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Magazine A-List 2009

The Atlantic's James Bennet Is Ad Age's Magazine A-List Editor of the Year

Low-Key Former Reporter Orchestrates a Multiplatform Approach to Provocative Talk

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It wasn't hard picking this year's Editor of the Year. Remembering his name -- now that was difficult.

In an age in which media people are often obnoxiously focused on trying to get everybody to pay attention to their (sigh) personal brands, James Bennet has been conspicuously inconspicuous as editor of The Atlantic, even as it's been dazzlingly resurgent under his leadership.

James Bennet
James Bennet Credit: Susana Raab
In the spring of 2006, owner David Bradley surprised the publishing world by selecting a guy with scant editing experience to be his new editor. (Other than spending 1989-1991 as an editor at the Washington Monthly, Mr. Bennet spent most of his career as a reporter, covering the New York metro beat, including City Hall, the White House, the auto industry, various campaigns and the Middle East -- he was Jerusalem bureau chief -- for The New York Times. He also twice served as a staff writer at the paper's Sunday magazine, including one stint under Adam Moss -- a previous Editor of the Year winner.) Back then, Mr. Bradley told the Times that he believed Mr. Bennet had a "selfless nature" which would make him a great steward of the now-152-year-old institution. He was right about his new hire, and prescient about a coming shift in the culture of magazines. Three years later, we're in a post-celebrity-editor moment; gilded-glossy chiefs -- those who are left, that is -- have become caricatures in all the wrong ways (suddenly their imperiousness seems more about desperation than entitlement) as they rule rapidly shrinking kingdoms.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bennet manages a rapidly expanding editorial franchise where the talent rules. "I really do believe that we rise or fall on the strength of our writers and bloggers," he says. "They're the stars." He proceeds to name-check them (to list them all would necessitate reprinting The Atlantic's masthead), raves about his staff of editors -- and then e-mails later to specifically emphasize that he thinks his deputy editor, Scott Stossel, is a "genius" and his literary/national editor, Ben Schwarz, is "brilliant."

We selected Mr. Bennet as Editor of the Year in part because of the number of times we've found ourselves saying -- or have heard others say -- "Did you see that story in The Atlantic about...?" Or "Did you see what Andrew Sullivan wrote about...?" (Sullivan is the most prominent blogger at TheAtlantic.com.) And the line-up of heavy hitters that participated in the publication's recent two-day "First Draft of History" conference -- including David Axelrod, Timothy Geithner, General David Petraeus, Janet Napolitano, and Tim Armstrong, not to mention interviewers such as Maria Bartiromo and Charlie Gibson -- was simply astonishing. Other recently announced editorial brand extensions include opinion aggregator TheAtlanticWire.com and an as-yet-unnamed business-news site to be launched by newly signed media columnist Michael Kinsley.

SMART MOVE
An editorial approach that embraces every platform and uses each one to get across ideas and stories that keep people reading, talking and arguing.
When Mr. Bennet arrived in 2006, The Atlantic was facing some challenging circumstances: For one thing, it had no official editor. Managing Editor Cullen Murphy had been holding down the fort since Michael Kelly resigned in 2002; Mr. Kelly, who missed reporting, was then killed while on assignment in Iraq for The Atlantic in April 2003. And just before Mr. Bennet's arrival, the editorial staff had been uprooted from its home (since 1857) in Boston when Mr. Bradley decided to move the magazine to D.C.; various key staff members decided to quit rather than move.

Early on in his tenure, Mr. Bennet decided to step back and get his staff to focus on why The Atlantic matters. He says the magazine's mission is, simply, "advancing provocative, original thinking on consequential issues, and doing it in the print magazine in the way that print best supports, doing it digitally in the way the web best supports, and also doing it in the live space with events.

"We clarified that mission," he adds, "and we've been working ever since then with a fair amount of discipline about what we're trying to accomplish."

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