Atlantic Media spreads its cash-cow mini-Davos enterprise to New York, thanks to Thomson Reuters and McKinsey

At the Atlantic LIVE Food Summit. (via flickr)
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The Atlantic's New York footprint is about to get a little bigger.

The Washington, D.C.-based magazine's parent company, Atlantic Media, flying high thanks to a renewed profit margin at its flagship title that has helped distinguish it in an industry battered by declining advertising and circulation revenues, is beginning to develop programming here, starting with the inaugural installment of New York Ideas this spring.

Taking a cue from the Davos-esque conferences The Atlantic produces in Aspen and Washington D.C. each year in conjunction with Walter Isaacson's Aspen Institute, this new addition to its roster describes itself as the "premier forum in New York for the exchange of ideas of consequence," which is just the sort of language you'd expect to describe this sort of thing. "It will take on the largest issues of the day—through interviews, discussions, and debates. And it will recognize New York’s status as a major actor in all of the significant policy issues facing the country."

Translation: "What we're really trying to do is a program at the intersection of policy and business," said Elizabeth Baker Keffer, president of Atlantic LIVE, the magazine's events arm, in an interview last week. "We're sensing the No. 1 issue for the country and for business right now is job creation, and New York is the epicenter of business. We felt like at this moment in time it's important for us to have a presence in New York and to engage business leaders from New York."

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Citigroup vice chairman and former Obama budget director Peter Orszag, for instance; New York deputy mayor for economic development (and Aspen Institute Chairman) Robert K. Steel; American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, to name a few of the promised speakers.

"We'll have leaders from Washington and leaders from the policy debate engaging New York business leaders," said Keffer.

Convening a bunch of boldface names from the so-called "thought leader" set for marathon gabfests attended by fellow influencers, pundit types (and, especially, aspirants to those roles), as well as businesses with a stake in policy matters, is one way to build brand awareness while making some extra dough on the side. And it's a strategy that an increasing number of media outlets seem to be adopting as they continue to look for revenue streams that aren't dependant on their physical editorial products.

The Atlantic started wading into these waters as early as 2001, gradually building up a full-fledged events component by 2005 when it co-launched the Aspen Ideas Festival, a week-long summer retreat set on the verdant hills of the famed Colorado ski resort. The model, which makes money through a combination of sponsorships and ticket revenue (a pass to one of Aspen's two overlapping four-day sessions June 27-July 3 this year is $2,750), has been key to The Atlantic's larger success story, in which a 154-year-old monthly magazine geared toward a self-selecting pool of highbrow intellectuals stanches the flow of red ink for the first time in more than a decade.

Along with recent gains in digital advertising revenue, which surpassed The Atlantic's print advertising revenue for the first time ever last October, the events business also has been credited for the turnaround, said Keffer.

Atlantic LIVE accounted for 15 percent of The Atlantic’s overall revenues in 2011, up from 3 percent in 2005, according to a spokesperson for the magazine. From its single-program origins 11 years ago, it now produces dozens of events each year—65 in 2011 and an expected 75 in 2012—with a full-time staff of 25.

New York Ideas, which will be held April 17 at the newly-renovated New-York Historical Society, is Atlantic LIVE's first significant incursion into the city, and one that's part of a broader strategy, said Keffer, of "growing outside of Washington," where most of The Atlantic's editorial staff is based, and where the Washington Ideas Forum anchors its programming there.

The Atlantic's publisher and the staff of its online sister publication, The Atlantic Wire, work out of New York; the new "global business brand" being developed by former WSJ.com managing editor Kevin Delaney is establishing New York offices, too, which presumably will create more opportunities for ticket sales and corporate sponsorships for events here.

Keffer and her staff have a few other ideas for New York programming "on the drawing board," she said. One is a "cultural innovator" series that would get off the ground to coincide with The Atlantic's second annual "Ideas Issue" in May. They're in talks with Mario Batali for the first one, she said. (The spokesperson stressed that plans for the series are still nascent.)

"The goal is to create a set of programs that are relativeily intimate, 25-50 attendees [by invitation] that would bring the guests into the private setting of a workroom or store or headquarters or design studio or kitchen," said Keffer.

Beyond that? World domination: The Atlantic's first international program is in the works for 2013, said Keffer.

As for New York Ideas, Keffer said she is expecting 300 or more invitees to attend (she's expecting about 125 for the curtain-raising "V.I.P. dinner" the night before), three-fourths of whom will most likely be filling New York-area zipcodes in their registration forms. The underwriters so far include Thomson Reuters, McKinsey & Co. and Fidelity Investments. Also scheduled to speak are David Gergen, Jane Harman, Aspen's Isaacson (the institute has a hand in this program, too) and Atlantic Media Company chairman David Bradley.

Keffer has high hopes for the venue; The New-York Historical Society, housed in a great, stentorian limestone beast of a building on Central Park West at 77th Street, re-opened last fall following a $65 million facelift.

"The space is beautiful and inviting; historic, state of the art," she said.