“This is not my everyday memo to you. Definitionally, it is a message I can write only once,” begins Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley’s memo to staff at The Atlantic. The reference to its distinctiveness is in the fact that Bradley is planning, in about a month, to sell a majority stake in The Atlantic to Emerson Collective, the organization founded and run by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow. It is a first for Bradley, who writes that “this will be the first owner partnership in my 40-year career.”
The reasons outlined in the memo, unlike recent title sharing agreements and sales announced at organizations like Time Inc. and Wenner Media, have to do not with money, but with legacy. “The Atlantic’s long-term future has been on my mind for the last two years,” writes Bradley. As chairman of a privately-held organization, the natural move would have been to cultivate a successor in one of three his children, but, writes Bradley, “we did not have a next generation interested in media. Katherine and I would need to look farther afield.”
Bradley goes on to describe how that process took shape:
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.
Bradley says that nothing will look different in the immediate future, with the exception of the addition of Peter Lattman, a former media and deputy business editor at The New York Times, as vice chairman. Lattman, who will also remain as managing director at Emerson, had been working on the deal between the parties. The rest of Atlantic’s leadership remains in place.
For at least the next three to five years, Bradley will remain as chairman. When he retires, Emerson Collective will buy him out. The deal only affects The Atlantic and its businesses, including its live events and consulting arm. Bradley will continue to maintain sole ownership of Atlantic Media’s other properties, which include Quartz, the National Journal Group and Government Executive Media Group.
Bradley purchased The Atlantic in 1999 from New York Daily News and U.S. News and World Report publisher Mortimer B. Zuckerman, becoming just the fifth owner in the publication’s then 140-year history. At the time, Bradley was a relative publishing industry neophyte, with his first media acquisition, the National Journal Group, occurring two years prior. The handover of The Atlantic happened under very different circumstances, as described in The New York Times:
According to both Mr. Zuckerman as well as Atlantic Monthly sources, the owner and pundit did not have his heart in the relationship anymore. A person inside Mr. Zuckerman’s organization said the magazine, which did not make a profit, had become eclipsed by Fast Company. Morale was down, the executive said, because upper management had let it drift like an orphan.
The flailing, money-losing publication that Bradley purchased is now a venture that makes over $10 million a year in profit, has resurrected its reputation and dramatically grown its audience, in both digital and print.
Bradley is confident Emerson Collective, who is also an Axios investor and a supporter of the Marshall Project, Mother Jones and ProPublica, will sustain that legacy. “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,” writes Bradley. “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.'”