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The Atlantic lays off dozens of staff as pandemic hits media budgets

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The Atlantic magazine laid off 68 employees, joining a growing list of media companies devastated by the economic impact of the global pandemic.

The elimination of 17% of its staff last Thursday came even as the 163-year-old publication broke readership records and added more than 90,000 new subscribers to its rolls since March. But that wasn't enough to make up for dramatic losses to advertising and live-events revenue.

"I know that the pandemic is indiscriminate in its course, cutting through various industries and geographies," Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley wrote in a memo to employees. "But, as has been the case for decades, our media economy is especially hard hit."

Most of the layoffs hit the team that produces live events, as well as marketing and sales. Twenty-two editorial employees were laid off, which includes the Atlantic's entire video team of 11 and three newsroom recruiters.

Executives will take a pay cut and the Atlantic is temporarily freezing salaries companywide. The magazine already had hit pause on hiring and its paid-fellowship program, which brings in early-career journalists.

"I'm devastated today for my brilliant, generous, kind colleagues," Atlantic deputy managing editor Rachel Gutman tweeted. "They are some of the most wonderful people I know, and I cannot overstate how much I've learned from them."

According to the company, the reorganization is part of an approach to focus on one of the most promising parts of its business: subscribers. The Atlantic brought back a paywall last year, and since then added 160,000 new subscribers, with a goal of reaching one million by December 2022.

But the cuts at the Atlantic underscore the strange dynamic the COVID-19 pandemic has caused in the media industry. People are consuming the news like never before, but the devastation to the broader economy means less revenue for media.

"We have never, in the 163-year history of this magazine, had an audience like we had in March," editor-in-chief Jeffery Goldberg wrote to employees at the start of April. The publication's website had 87 million visitors in March, an "astonishing" number that was more than double the site's previous record.

News outlets rely on a mixture of advertising dollars and subscriptions. The Atlantic, like a number of other media outlets, also produced live events programming that often features discussions with government officials, industry leaders and celebrities.

Live events were enticing to media outlets because they seemed to provide more dependable source of revenue than advertising, which had been steadily declining for years, said Bill Grueskin, former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and current Columbia Journalism School professor.

Although companies have tried to adapt to a post-COVID-19 world by producing events virtually, they may not be as profitable as once before.

"The truth is, a lot of people don't attend conferences or events primarily because of the speakers; they pay to be in the same room and network with like-minded, similarly affluent and influential guests," Grueskin wrote in an email. "You can't replicate that on Zoom, so the market for events has just evaporated."

Bradley sold a majority stake of the Atlantic magazine in 2017 to the Emerson Collective, a big-money group controlled by billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs.

Other media companies with billionaire ownership have instituted furloughs and layoffs because of the big loss in revenue due to the pandemic.

Biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong owns the Los Angeles Times, where journalists agreed this month to pay cuts in order to avoid layoffs sparked by the sharp decline in advertising.

Last week, Quartz — created by Atlantic Media in 2012 — laid off 80 employees. In 2018, Bradley sold Quartz to Uzabase, a publicly held Japanese business intelligence and media company worth nearly $1 billion at the time.

Several other media companies announced mass layoffs and furloughs last week, including at Vice, BuzzFeed and magazine publisher Condé Nast.

Many local and regional newspapers already have felt the hurt. A New York Times count, last updated May 1, estimated 36,000 media workers have experienced furloughs, pay cuts or layoffs.

"To those who are leaving, I am sorry," Bradley wrote to employees. "I am sorry to lose you. I am sorry about the market you are entering."

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