Throwing spaghetti at the wall: The Atlantic’s video strategy

As more publishers build out their video efforts, even the 158-year-old Atlantic to rethink and expand how its brand works in the new medium.

In June, the magazine published “An Animated History of 20th Century Hairstyles,” one of many animated shorts that have become a successful, if incongruous, part of The Atlantic’s video output over the past year. It was particularly popular on Facebook, where it has gotten 89,000 views since May and on YouTube, where it got 124,694 views.

Such videos, while unusual for the staid brand, have become typical of The Atlantic’s experimental original video efforts, which the magazine has been building out since 2012. The central tension: bringing the Atlantic to video and attracting audiences while not compromising the brand.

“Our video team has been given a clear sense of our editorial mission, but they’ve also been free to experiment with the various possibilities of this particular medium,” said Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennett. “Video should stretch us.”

In absolute terms, animation is only a small part of The Atlantic’s efforts. It’s also built series around basic one-off explainers (“What is a sandwich?”), and more produced in-depth documentary features, such as its coverage of Apache firefighters.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, Atlantic Video’s executive producer, said the magazine has honed its approach over the past two years, building it around The Atlantic’s focus on “big, provocative ideas.” The magazine’s influence is a constant presence in its video. “The Big Question,” which features academics and luminaries answering the same question, was inspired by The Atlantic print feature by the same name.

Likewise, Atlantic reporters make regular appearances in its videos. Senior editor James Hamblin, for example, hosts “If Our Bodies Could Talk” a regular series that examines health issues around napping and multitasking. The Atlantic has also created videos that work alongside its feature stories. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2014 opus on reparations was joined by a pair of five-minute videos about a local activist and educators featured in the magazine story. Both were nominated for National Magazine Awards.

“Initially we thought about recapturing his argument, but it was clear that a short Web video wouldn’t do it justice,” Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg said. “With video, we want to tell small stories that can stand alone and are meaningful on their own.”

Traffic for The Atlantic’s video, while still relatively small, has grown. The Atlantic averages 520,000 streams a month on its own site, and 334,000 views on YouTube, where it has 9,755 subscribers. Overall traffic to has also grown 42 percent in the last year to 10.6 million monthly uniques, according to comScore. The video team, which started the year at seven people, will double this year.

The perpetual challenge: balancing the The Atlantic’s highbrow reputation with the kind of lowbrow content that works best on the Web.

“There’s definitely a tension between longer, in-depth storytelling and the smaller, snackable stuff,” said Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, “but there’s still a lot of space to find more visual short-form ideas that work for this audience.”

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