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David Bradley, owner of The Atlantic, said there was 'no happy news' for Boston in the decision to relocate the magazine.
David Bradley, owner of The Atlantic, said there was "no happy news" for Boston in the decision to relocate the magazine. (Globe Photo / Carol T. Powers)

Atlantic, 148-year institution, leaving city

Magazine of Twain, James, Howells heads to capital

The Atlantic, one of America's most celebrated magazines and a Boston institution since 1857, announced yesterday it will move to its parent company's headquarters in Washington, D.C., next year as a cost-cutting measure.

''I see no happy news in today's decision," David Bradley, The Atlantic's owner, said in a statement. ''Not for Boston. Deeply not for our very committed staff."

The magazine's business operations are already in Washington, where its parent company, Atlantic Media, owns other media properties including the National Journal, Government Executive, and The Hotline. The lease on The Atlantic's North End editorial offices expires next year, said Julia Rothwax, communications director for Atlantic Media.

''This was not a decision that was made lightly at all," Rothwax said.

All 37 Boston-based employees, including The Atlantic's editor, Cullen Murphy, have been asked to stay with the magazine and relocate to Washington, Rothwax said. It is possible, both Rothwax and Murphy said, that a few individuals might remain with The Atlantic in Boston, but editorial operations as a whole will move.

Murphy said yesterday he will stay on as editor for the remainder of the year but then leave the magazine.

''I have too many personal and other commitments here," Murphy said. ''And of course you can't edit a magazine like this one long-distance. I've been here for two decades, and I'll step down at the end of the year. The transition ahead to a new city will be complicated, but the advantage is that it is not sudden -- there's about a year to make it happen. There's no acrimony here. And there's a will to make it work. It will be a calm and orderly thing."

The Atlantic, which this week won a prestigious National Magazine Award for fiction, has had an influence far beyond its circulation of 355,000. A three-part series by William Langewiesche in 2002 on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center generated headlines, as have articles over the past three years by James Fallows on planning for the Iraq war and reconstruction.

''It's disappointing news, because of The Atlantic's long tradition in Boston," said William Whitworth, a former editor of the magazine. ''But David Bradley believes that the move will help The Atlantic financially, so I guess I have to be sympathetic to anything that contributes to the magazine's health and longevity."

The Atlantic has a storied place among American magazines. Its editors have included such famous authors as James Russell Lowell and William Dean Howells. Contributors have ranged from Mark Twain and Henry James to Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. King published his celebrated ''Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in the August 1963 issue.

In addition, the magazine was very much a Boston institution. For many years, its offices were in a townhouse on Arlington Street. Such editors as Ellery Channing, Edward Weeks, and Robert Manning became celebrated local figures. Manning's feud with Mortimer Zuckerman, the magazine's owner before Bradley, inspired a lengthy lawsuit and one of the great grudge matches in a city famous for them.

The magazine has had shaky finances for decades. Speculation about a move became rampant when Bradley bought the magazine in 1999 and escalated after the 2003 death in Iraq of Michael Kelly, whom Bradley had brought in as editor.

''It's a big loss for the literary community," said Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press, which occupies offices that once housed The Atlantic. ''It has writers and editors who live and work here, and even if the magazine doesn't have a Boston focus, they're influenced by what happens in Boston. I don't think it will diminish Boston, but in literature and journalism it is a loss."

The Atlantic's move continues a pattern of noted local institutions either moving away or being purchased by outside ownership, including Filene's, The Boston Globe, and Gillette Co.

''My first, gut reaction is, 'one more?' " said Thomas O'Connor, university historian at Boston College and author of ''Bibles, Brahmins, and Bosses: A Short History of Boston." ''It seems a shame that this prestigious and historic journal should, like so many other institutions, leave Boston, too. It raises the question how many of these institutions can leave the city before Boston becomes homogenized and just another American city. I think it's very, very sad -- not only that we lose but continue to lose institutions that were born and bred in Boston."

Murphy said that leaving the magazine will give him an opportunity to resume work on a book he is ''three years behind on" about the Catholic Inquisition. ''I had to put that aside some years ago," he said. ''Now I'm taking off my editor's hat and putting my writer's on."

Murphy expressed regret over the magazine's move but is optimistic about its future. ''We certainly have been a kind of Boston brand for many generations," he said. ''So it's undeniably sad when such an institution moves away. . . . I expect it will continue to thrive. It will continue to do great things journalistically. It just won't be in Boston."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com. David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.



The Atlantic's 1857 premier and current issues.
The Atlantic's 1857 premier and current issues.
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