Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2011

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Making Waves

Making Waves
Jay Lauf '86. Photo by Geordie Wood.

Jay Lauf '86 charts a new course for the Atlantic

by Whit Richardson '02


When he graduated from Connecticut College in 1986, Jay Lauf dreamed of becoming a writer at a news magazine like Time, which he respected for its role in the national conversation. But, after a year trying to make it as a journalist in Washington, D.C., Lauf moved home to Connecticut. There he had a job interview that would lead him to a corner office above Manhattan's Madison Avenue and straight to the heart of that national conversation.

Tall and slim, Lauf looks younger than his 46 years, but deep lines under his eyes hint at the 60- to 70-hour weeks he regularly puts in as publisher and vice president of The Atlantic. Founded in 1857 by Ralph Waldo Emerson and a cadre of contemporary New England intellectuals, the magazine is regaining its position in the intellectual forum.

On the cover of The Atlantic's April 2011 issue, a raised fist grips an iPhone, symbolizing technology's role in revolutions in the Middle East and elsewhere. It could also symbolize what brought Lauf to where he is today: the power of connections. Back in 1987, Lauf interviewed at Sumner Communications, which publishes trade magazines, for what he thought was a writing job, but the company's owner offered him a job in ad sales instead.

“I took the job on the spot,” Lauf recalls. “I thought, 'I'll soil my hands with this dirty ad sales business for six months to get back on my feet, and then I'll go back to my writing.' Twenty-two years later, I never went back.”

“I felt fortunate every day that he worked for me,” owner Scott Sumner says. “He is — to this day — the hardest-working guy I ever had here at Sumner Communications, and the most dedicated, and as honest as anyone else I've ever come across.”

Lauf himself has no regrets about his choice. “I'm an English and history major, and I'm working now for a magazine that's the first place Ernest Hemingway was ever published. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Nabokov have all written for this magazine. That's a pretty linear path,” he says.

Despite its storied history, by April 2008, when Lauf became publisher, The Atlantic had fallen on hard times. The magazine was losing at least $5 million a year. Its website was stagnant. It wasn't evolving with the changing media landscape.

Lauf already knew how to resuscitate a magazine. He'd come to The Atlantic from Wired, where he was hired as advertising director in 2001, right after the dot-com bubble burst. Drew Schutte, Wired's publisher at the time, said Lauf was a good fit. “Wired is a magazine about ideas,” says Schutte, now chief revenue officer at Condé Nast. “(Lauf) is very curious, and that curiosity gives him a genuine interest in new ideas.”

As Lauf moved up Wired's ladder — he became publisher in 2006 — the magazine bounced back from an abyss that had already swallowed many other technology publications. He rallied a team around the brand and found himself with “the coolest job in publishing.”

As a publishing executive, Lauf often relies on the analytical and critical thinking skills he acquired in college. “I have to be able to take what is often an arcane subject matter and articulate that to an advertising audience,” he says. “… That's a bit of skill set and muscle memory that I probably flex every day.”

Those skills were a moveable feast, of course, and he brought them along to The Atlantic. He led the publication into the 21st century by emphasizing a “digital first” strategy for news and integrating his sales team to handle print and digital advertising, something not yet typical in the industry.

Last year, The Atlantic turned a profit for the first time in decades. Ninety percent of the content on theatlantic.com is original to the site. Its “unique visitors” grew from 500,000 in the month of January 2007 to 5.1 million in January 2011, while digital ad revenue doubled.

The magazine's turnaround has not been lost on industry insiders. Advertising Age magazine named Lauf — along with Justin Smith, president of Atlantic Media Co. — Publishing Executives of the Year in 2010.

Lauf still works long hours but balances his family life — he has a wife and two children — with the demands of his job by being “very, very protective of weekends,” he says. “Because, in the end, my family is more important to me than any job would be.”

But Lauf says he's not going anywhere anytime soon: “There are still challenges ahead for The Atlantic that I think will be interesting and intriguing for some time to come.”


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