Bob Cohn on Digital Media, Paywalls, and Ultimate Frisbee

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On this episode of ZUCKER, Bob Cohn, former president of The Atlantic, joins host Andrew Zucker to talk about the latest news in media, growing The Atlantic, and his time at the IOP.

On VC-backed digital media businesses: When you get that venture capital money, it’s a gift when it comes and you can build quickly, you can go for scale, you can do all kinds of things you can’t do if you have to live on the revenues that you’re bringing in. But, sooner or later, and often sooner, the VCs are looking for their exit and they want to get their money out of the company. So you have this period in the near term where there’s lots of spending, let’s go for growth, we’ll figure out the business model later, it’s all about scale. And then the funds get itchy and their investors get itchy, and they’re looking for a payback on their investment. And I think you’re seeing some of that across the digital media landscape.

On growing The Atlantic’s live events business: A big part of the revitalization and resurrection of The Atlantic as a business was to look at the brand values of print, the editorial values of print, and say, ‘Let’s do this on other platforms.’ So digital obviously being the most obvious one. But the events platform is journalism, it’s not a side business. It has a separate revenue stream, but it is journalism as expressed on stage just like we have print journalism as expressed in print and digital journalism, as we have podcasts for audio, as we have video and television through our studio platform. So the idea was to be wherever our readers want to be in delivering them Atlantic-style and Atlantic-quality journalism.

On joining the IOP: When I was thinking, ‘Boy, I’ve been at The Atlantic for eleven years and it might be time to think about something else,’ it was in a kind of a very casual and kind of amusing to myself way. And then when I kind of explored the IOP a little bit more and was selected to come and be a fellow, it was, for me, a great moment to just kind of recharge, revitalize. Very difficult in the kind of environment we all operate in at higher levels of media or at any industry right now to get the kind of headspace to think about your career in a methodical deliberate way. And there was no conceivable way I was going to, to my mind, do the job of running The Atlantic and also explore next opportunities at the same time.