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The Atlantic Adapts: A Legendary Magazine Meets Online Video

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While The Atlantic doesn’t have a set video publication schedule, the team usually produces several projects per month. It collaborates with the print magazine to create documentaries about feature stories, such as a recent video about how Starbucks funds higher education for its employees. The team creates animated videos thanks to its in-house animator. It also produces an interview series, interviewing authors about their print stories.

Stand-Alone Video Content

Not all of the team’s projects are tied to magazine stories, however. It also creates independent projects. Its most popular series right now is called If Our Bodies Could Talk, a humorous health and wellness series hosted by the magazine’s health editor, Dr. James Hamblin. As Hamblin is a real doctor and has a background in improv comedy, he gives the series an informative but offbeat sensibility. The series has tackled such diverse topics as odd diet trends, the etiquette of living in a digital world, dating, relationships, and fitness. Its fan base is growing and it was recently a finalist for a Webby award for best hosted series.

Working on If Our Bodies Could Talk gave Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg one of her more memorable moments in the office.

“My team was working on an episode for If Our Bodies Could Talk called ‘Sad Desk Lunch.’ I think the headline ‘Is this how you want to die?’ It’s about the health benefits of eating lunch away from your desk in a social environment with your colleagues. They said, ‘Hey can you help us out for 10 minutes?’ I said, ‘Sure. I got to go to a meeting, but I can help you guys out.’

“They were set up in an empty office here in the Watergate, where our office is. They set me up with a computer and a sad little box of salad. They said, ‘Jim’s just going to come over and do something goofy. Just react how you would normally react.’ They start rolling the cameras. Jim marches up and smacks the salad off the desk sending salad leaves everywhere and the fork flying towards the camera. The look on my face is precious. The whole thing is in the video. It’s pretty embarrassing, but I’m willing to put my dignity on hold for our series.”

For its first 18 months, The Atlantic’s video team has focused on defining its voice and determining what quality storytelling looks like for the magazine. It’s been a time of experimentation and strategic testing. It’s been creating videos in different formats and seeing what the audience responds to. For the upcoming year, Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg’s goal is to focus on a few in-house series that her team can do well and grow the audience.

The Atlantic’s most popular video series is If Our Bodies Could Talk, hosted by Dr. James Hamblin, who has a background in improv comedy.

If Our Bodies Could Talk is a top priority for the team. Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg realized early on that the series resonated with The Atlantic’s readers so she committed to produce new episodes every 2 or 3 weeks, which was a lot for her small department. However, doing so allowed them to improve with each episode and craft the show’s style and tone. When a new episode is posted on Facebook, it draws comments, and viewers often end up watching the older episodes, producing small spikes in the viewing numbers. They’re binge watching, she points out happily.

In the next year, Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg plans to create new documentary series about science and the environment, as well as more interview series tied to The Atlantic’s events.

So far, monetization is coming from pre-roll ads. Some sponsors have underwritten the videos, such as when Aetna sponsored seven episodes of If Our Bodies Could Talk at the end of 2014. Viewers saw a brief “presented by” message at the beginning and another at the end. The distribution plan is still small: Videos are posted the main site, which uses Brightcove for hosting, and are also posted to YouTube and Vimeo channels. The videos on those sites don’t get much traffic because they aren’t promoted, says Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg. One video per week goes to Facebook. A separate video team called The Atlantic Rethink, which is based in New York, creates branded videos for the magazine’s advertisers. The Atlantic keeps a strict separation between editorial and branded content, Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg says.

Original video is helping The Atlantic adapt to the internet age and win new readers, and Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is enthused about what’s to come.

“This is a really exciting time for us. We’re growing. We’re going to be scaling up production. We’re going to be adding to our team. We’re going to be developing more series like If Our Bodies Could Talk. I’m really excited. I’m really busy. These are good problems to have.”

This article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “The Atlantic Adapts: A Legendary Magazine Meets Online Video.”

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