Inside Look at Atlantic Unbound

by Claire E. White

On a sunny April day 141 years ago, several distinguished gentlemen of the era including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes met at the Parker House Hotel in Boston to discuss a grand new project: a new magazine which was to become known as The Atlantic Monthly.

An immediate success, the magazine billed itself as a "journal of literature, politics, science and the arts." Today, almost 150 years later, The Atlantic Monthly is as popular as ever with an estimated readership

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of 1.2 million people for each issue distributed. The magazine has always been ahead of its time, being the first publisher of the short stories of such American icons as Ernest Hemingway, Henry James and Mark Twain. The forward looking nature of The Atlantic's staff has paid off.

In addition to the continuing popularity of the offline publication, The Atlantic Monthly, a Web version is also offered: Atlantic Unbound. One of the first magazines to take to the Web, Atlantic Unbound was honored in 1997 by being selected as a finalist for the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in New Media given by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Atlantic Unbound has made the finals again this year, and is up against such heavyweights as Business Week Online, Condé Nast's Epicurious, and The Sporting News Online. At the helm of the Atlantic Unbound is Wen Stephenson. After graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in History and Literature, Stephenson proceeded to The University of Chicago where he received his Masters in English. After stints at Business Week and at Chicago Review, where he served as associate editor, he became the Editorial Director of New Media at The Atlantic Monthly. We talked with Wen about his road to The Atlantic, the trials and tribulations of running the website of a magazine with a famous history in the go-go 90s, and what freelancers can do to increase their chances of having their work show up in The Atlantic Monthly.

How did you come to be at Atlantic Unbound? What prompted The Atlantic Monthly's move online?

Well, I was hired by The Atlantic Monthly in mid-1994 to be the Special Projects Editor. I had just quit the graduate English program at the University of Chicago, where for two years I'd been subjecting myself to near-lethal doses of postmodernism, and the change of atmosphere -- from academe to "mainstream" commercial publishing -- was invigorating, to say the least. Not long after I arrived at The Atlantic I got involved in what was then The Atlantic Monthly Online, which then appeared exclusively on AOL. The Atlantic saw the online medium as offering a new way to extend the magazine's editorial reach and to open up new business opportunities, creating new sources of revenue. The digital edition was a very small operation (it still is, in fact), and so there was great opportunity to learn online publishing, hands on, in its early stages. There was a real sense of novelty then that I think has since been lost. (Listen to me wax nostalgic for 1994!) The Atlantic was one of the first magazines to launch a digital, interactive edition -- it appeared on AOL in November, 1993. When I got involved there was still a feeling of it all being very new, very strange and exciting. Of course, a lot of people had been online long before 1993-94, but to find a magazine like The Atlantic on AOL at that time was pretty remarkable. One has to give those who made the decision to go online a lot of credit. It was visionary.

Preview By early 1995 it was clear we had to be on the Web, and we started drawing up plans for a site. There were five or six of us, all in our twenties and all with other responsibilies at the magazine, who were the original architects and editors of "The Atlantic Monthly on the Web," as the site was called. We did it by working a lot of nights, up to our elbows in HTML (and, of course, none of us really knew what we were doing -- who did?). At the start, Atlantic Unbound was simply the name of the Web-only section of the site, where we'd feature anything that didn't appear in the current issue of the print magazine. It has since become the name of the site itself, encompassing not only the Web-only journal but the online edition of the magazine as well. The month we launched on the Web, November 1995, I had Robert Pinsky (now U.S. Poet Laureate) reading excerpts from his translation of Dante's Inferno -- his first experience bringing poetry to the Internet in a multimedia format. That was the first Web-only feature we produced.

Then in June, 1996, I became Editorial Director of The Atlantic's New Media department, which is the role in which I'm currently serving.

How is Atlantic Unbound different from the offline publication The Atlantic Monthly?

In many ways. The whole point of putting a magazine on the Web is to use the medium in a way that adds value for your readers. If you're not using the medium -- in other words, if you're simply "shoveling" repurposed print content onto the Web -- you've got to ask yourself why you're online at all. So, to begin with, each month the print edition of the magazine is enhanced for the Web with links to related articles and other resources, audio, exclusive interviews with authors, and interactive discussions in the site's reader forum, Post & Riposte.

But there's a lot more to it than simply enhancing the print edition. Atlantic Unbound has evolved into a truly separate online publication -- think of it as a weekly, interactive supplement to the magazine, covering much of the same territory (books and the arts, politics, foreign affairs, travel, food) as well as venturing into certain areas that the magazine, as a monthly, isn't as well positioned to cover: primarily the Web and digital culture, pop culture, the media.

What kind of staff does it take to keep Atlantic Unbound up and running?

One of our best decisions has been to keep the Unbound staff small and versatile. You'll see there are nine people listed on the masthead under New Media. Of those, only three (myself included) work full-time on the Web site. Everyone else works for various other parts of the magazine in addition to the Web site, whether as print editors and factcheckers, or in technical, business, and adminstrative roles. There's a lot of improvisation, in terms of multitasking, and a lot of overlap between the print magazine and the Web site.

What is the greatest challenge of being Editorial Director of Atlantic Unbound?

Culture That's a tough one. There are days when the 140 years of The Atlantic's history seem to weigh on you, and you wonder what the hell you're doing in this new medium. But most of the time it's just like putting out any other publication. You do your best to keep it lively and timely -- and, of course, to work with your contributors to make the writing as good as it can be. But the greatest challenge? Probably trying to determine what direction the site should take even as the technology and the whole new-media industry are evolving so rapidly. You're constantly thinking in terms of the next redesign, the next leap forward. But it's impossible to see six months ahead on the Internet. You never know what the new technologies are going to be, what they're going to make possible. And so your plans are in a constant state of flux. This is undoubtedly one reason so many online publishers have had trouble mapping out a clear business plan. The temptation is to jump at every opportunity to do something new -- to be at the cutting edge. The greatest challenge may be just steering a steady course -- and knowing when to adjust, and by how much.

How interactive is Atlantic Unbound? What has the response from readers been like?

We've always made interactivity -- in the sense of inviting discussion with our online readers -- a top priority. Post & Riposte attests to that. And yet, to be honest, the response is rarely what you'd hope it would be. To be sure, there are moments of connection between readers -- and, occasionally, between readers and authors -- that are truly memorable. Most of the time, though, discussions started by readers or by our staff don't lead anywhere, or at least not in any productive way. Sometimes, I hate to say, it can be counter-productive. Perhaps that's the nature of the beast. The same was true on AOL's message boards, and the same is true of many forums on the Web. The main thing, I think, is to provide the opportunity, to foster an environment in which those memorable moments of interaction and connection, the kind that remind you just how revolutionary the online medium is, can occur. The rest is the unavoidable price you pay for maintaining an open, unrestricted forum on the Internet. One thing you'll notice about Atlantic Unbound's forums is that there are very few short, frivolous posts. People are, for the most part, interested in serious conversation. That's one thing that sets the site apart. Of course, the most gratifying experiences for an online editor are those in which readers send you personal email to express their appreciation for an article, or to offer constructive feedback on the site. It shows they care. It shows how the Web really is a collaborative medium, in which readers can play a role in shaping an editorial product.

Does the future of poetry and short stories lie on the Internet? Is there a real literary audience on the Web yet?

The answer to the first part of the question is simply, Who knows? I, for one, would like to think that poetry and short fiction have as much of a future in traditional print media (books, journals, magazines) as online -- and I think there's good reason to believe this is the case. The Web opens things up in a way that can be liberating for a lot of people, and if that encourages more creative work and -- more importantly -- if it gives people a channel for artistic expression and interaction with others that never existed before, and if it helps them

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in their lives, then that's wonderful. It is unequivocally a good thing. But there's no reason to think that simply because the Web makes each of us a potential publisher we're going to see a renaissance of great poetry and fiction. Obviously, sheer freedom and abundance don't translate into a literary culture (if anything, there may be a kind of cultural glut, in which there's simply too much literary production to deal with). That's where more traditional kinds of publications come in, whether they exist in print or online or both. As much as some people recoil or bristle at the idea, we need literary editors to make selections based on high critical standards -- not that any single aesthetic or outlook should be imposed. Of course not. But a commitment to the highest standards needs to be upheld. The economics of print publishing impose a very high level of selectivity on a publication, because there are inevitable limitations of space and money. It's not a perfect system -- there will always be disagreement over editorial choices -- but overall, I think it's healthy.

As for the audience, well, there's clearly some kind of literary audience out there on the Web at this point. The success of the many online literary journals attests to that. The popularity of Atlantic Unbound's own Poetry Pages, the single most popular area of our site, gives you some idea.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of the Web, as far as literary publishing, is the ability to combine audio and text, to hear language given breath and brought to life, as it's intended, for the ear. The centerpiece of our poetry area is what we call "An Audible Anthology," which features the poets in each month's issue of the magazine reading their own poems. We've also started a new series of special readings, called "Soundings," in which we invite three or four prominent contemporary poets to read one classic poem, so that readers/listeners can compare different approaches to the words. The first one, in February, featured Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, and Peter Davison reading W. B. Yeats's "Easter 1916." The next one, this spring, will feature a poem by Robert Frost.

How has the Electronic Revolution affected the magazine publishing industry?

Quite honestly, it's just far too early to tell. There are many things affecting magazines these days, and the Web is just one of them -- probably not even the most important. If you include television as part of the "Electronic Revolution" (as surely you must), then you'd have to say that it has changed the audience for magazines considerably during the past forty to fifty years. If anything, the newsstand today reflects the influence of TV far more than that of the Internet. The Web, though, is just too young as a medium to be able to say what its influence is or to predict how things will play out.

On the website it states that The Atlantic Monthly receives over 75,000 poems, 12,000 short stories and 60,000 non-fiction manuscripts and queries per year from writers. How does the staff sort through all those submissions?

One by one. There are several people on the editorial staff who read submissions, and they make sure that every single poem and short story is read and receives a response.

What is your advice to the freelancer hoping to get published in Atlantic Unbound?

We don't publish many unsolicited articles (and we don't publish any original poetry or fiction on the Web site, other than what's featured in the print magazine), so the best bet is to send us an idea first, in the form of a query. Most important is to be thoroughly familiar with the kinds of articles we publish on the Web site. Beyond that, it all depends on having a good idea that fits our needs, and of course being able to write it well.

Does Atlantic Unbound have any plans to start charging subscribers in the future?

Not at the moment, no.

What are the plans for the future of Atlantic Unbound?

We just hope to continue developing original content for the Web that complements and extends the print magazine.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers about your site?

Post &
Riposte Sure. I hope you'll drop by, have a look at the site, read a few articles or listen to a few poems, and join the discussion. That's what it's all about.

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