Atlantic editor discusses direction of journalism

The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief James Bennet ’88 says his paper aims to publish ideas to improve American society.
The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief James Bennet ’88 says his paper aims to publish ideas to improve American society. Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

James Bennet ’88, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, joked to an audience of roughly 50 Yalies that the main idea behind the magazine was to publish “really long stories.”

Bennet spoke at a Davenport College Master’s Tea on Thursday, where he discussed his career in journalism as well as The Atlantic’s goals — which he defined as publishing ideas to improve American society — before answering several questions from audience members. In his talk, Bennet said that after moving to The Atlantic in 2006, he sought to create a new identity for the magazine to keep up with the changing face of journalism.

“[We] are experimenting wildly with all these different forms [of writing],” he said. “The last thing [the founders] would want us to do is to treat it like a museum piece.”

Though Bennet said he “never set out really to be a journalist,” he worked on his high school paper and served as editor-in-chief of The New Journal while at Yale. He said he fell in love with journalism because he “loved school and learning, and journalism is a profession that rewards that love,” and after graduation, he worked at The Washington Monthly and eventually The New York Times. Bennet added that covering a variety of subjects at The New York Times, such as metro news, business, politics and media, helped him become an experienced reporter.

When he arrived at The Atlantic as editor-in-chief, Bennet said he went through a “period of searching” for the magazine’s identity, which had not been well-defined by his predecessors. Once he defined the publication’s purpose as trying to interpret the “American idea” through different voices and perspectives, he said, he felt liberated because it unified the writers in aiming to improve the nation as a whole. As editor-in-chief, Bennet said he enjoys letting reporters pitch their own ideas and allows their stories to follow their own interests. He added that he thinks the magazine’s voice is composed of “part memoir, part narrative, part profile, part literary review.”

Bennet said he found that the rise of Internet search engines negatively affected journalism at first because journalists solely focused on getting a high view count. But the increased popularity of social networking tools has helped broaden The Atlantic’s readership.

After the Master’s Tea, previously selected members of the audience joined Bennet for dinner in Davenport, during which he discussed six articles from three student publications.

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