Two things stood out when the book tour for an impressive new anthology, The American Idea: The Best of the Atlantic Monthly (Doubleday), rolled through town this past month. The first point was that the occasion was bittersweet. The Atlantic was founded in Boston 150 years ago, but decamped for Washington, DC, in 2005. This made the confab at Cambridge’s First Parish Church Meetinghouse part anniversary party, part memorial service.
The second point was that no one wanted to engage the first point. There was brief mention of the move to Washington, and former managing editor Cullen Murphy made passing reference to New England’s reputation (unjust, he said) for provincialism. But no one tackled the question that was, in all likelihood, on almost everyone’s mind: how had the Atlantic’s departure from Boston changed the magazine?
Perhaps the panelists and the audience avoided this subject out of a shared sense of decorum. Suggest the Atlantic had changed for the worse, and you might disrupt the celebratory vibe; suggest it hadn’t changed, or that it was actually better, and you’d risk retroactively tarnishing the magazine’s long Boston tenure.
But the awkwardness of the question doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be broached. After all, two years into its DC incarnation, the Atlantic is changing, arguably for the worse. The magazine’s long-time claim to fame has been erudite literary nonfiction that “breaks ideas,” as correspondent James Fallows put it in Cambridge. Today, though, the Atlantic seems drier, wonkier, more focused on grabbing readers (and advertisers) by following the stories of the day, and less interested in examining subjects no one else is talking about. And while the move from Boston doesn’t deserve all the credit — or blame, depending on your perspective — for this change, there’s reason to think the magazine’s relocation is playing a major role.
Compare issues of the Atlantic published this year with issues published in 2005, the magazine’s last year in Boston, and a few telling differences emerge. For one thing, the cover-story sensibility is shifting. In 2005, the Atlantic devoted covers to (among other things) David Foster Wallace’s musings on talk radio; Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Tocquevillian tour of the US; and an imagined history of the war on terror by Richard A. Clarke, pegged to hypothetical future attacks and presented as a 2011 lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Chances are, none of these three pieces would ever show up on the cover of Time or Newsweek — even if those magazines had the space to accommodate them. In contrast, the Atlantic’s 2007 incarnation seems, pretty clearly, to be emphasizing hard politics and current events: recent covers have included David Samuels’s story on Condoleezza Rice’s ascendancy; Joshua Green on Karl Rove’s exit from the White House; and a Jonathan Rauch piece on philanthropy hooked to the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Also striking, in terms of the Atlantic’s overall tone, is the magazine’s growing affinity for the kind of buzzwords prized by management consultants and the MBA programs that produce them. (This might be a good time to mention that David Bradley, who’s owned the magazine since 1999, has an MBA from Harvard and made his fortune as a consulting entrepreneur.) A 2007 State of the Union package, for example, was dedicated to “innovators.” The Atlantic’s December 2006 cover story listed the 100 most influential Americans of all time. And Rauch’s philanthropy story was actually part of a bigger Values Issue, which also featured a how-to piece on ethical investment by Wall Street Self-Defense Manual author Henry Blodget. (“Socially responsible investing is neither as profitable nor as responsible as advertised. But if you insist, here’s how to do it right.”) If the stories on Rice and Rove would have been at home in the big newsweeklies, at least conceptually, Blodget’s piece would have been a natural for Forbes or Portfolio.
And then there are the graphs. Lots and lots of ’em. The 2005 State of the Union package featured graphs with only one story, a P.J. O’Rourke piece titled “Continental Divides,” which examined myriad social indicators (crime rates, income disparity, marital status, etc.) around the US. Two years later, the graphs were everywhere: in Ross Douthat’s piece on investor Craig Venter’s search for an energy-generating microbe (charting, among other things, Americans’ use of wood in 1805), in Amy Waldman’s piece on post-Katrina education in New Orleans (five graphs!), in Jeffrey Rosen’s piece on Chief Justice John Roberts’s consensus-building style (only two, but real whoppers), in Joshua Green’s piece on political veterans looking to subvert the two-party system (just one), and in O’Rourke’s piece on the demographics of innovation. If you’re a quantitative sort, you might treasure all this finely granulated numerical detail. But if you’re not — or if you are, but believe literary nonfiction should be a realm of words rather than numbers — you might disagree.
Top-100 lists, graph metastasis, Aspen Institute–ese . . . what on earth is going on here? Is the Atlantic’s move to DC transforming it into a supersize U.S. News & World Report?