"I would much rather have more and better competitors than to have this being left as some kind of exotic species that lives only in captivity, basically," he says, while surrounded by tilting headstones bearing epitaphs blurred by time. "The middle ground between news potato chips"-the light-bites desk jockeys glean while zooming around the Web-"and the vast meals served in books has almost disappeared." But, says Mr. Murphy, "My bet is that I am not the only person in the world who misses this."
We're about to find out if he's right as The Atlantic, where a surprisingly high percentage of the magazine world's best-crafted and most-deeply-thought pieces has appeared over the past few years, plans an ambitious attempt to make its readers pay more. Key factors in its favor, of course, are the quiet authority of Mr. Murphy's leadership, and the smart and surprising magazine that Advertising Age's Editor of the Year puts out every month.
Mr. Murphy's office is as text-dense as his magazine. Its bare-brick walls are lined with furlongs of books ranging from Andrei Gromyko's memoirs to Ace Backwords' how-to on homelessness, "Surviving on the Streets." A stack of recent magazines includes Vanity Fair and The New England Journal of Medicine, although not the U.S. Army War College quarterly Parameters, which Mr. Murphy later touts. The most noteworthy office art is an enormous "Prince Valiant" comic strip, which he writes and his father illustrates.
Boston in `Atlantic' DNA
It's not the smart-set glamor one finds in the offices of Conde Nast Publications' New Yorker, which remains the key foil for The Atlantic (and vice versa) among serious magazines. Both titles' DNA reflects rarefied versions of their hometowns. The New Yorker is glossier, and at one with its city's speed-of-light discourse and voracious cultural and intellectual appetites. The Atlantic is less flashy, unconcerned with any kind of fashion or celebrity, and more attuned to academic values. (The Boston roots also account for its forgivable obsession with most things Kennedy.)
Though The Atlantic's book-reviews-cum-essays from Christopher Hitchens and Caitlin Flanagan turn many a tart and lovely phrase, its stock-in-trade is its big-think deep-dig pieces, an arena in which it's arguably bested all contenders in recent years. Among many others: William Langewiesche on the World Trade Center cleanup, the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 and today's sea piracy; Robert Kaplan on the differing roads the Middle East could take as typified by Yemen and Eritrea; and Mark Bowden's primer on interrogation.
In them, the magazine still displays a culturally contrapuntal tendency to, as one editor puts it, "let its articles find their own lengths," and explore nuance to arrive at conclusions that resist bumper-sticker or nut-paragraph summation.
The magazine's stepped-up game has won notice. "The Atlantic was always running these really great, long stories, but in the past couple of years they managed to apply that expansiveness to pieces a little more urgent and a little more immediate," said Robert Levine, a senior editor at Wired.
In his 18 years at The Atlantic, Mr. Murphy played key roles in both its tweedy tradition and its reinvention brought about by the late Editor Michael Kelly and the dollars devoted by new owner and Chairman David Bradley. He was former Editor in Chief William Whitworth's No. 2 when Mort Zuckerman owned The Atlantic, and remained in that role for the newly charged locomotive Mr. Kelly cheerily piloted. (One of Mr. Murphy's main tasks was making sure Mr. Kelly's train ran on time. In its loving obituary for Mr. Kelly, killed in April while covering the Iraq war, The Atlantic noted his "wallets and cell phones litter three continents.")
Mr. Kelly stepped down to become editor at large in September 2002, at which point Mr. Murphy became The Atlantic's top editor. But insiders are quick to point out the unusually collaborative relationship Mr. Murphy enjoyed with Mr. Kelly, and also the qualities of Mr. Murphy's tenure now becoming apparent.
"He is very organized, very efficient and wicked smart," says Charles Mann, a longtime Atlantic correspondent. "A very strong and directive editor."
Some of those directives, Mr. Murphy says, involve additional adjustments to the magazine's metabolism via rejiggering deadlines to allow later closing on news pieces. As well, a continued focus on foreign affairs, politics and domestic affairs, and books. "We have to choose our targets wisely," says Mr. Murphy. "The question becomes, with limited space and resources, where do you place your bets and where do you have the most impact?"
Which reflects the choices that serious, ambitious monthlies face today. The Atlantic is not scaled to reach a million in circulation. On the ad side, it's made nods to affinities for "special" editorial packaging. But the annual theme issues it publishes-"State of the Union" and "Education," both initiated by Mr. Murphy-are clearly driven by intellectual rather than marketplace concerns. Mr. Murphy mulls starting a business-themed issue, but that's a far cry from unabashed ad-seeking plays like a fashion issue.
HARD TO MAKE A BUNDLE
"It's hard to find a model where you're going to make a lot of money with this particular form," admits John Fox Sullivan, group publisher of The Atlantic, which nevertheless occupies the No. 4 spot on Ad Age's A-List. The question is how to reach break-even or marginal profitability. The Atlantic looks to do this by putting the onus on its readers-as many magazines have threatened but few have attempted-by dropping rate base by 27.8% to 325,000 from 450,000 and doubling its average subscription price to $30.
It's a bold move in an industry not known for boldness. Mr. Sullivan, by way of bolstering his case, says the magazine posted steady single-copy sales increases while boosting cover price to $4.95.
"We are producing a really fine product for educated people, most of whom have some means and are willing to pay for a fine product," says Mr. Murphy. "We are now putting this on the line."
Arguing against The Atlantic is magazines' inconclusive track record in monetizing multiple National Magazine Awards. (The Atlantic has racked up five in the past two years.) Arguing in its favor, as Mr. Murphy does, is the public's appetite for serious non-fiction-examples in the book world include Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and David McCullough's John Adams biography. Much of The Atlantic's native habitat may have disappeared, but perhaps this exotic breed can survive in the wilds of today's marketplace.