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As The Atlantic draws closer to 1 million subscribers, the publisher must battle declines in traffic to keep momentum going

The Atlantic’s subscriber base has grown by nearly 50% over the past year — an increase fueled by its coverage of the pandemic and the U.S. presidential election. While moving ever closer to 1 million subscribers, the challenge for The Atlantic now is how to keep the momentum going amid traffic declines for news publishers.

The Atlantic added about 280,000 paid readers from the first half of 2020 to the first half of 2021, according to the company, citing the latest circulation statement filed with the nonprofit media auditing firm, the Alliance for Audited Media. It now has more than 830,000 total print and digital subscribers. The increase in The Atlantic’s subscriber base is “just a true testament to their content,” said Melissa Chowning, founder and CEO of audience development and marketing firm Twenty-First Digital, who described The Atlantic’s recent coverage as “outstanding.” 

Jason Kint, CEO of digital publisher trade organization Digital Content Next, said the organization’s members saw over 50% growth in subscriptions last year overall. “We find willingness to pay for content as one of the better proxies for consumer trust,” he said. It’s “typical” to see audiences turn towards legacy brands “in times of vulnerability like we certainly had in 2020,” Kint added.

But publishers have seen traffic take a dip this year. According to Comscore data, the number of unique visitors to TheAtlantic.com in July 2021 fell to 18 million, down from nearly 30 million in the same month last year. That’s more than the 10% average decline in traffic from the 1,400 sample of publishers in Parsely’s network. The Atlantic’s traffic dipped for the first time since July 2020 into the teens (in millions) this April.

How can The Atlantic continue to acquire new subscribers, with these decreases in traffic? “It makes it harder,” said The Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson. “Huge traffic months lead to more subscriptions,” he said. (Although, Thompson pointed out that traffic is higher this year than it was in 2019, which was when The Atlantic launched its paywall.)

One way to deal with the subscriber acquisition challenge is to publish more stories on topics that “defined and distinguished” The Atlantic’s reporting over the past year, Thompson said. This includes the pandemic, the rise of authoritarianism, the dangers of extremism, political and racial issues and analysis of culture and society. The publisher is also expanding its climate, technology and books coverage. 

This year, The Atlantic hired around 30 people to its editorial team, including four staff writers and a senior editor from The New York Times, as well as other editors and writers from publications like Politico, Wired and Engadget. Two people were added to the experimental storytelling team, and on July 26, the company announced the launch of a new section called “America In Person” to explore the complexity of American identity. This all comes after the magazine laid off 68 employees, or 17% of its workforce, in May 2020.

The Atlantic publishes a mix of stories, some that bring in traffic and others that convert subscribers, according to Thompson. Analysis on breaking news tends to bring in more traffic, while deeper, longer-form stories are what convert readers to become subscribers, he said.

In the last 30 days, the story with the highest conversion rate went to Elizabeth Bruenig’s article on the crisis at Yale Law School around the professor Amy Chua, he said. Other high-converting stories include Ed Yong’s synopsis on how the pandemic ends and Anne Applebaum’s look at My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell. High-trafficked stories include Jennifer Senior’s piece on families coping with the tragedy of 9/11 two decades later and articles about the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, Thompson said. He did not share specific numbers. 

Both types of stories are necessary when subscriptions and advertising are large sources of revenue for the company. Subscription revenue makes up 45% of The Atlantic’s business (the rest is advertising, events and business-to-business revenue). Both subscription and advertising revenue has increased this year, according to Thompson, who again declined to share the numbers.

The Atlantic has also added people to its business side to support its subscription goals. A few recent hires include svp of audience strategy Andrea Valdez and Megha Garibaldi as senior director of consumer strategy & growth.

When asked about churn rates (when a subscriber cancels or does not renew their subscription) at The Atlantic, Thompson declined to share the numbers but said they are “not really an issue for us,” in part because The Atlantic stopped offering discounts on its subscription when it launched its paywall. “It’s much easier to retain people if they haven’t come in through a crazy discount,” he said. With discounts, you might get “people who don’t really want to subscribe… and those people churn more… The higher your introductory price, the lower your churn rate,” Thompson said.

In April 2020, the number of publishers offering free trials or subscription plans increased to 18%, according to subscription management platform Zuora. Publishers took advantage of a surge in traffic, as people hungrily searched for information about the spreading COVID-19 virus. However, discounts mean people are paying far less than the value of the product. 

The goal is to eventually get all of The Atlantic’s subscribers to pay its online introductory rates “through careful next-term pricing and messaging,” Thompson said. Those rates are $49.99 for an annual digital subscription, $59.99 for an annual print and digital bundle or $100 a year for a premium subscription that includes an ad-free experience online and a gift subscription. There are still about 230,000 legacy subscribers who only pay for the print magazine.

“There is an optimal price for The Atlantic, but it’s a math problem, and it’s probably higher than we currently charge…” Thompson said. The Atlantic will continue to experiment with its pricing, he said, but did not share specific plans.

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