Surveying the crowd from the podium at the Harvard Club on Tuesday, The Atlantic Monthly’s national correspondent, Jim Fallows, set the tone of the event.
"None of us can say we are pleased by the occasion of our gathering this evening," he noted. "But we can say we are proud."
The occasion marked the end of an era — after 148 years in Boston, the magazine of "the American idea" dreamed up by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes had produced its final issue from home. Owner David Bradley is moving The Atlantic Monthly to Washington, DC, where it will have a new editor, a mostly new staff, and, at least potentially, a new direction. (Until a new top editor is chosen, Senior Editor Scott Stossel will manage the magazine.)
At Tuesday night’s public-farewell party — there had been an earlier soirée for the staff — Managing Editor Cullen Murphy, a 20-year Atlantic veteran who has been at the helm for the past three years, spoke about the connection between the magazine and its birthplace.
"Boston has etched the character of the Atlantic in several decisive ways," he said, before allowing that "Boston has no monopoly on virtues any more than Washington has on vices."
Throughout much of its history, The Atlantic — which straddled the worlds of literature and public life, published the work of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, and featured Nathaniel Hawthorne’s coverage of the Civil War, Dan Wakefield’s dissection of the effects of the Vietnam War, and Fallows’s examination of the festering Iraq war — has had to worry about making ends meet.
Bradley, who owns the Washington-based National Journal Group of publications and bought The Atlantic from Mort Zuckerman in 1999, has built readership up to about 1.5 million, and doubled newsstand sales to close to 60,000. The latest audited circulation is about 405,000, but according to an e-mail from Bradley, the magazine is still losing about $3 million a year.
"I can’t think of any joy in taking it from Boston," he wrote, adding, "There are some savings bringing The Atlantic in under our existing media infrastructure in Washington. There are advantages, as well, however, to what I call economies of intellect – some critical mass of writers and editors to share ideas, swap leads and sustain intellectual combustion."
Tuesday night’s party was a tribute to nearly a century of editors who sustained the magazine’s original intellectual combustion.
Ellery Sedgwick III represented his grandfather Ellery Sedgwick, who ran the magazine from 1909 to 1938. Senior editor Mike Curtis, an employee for 42 years, recalled the reign of Edward Weeks from 1938 to 1966. Eighty-six-year-old Bob Manning, who edited The Atlantic from 1966 to 1980, recounted the days when "salaries were shameful" and "hours were long," but big ideas flowed. Nick Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, paid homage to William Whitworth, who was editor from 1980 to 1999. And Murphy talked of Michael Kelly, who edited the magazine from 1999 to 2002 and is widely credited with reinvigorating it before he was killed covering the Iraq war in 2003.
In his e-mail, Bradley said that "within our ability in Washington, the purpose will be to carry The Atlantic legacy forward." But Tuesday night’s warm nostalgia was tempered by nagging worry that a different home might mean a different editorial mission. In his own e-mail to the Phoenix, editor emeritus Whitworth, who did not attend the party, said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the move, but added "I will also be concerned if it turns out that moving to Washington is an effort to move closer to the news."
"We make news occasionally, but we don’t cover it," he added. "We aren’t in the news business, we’re in the thinking business. Our job is not to chase the news but to be ahead of it.… For now I will assume that … David Bradley, a really smart man – is far too smart to believe that The Atlantic could be, or could want to be, a news magazine."
There were plenty of laughs inside the Harvard Club, particularly when Murphy read some creative – and very real – letters to the editor. But Whitworth’s concern hung over the affair like a threatening rain cloud.
Having come up to Boston from his Virginia home, Ellery Sedgwick said in an interview that "Boston’s given it a kind of intellectual character. I sympathize with the fear that [the move] may increase the focus on Washington and it may become provincial in that way."
The last word belonged to Manning, who told the audience that he feared "the change to claustrophobic Washington will prove threatening to the character and scope of the 148-year-old magazine."
"Long may The Atlantic grow, surge, and prosper," he concluded. "But please don’t change the name to ‘The Potomac.’"
Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at mjurkowitz[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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