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As Media Goes Online, Keeping a Foothold in Print

I don’t keep many subscriptions in print these days. Like many people, the availability of free online content from the best publications (save the Wall Street Journal) makes it a no brainer. But also like many people, I still think that there’s something about reading from the page. I have yet to buy a Kindle or iPad, and I read dozens of books each year (such as this one) in print, largely attracted by the costs of borrowing (that is to say, free) from the Seattle Public Library. The only publications that I subscribe to these days are Cook’s Illustrated (which charges for online access, more on that here) and The Atlantic; my subscription to The Economist recently lapsed after a few years. But online, I read from a wide array of outlets–The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Slate and when I follow a link there and have a spare hour The New Yorker.

This brings me to my main point. Of all that I read–and I read far more than I listed here–the only one that I both pay for and read online for free is The Atlantic. It’s an old publication, founded in 1857, with one Ralph Waldo Emerson publishing a poem in the first issue.

In print it does much of what it’s done for the past 153 years. Top-notch long-form journalism, incisive opinion, thought-provoking arguments and a letter to the editor section in which authors respond to their critics. I read every single article in the July/August issue.

Online it’s an equally strong publication. First, all of the content from the magazine is online for free, but because I’ve been convinced to subscribe, I prefer to read the magazine content in the print edition. The website doesn’t attempt to merely replicate the print product online–after all, it could never do the page layout and glossy photos justice. Instead, it creates an entirely separate class of content that fits online better. The magazine’s columnists and regular correspondents (Megan McArdle, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Megan McArdle, James Fallows and Michael Kinsley) all regularly blog on the website, frequently providing additional commentary on their articles in the print edition and beginning a discussion with readers. The website hosts the blog of Andrew Sullivan, arguably one of the most influential voices in the national dialogue. In addition to the blogs, all of which are an ongoing dialogues updated hourly, the website contains a number of channels that correspond to the magazine’s main sections, ranging from Politics and Culture to Food. These include posts in blog form from a range of Atlantic writers, regular columnists and guests. And finally, in recent months The Atlantic Wire was launched, acting as a high-brow aggregator (like the Huffington Post or Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet) for opinion columns and blogs.

I can easily spend hours a day on The Atlantic, usually on Andrew Sullivan but frequently clicking on links to other online-based coverage across the website. The web operation is an extension of the print publication. It reinforces what the print edition does well but does it in a manner native to the Internet.

With The New York Times preparing itself for a move toward a metered system–with irregular visitors reading online for free but regular readers paying a subscription once they read a certain number of articles each month–it’s clear that online isn’t working for most print publications. They’ve followed an approach of giving all their content away for free, while only recently beginning to experiment with content that truly works online. That gives readers no reason to subscribe to the print edition and no (or at least very limited) online content that reinforces why the print version is valuable in the first place. And with consumers still not trained to pay for online access, it’s likely that the Times will see a significant drop among regular readers as they go elsewhere for their content.

The Times’ influence isn’t found in walled gardens but in cross-linking and being at the center of the national conversation. Its most valuable asset isn’t their content; it’s the brand. The Atlantic realized that and took steps to shore it up both online and in print. The New York Times and its counterparts should hope that they can find the sweet spot for daily reporting that The Atlantic has discovered for monthly opinion–and give us a reason to believe that it truly is all the news that’s fit to print, to blog and for some (but not all) of us to subscribe to.

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