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The Atlantic Adapts: A Legendary Magazine Meets Online Video

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The most ambitious online video project The Atlantic has done was in conjunction with a June 2014 cover story called “The Case for Reparations,” written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates had reported on discrimination in Chicago, and he joined with the magazine’s video team to get all his subjects on video.

The magazine ended up creating two short videos from that shoot: One was a historic look back at Chicago’s housing struggle in the 1960s, cut with archival footage. The other was a portrait of the neighborhood today as seen through the eyes of an educator who is featured in the article. It’s the story of a place and of one man’s experience.

Coates’s feature became The Atlantic’s most-viewed story, breaking the record for most traffic in a 24-hour period, and was picked up by TV stations that showed clips from the videos. Both of the videos became finalists for National Magazine Awards. It was a heady time for the magazine’s video crew, experiencing that kind of success from their first big project.

“It was great. We loved working with Ta-Nehisi,” says Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, an executive producer at The Atlantic and the head of its editorial video efforts. “We felt like we were truly living the dream. He had already been there and reported on the story, and had this in-depth knowledge of the subject. He had already formed relationships with all of the people we were talking to. I went out there with two producers from my staff. We shot for about 3 1/2 days. It was really fabulous.”

The rise of the internet has been a stumbling block for many magazines, but The Atlantic has been able to create an online voice and attract a new following. That’s a surprise: Its literary bent and long articles run counter to what most successful sites are doing. The Atlantic, however, has been able to develop a formula that works online. Part of that is original video.

It’s All About Storytelling

Adding video to The Atlantic’s mix of content could have been a real culture clash, but the editors focused on the one element that works in both media: quality storytelling.

“The Atlantic cares deeply about in-depth storytelling and meaningful journalism,” Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg says. “It’s been amazing to see the editors and writers on the magazine and on the website embrace video as a mode of storytelling. We’ve done a few projects where we’ve collaborated with journalists, whether it’s a short animated explainer based on an article or a very ambitious documentary collaboration.”

Born in Boston, The Atlantic is more than 150 years old. It’s had video for the past 4 years, since around the time Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg was hired. The in-house production department she leads is only 2 years old.

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates (center) and a video crew from The Atlantic in Chicago shooting video to accompany Coates’ July 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” 

The Atlantic’s first efforts with online video were author interviews some of the editors shot themselves. When Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg was hired, it wasn’t to create a video studio that would turn out original content, but simply to curate existing online videos and create a presence for the magazine. The editors added a video page to the site and wanted to learn if online video could attract visitors while fitting in with the site’s journalistic sensibility.

“I began by curating a diverse collection of videos, primarily documentaries but other short fiction pieces, animation, music videos, science lab footage—a pretty eclectic mix of stuff—and that proved that there was a growing audience for video on our site,” Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg says. “There was also growing advertiser interest in video.”

As traffic grew dramatically that first year, the editors had their answer. Atlantic readers enjoyed video. And so Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg’s responsibilities changed from curating others’ videos to producing original work for the site. The Atlantic’s video library is heavy on short-form documentaries, visually driven stories between 3 and 15 minutes long, but it has also run short fiction pieces, animations, drone footage, and more.

“After about a year-and-a-half we started talking about branching into original video production with an in-house team,” Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg recalled. “I began hiring a small production team in the spring of 2013. We got started in July of that year with two producers and a fellow—which is this paid 1-year program for recent college graduates at The Atlantic. We essentially had a full production staff of four. Then in 2014, we added three more full time people. This year we’re growing on top of that. We’re probably one of the fastest growing departments at The Atlantic right now.”

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