So The Atlantic's cover this month isn't on Iraq or subprime mortgages. It's on Britney Spears, you remember, that sweet girl from the "Hit Me Baby One More Time" video. The editors of The Atlantic don't think they're lowering their standards with the cover; they see themselves as covering an important story seriously (too bad Rolling Stone got there first). But really, there's no need to front. Britney Spears is the new weather: a topic we're all interested in. And if The Atlantic needs to put her on the cover to move issues, so be it. Just don't get so defensive about your identity crisis, guys!
That crisis, like Ms. Spears's, has been notably public: the magazine moved from Boston to Washington in 2005, stopped publishing fiction in every issue, moved its ad office from Washington to New York and has recently ended its pay wall to increase page views. Their anniversary party was one of the most awkward experiences I've ever had around free drinks.
But the crisis isn't to blame for The Atlantic's slip in ad pages. Like every other magazine, they're having trouble finding suckers. Putting Britney on the cover is a calculated move to improve news stand sales. There's no reason to pretend otherwise. America wants think pieces on celebrity just like it wants fluff pieces on politicians. Make more like evil genius Janice Min and don't sweat the difference!
The Atlantic is just trying to expand its appeal, as new Atlantic president Justin Smith admits: "We think the brand's relevance has a broader appeal than the current footprint. ... You could argue that doing a story on the celebrity economy and the new paparazzi economy is a broadening of the footprint."
Or, Britney Spears is a fascinating topic and The Atlantic wants to stay around for another 150 years. One piece of advice, though: If The Atlantic wants to cover celebrities, they're going to have to move faster. Britney Spears is over. Celebrity resurrection is the new celebrity scandal.