politics brand.

The Atlantic also underwent a website redesign, which debuted in April 2015, that brought the magazine’s visual sensibilities to the web and turned its homepage into a brand showcase. In August, The Atlantic returned to its blogging roots with Notes, a retro shortform section that acknowledged the fast-paced nature and informal style of online writing.

And in January, The Atlantic launched its redesigned politics and policy section aimed at providing “intelligence and ideas-driven journalism” at “higher-velocity than we were in the past.”

When it comes to velocity, The Atlantic has certainly lived up to its goals. Appelbaum says The Atlantic is publishing “many more stories” than it was a year ago today, in part because it has tripled the size of its politics team. That increased coverage, perhaps combined with heightened reader interest amid the 2016 election, has helped The Atlantic grow traffic to its politics and policy section 170 percent year-over-year.

“I think, like other media outlets, we are seeing interest from our readers in this cycle,” Appelbaum said. “But I think that the extent of the growth speaks to the way we’re meeting that interest with stories that we actually want to read. And I should emphasize as well that when we’re talking about our politics coverage, we’re talking about the role of faith and public life, we’re talking about the criminal justice system, we’re talking about state and local elections.”

Appelbaum pegs the increased reader interest to three factors: “The privilege of selectivity” — greater understanding of what readers are interested in and why; the quality of The Atlantic’s writing; and a more nimble response to the developing news cycle.

By way of example, Appelbaum said his staff has published “more than 30” liveblogs over the course of this election, many of which draw a majority of their traffic after the events end. A liveblog of CNN’s Sept. 16 GOP primary debate, for example, garnered nearly five times as many unique visitors in the 24 hours after it concluded.

He says these events work their way into the D.C. political conversation, too, citing a tweet from Hugh Hewitt in which the GOP host and debate moderator said the blog was “very interesting to me.”

“His tweet seemed to say that it had helped him understand what he hadn’t been able to see that close up on the stage,” Appelbaum said. “That the recap had helped him understand what had actually happened that night.”

The challenge, of course, is to balance these quick takes with the more ruminative work that The Atlantic is known for. Appelbaum says the magazine has accomplished this by sending its magazine writers on the campaign trail and expecting them to file magazine-style dispatches in a timely fashion. In particular, he cited the work of Molly Ball, who put the finishing touches on this meat-and-potatoes report on Donald Trump the day after he clinched the GOP nomination.

In many ways, Appelbaum said, The Atlantic’s timely narrative offerings are a good fit for the current media moment, where publishers are shifting away from commodity coverage in a bid to distinguish themselves from the crush of online competitors.

“I think you could survey the media landscape broadly and see that other news organizations may also be experimenting with narrative form, or experimenting with story selection or with their emphasis on comprehensiveness,” Appelbaum said. “We have an advantage of being a magazine — of not needing to reinvent ourselves to do that, but simply needing to extend what we’ve always done.”

Correction: A previous version of this story included an extra word in one of Appelbaum’s quotes and omitted a clause in another. Further, this story originally said that The Atlantic’s hires from National Journal were made to “build the magazine into its consumer-facing politics brand.” In fact, The Atlantic was already the company’s consumer-facing politics brand; those hires were made to enhance the magazine’s coverage.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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