The Atlantic is building its video strategy around YouTube

The Atlantic is not about to fire its writers to make a pivot to video. Instead it is pivoting its video strategy around its writers as the publication assesses its broader ambitions for the format and how it can benefit its business.

“I want the video team to exploit the journalistic resources that we have at The Atlantic,” said The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg.

The Atlantic’s 13-person video team, Atlantic Studios, is doing exactly that with a weekly video series it relaunched this month after it originally premiered in May 2017. Distributed primarily on YouTube thanks to an ad sales agreement between the publication and platform struck last year, “The Atlantic Argument” features the publication’s writers outlining arguments they had made in articles published to its site and sometimes its print magazine.

Political explainer series “Unpresidented” and science series “You Are Here” also have its writers play host to episodes that are often connected to articles they have recently published. The hosted format of these shows applies The Atlantic’s writer-centric ethos and matches it to YouTube’s creator-driven ecosystem, while also fitting a trend among publishers of building video franchises around their in-house talent.

“YouTube is our primary focus because we can build a reliable audience there through [people subscribing to The Atlantic’s channel] and because of the high engagement rates,” said Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, executive producer at Atlantic Studios. On average, people watch more than half of The Atlantic’s videos on YouTube, and its channels’ average watch time exceeds four minutes, she said.

YouTube is also The Atlantic’s primary focus because it can make money there. Previously The Atlantic’s video strategy had centered on getting people to watch videos on its site because it was able to sell ads against its videos there, but that forced the publisher to make a trade-off between monetization and audience growth, said Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg. A deal with YouTube eliminated the need for that compromise. In May 2017, The Atlantic switched to using YouTube’s video player to host videos on its site through YouTube’s Player for Publishers program; in exchange the platform gave The Atlantic control over ad sales for its YouTube videos, whether people watched them on YouTube or embedded on The Atlantic’s site.

The YouTube ad sales arrangement makes The Atlantic’s video inventory more appealing to advertisers because the publication’s high-minded audience is attractive but the publication didn’t previously garner enough traffic to videos on its site to offer enough inventory, said Brooke Reno, group business director at The Media Kitchen. However, advertisers would prefer to buy The Atlantic’s video inventory as a standalone option, said Reno, whereas The Atlantic primarily sells it in a package “with other ad opportunities,” The Atlantic evp of strategy and operations Kim Lau said in a statement.

“A lot of publishers do this when they start to sell something new and do it as an added value because they don’t know what’s going to happen yet. But I think they’re going to have to evolve where video becomes its own offering,” said Reno.

That may need to wait until The Atlantic gains more views for its videos on YouTube. In September 2018, The Atlantic’s videos received 3 million views on YouTube, according to data from Tubular Labs. That’s much more than the 1.4 million views The Atlantic received on Facebook. But it lags behind the 41.3 million views that Vox received on YouTube that month or the 21.9 million accumulated by The Washington Post, per Tubular Labs data; both Vox and The Washington Post also use YouTube’s Player for Publishers. That said, The Atlantic’s video monetization has increased since doing the YouTube deal, according to a spokesperson for the publication.

To further grow its YouTube audience, Atlantic Studios is expanding the scope of “The Atlantic Argument” to cover other subjects, such as culture, health and religion, in addition to its politics bailiwick. And after the series’ first season last year elicited comments from YouTube viewers asking for more nuance and substance in the episodes’ arguments, the average length of episodes will double to between three and four minutes, with the potential to try 5-to-10-minute episodes, according to Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg.

The Atlantic is still figuring out how its video strategy can benefit its business beyond providing it more pre-roll inventory to package for advertisers. Given that “The Atlantic Argument” showcases not only its writers but their articles, it would make sense for episodes to pique viewers’ interest in reading the originally written arguments on The Atlantic’s site, and from there, they may be persuaded to subscribe to its print magazine.

“The truth is, I don’t know yet if we’re able to convert people who might consume an Atlantic documentary on YouTube into regular digital readers [or] paying print subscribers,” said Goldberg.

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