The Atlantic survives — and thrives — following the death of Michael Kelly. But questions about its future remain.
A MORE TRAUMATIC event in the life of a magazine would be hard to imagine. Last April, Michael Kelly — who had served as editor of the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly for about three years, and who had remained a close adviser after stepping aside the previous fall — was killed while covering the war in Iraq.
Within weeks, managing editor Cullen Murphy was standing in for Kelly, accepting two National Magazine Awards, including the coveted "general excellence" prize. "He’s the one who should be accepting this. ‘What a pip,’ he’d say right now, because he cared so much about his subject," Murphy was quoted as saying at the awards ceremony.
Kelly’s colleagues have not fully recovered; but the magazine, by all outward appearances, has. And this past Sunday, just a little more than seven months after Kelly’s death, Murphy was collecting an award in his own right: he was named "editor of the year" by Advertising Age at the annual American Magazine Conference, in Southern California.
"We really shared an editorial vision to a great degree, and had very similar tastes in many, many ways," Murphy told me just before leaving for the conference. "Both of us loved the very best kind of narrative nonfiction reporting. Both of us loved contrarian political pieces. Both of us had a sense that a heavily ramped-up book section could add a lot to the magazine. On big-ticket items, there has been an enormous amount of continuity."
Yet despite the Atlantic’s success, there is uncertainty at the magazine’s North End headquarters. The uncertainty appears to be a direct consequence of Kelly’s close friendship with chairman David Bradley, who purchased the Atlantic from Mort Zuckerman in 1999 for a reported $10 million in part so that he could give Kelly — then the editor of Bradley’s tiny but respected National Journal — a larger playground.
Bradley, who was traveling, responded to my inquiries by e-mail with pointed ambiguity.
For instance, though Murphy’s title is still that of managing editor, it is widely believed among the staff that he will be named editor — perhaps sometime around the first anniversary of Kelly’s death. "It must just be a matter of formality," says Jack Beatty, a long-time senior editor at the magazine. Murphy himself elides the subject. "I’ve never discussed the matter with David, and I’ve just been doing the job of editor," he says, adding that "it’s not an issue."
But Bradley, in his e-mail, said something rather surprising. "When Michael elected to move beyond the editorship, first Michael and I, then Michael, Cullen, and I, thought through how we might manage the enterprise," he told me. "Without defending the merits, our decision in the end was to avoid posting a new editor in the moment. Our thinking was that we would like to finish the rethinking and reworking of the magazine before appointing Michael’s replacement. For all of its success of late, Atlantic remains, at least in part, a broken thing. This may take some time."
Then there is the question of whether the Atlantic will remain in Boston — a matter of some speculation ever since the Washington-based Bradley bought it. Kelly, who also lived in Washington, alleviated those fears by buying a rambling old place near the seashore in Swampscott, where he hosted a raucous Fourth of July party every year.
Murphy dismisses those concerns as "one of the leitmotifs in the life of the magazine," noting that similar rumors sprang up after Zuckerman — a New York real-estate developer who got his start in Boston — bought U.S. News & World Report, which is based in Washington.
But Bradley, when asked the same question, replied that "the honest answer is that this is proving a harder issue than I had imagined. My original thinking (and statement) was that Atlantic would remain in Boston. As it remains. The problem, principally for my account, is that I’m finding it hard to lead a culture at such distance. Whatever my skills, they do not include a strong public presence, a natural gift for leadership."
In other words, it’s too early for the Atlantic’s staff members to start packing their bags. But perhaps it’s not too early for them to be thinking about it.
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY is a Boston institution, one only slightly less venerable than Faneuil Hall. Founded in 1857 by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, it was the first to publish Julia Ward Howe’s "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The glory days for the Atlantic, as described in Ellery Sedgwick’s 1994 book The Atlantic Monthly, 1857-1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb, took place during its first half-century, when it was edited by such literary giants as James Russell Lowell and William Dean Howells.
The magazine continued as a respected, if increasingly obscure, Boston institution until 1980, when Zuckerman took charge and named William Whitworth as his editor. Whitworth, a former associate editor of the New Yorker, gave the magazine a much-needed jolt — symbolized by a 1981 cover story about Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, who confessed to journalist William Greider that he and other administration officials knew all along that Reagan’s tax cuts would lead to a massive budget deficit.
The Atlantic won nine National Magazine Awards during Whitworth’s tenure. But Zuckerman eventually slowed the money spigot, and though the magazine continued to publish memorable pieces on such topics as mad-cow disease and global warming, it fell off the conversational radar.
When Bradley bought the magazine, he essentially repeated what Zuckerman had done 20 years earlier: he brought in an energetic new editor, and he spent money. Kelly, previously the editor of the New Republic and a political reporter for publications such as the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker (he also wrote a syndicated column for the Washington Post), bulked up the magazine, oversaw a redesign, and brought in talented, right-leaning commentators such as David Brooks (since departed for an op-ed columnist’s slot at the New York Times), Christopher Caldwell, and P.J. O’Rourke, as well as the uncategorizable Christopher Hitchens to write about books. The magazine also became more topical, especially after 9/11. For better or worse, the genteel liberalism of the past was supplanted by a sense of ideologically diverse urgency.
But Kelly was as much about continuity as he was about change. And that started with Cullen Murphy, who began at the Atlantic under Whitworth in 1984, and whom Kelly persuaded to stay.
At 51, Murphy is a formidable figure in his own right. A native of New Rochelle, New York, and a graduate of Amherst College, he is an author (his next book will be a history of the Inquisition and its continued effect on world events) with an unlikely sideline: he spends a half-day each week writing the text for the comic strip Prince Valiant, which his 84-year-old father, John Cullen Murphy, illustrates (Murphy’s sister, Meg, does the lettering and coloring).
Murphy and I met last week for lunch at CafŽ Jaffa, an unprepossessing place in the Back Bay that serves Middle Eastern fare and sells Israeli newspapers. With tousled, reddish hair, round, wire-rimmed glasses, and old jeans, Murphy could have been a graduate student who had stayed in school too long. He was buzzing with ideas, writing down the name of a weblog I’d suggested he should check out, and telling me that he was already brainstorming with his just-hired political reporter — Joshua Green, from the Washington Monthly — about what he can write on the eve of next year’s Democratic National Convention that will still be fresh by the time it comes out.
Says Bill Whitworth, now working as a book editor in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas: "I think he’s doing a wonderful job. It’s no surprise to me. He’s a good editor, and he always has been, and he’s a tremendous writer."
Perhaps the emblematic piece of the Kelly era was a three-part series by William Langewiesche on the excavation of the World Trade Center. So I was fascinated to learn that Langewiesche was actually a Murphy discovery: Langewiesche, a pilot, had sent some travel writing in over the transom in the late 1980s, and it had caught Murphy’s eye. It was eventually transformed into a cover story on the Sahara.
Langewiesche’s three-parter on the World Trade Center, which was later turned into a book (American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center), came under attack because he reported that some of the New York firefighters may have been involved in looting — a controversial assertion to make in such an emotional environment. In an e-mail from Paris, Langewiesche told me that he remains grateful for the support Kelly and Murphy gave him when the protests began.
"Mike was the bravest of men. Cullen is the wisest," Langewiesche wrote. "Their combined defense of my work was heartening and deeply gratifying."
The cover story of the current issue, by the way, is Langewiesche’s heartbreaking deconstruction of Columbia’s last, fatal flight.
ACCORDING TO James Fallows — who wrote for both Whitworth and Kelly, and whose story on Iraq as "the 51st state" last fall was an early warning signal about the mess that exists today — the real change in the magazine four years ago was not so much in editors as it was in owners. Both Whitworth’s and Kelly’s hirings "coincided with new ownership, and there is a trait of new ownership, and a kind of oomph and emphasis on pushing the magazine in different directions," says Fallows.
The question now is, where does the Atlantic go from here? Under Kelly and Murphy, the magazine has carved out a handful of areas of expertise — politics, foreign affairs, explanatory journalism, and books. (Literary editor Benjamin Schwarz is highly respected, if intimidating in his judgments — such as his recent pronouncement regarding the King James Bible that "no one who hasn’t read it thoroughly should be considered well educated.") Indeed, one of the few differences Murphy admits to having with Whitworth is that he, like Kelly, believes the magazine should be more focused and less eclectic — although a long piece by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last January, arguing that his cousin Michael Skakel is innocent of murder, was as eclectic a piece as one can imagine.
The Atlantic is currently in the midst of an unusual project — downsizing its circulation by charging more and eliminating cut-rate subscriptions, a move that its executives hope will reduce costs and eventually allow the magazine to break even. According to an account in the New York Times, the magazine will guarantee advertisers a paid circulation of 325,000 — down from the current guarantee of 450,000, and considerably below the actual circulation of more than 500,000. The magazine has also cut back over the past few years from 12 issues per year to 10.
"This is a vote of confidence in the product," Murphy says of the latest moves. "It’s the magazine saying to the reading public something that many magazines don’t actually say, which is this: we think we are putting out something that is good enough that you’ll actually be willing to pay us something close to what it’s worth."
After winning his "editor of the year" award on Sunday, Murphy e-mailed me from the West Coast, "Well, as my father would say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. But more seriously to your question: Something like this masquerades as an award for an individual but it’s really an award to a whole group of people. Novels are written solo, but magazines are intensely collaborative. And the Atlantic is a place that functions very well organically, from the editorial side in Boston to the corporate and marketing side in Washington and New York. There is also a debt that all of us owe to Michael Kelly."
The shadow of Michael Kelly remains a palpable presence at 77 North Washington Street, but the Atlantic Monthly continues. Murphy is making plans to rework "The Agenda," at the front of the book, so that it can accommodate late-breaking stories. And despite questions about Bradley’s intentions, Bradley himself has been the best of stewards: he has invested a lot of resources in the magazine, and he’s invested them wisely, giving good journalists the tools they needed to do good work.
Bradley, in his e-mail to me, came across as a man very much still in mourning. "We had plans much larger than this current holding of properties would suggest, probably larger than we could deliver," he said. "That was some of the fun of Michael, thinking grandly beyond our position. I have none of that remaining. As to the larger enterprise, I have no editorial partner any more. Michael is very easy to miss."
Yet Bradley was also full of praise for Murphy, calling him "the most remarkable confluence of intellectual force and unfailing grace I have known," adding, "I’m new to this field and therefore don’t know many editors. But if this is what owner-editor relations are like, I’m going to love publishing."
If those comments appear to contradict Bradley’s noncommittal stance on Murphy’s future, well, perhaps that’s not surprising. By all accounts, Bradley was smitten with Kelly, and saw him as someone around whom to build the media empire he dreamed about.
Those dreams are now gone. But the Atlantic — 146 years old and counting — is very much still here.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com