Atlantic magazine finding new friends

Multimillionaire Mortimer Zuckerman owns, among other things, a town house in the heart of Boston's Brahminical Back Bay, a white leather desk, and The Atlantic - that historic journal of public policy and belles-lettres.

Actually the desk is more of a taupe shade, but it still gives you an idea of the fortunes of Mr. Zuckerman - and those of The Atlantic since this wealthy entrepreneur became the 11th owner of the 125-year-old monthly in 1980.

''I was a such a rookie in this business,'' says Zuckerman, flashing a boyish grin across that impressive desk. ''But we are literally two years ahead of schedule. We're doing incredibly well in advertising, we're way ahead in circulation, and by 1985 we should even be profitable.''

It's the kind of upbeat bottom-line talk not usually associated with The Atlantic - a venerable publication that had foundered in recent years on a mounting deficit and an image of editorial irrelevance. But such talk is second nature to Zuckerman, a Harvard-educated Canadian immigrant who made a fortune in Boston real estate and engineered the $3.6 million purchase of The Atlantic.

Known as a brilliant and shrewd businessman worth an estimated $150 million, Zuckerman had made no secret of his wish to purchase one of the country's best and most influential publications. But when he ultimately took control of one of Boston's most prized institutions, some local men of letters privately feared the worst from such a young and aggressive owner. ''Zuckerman likes to be the owner of an influential magazine,'' observes one critic, adding that ''he wants The Atlantic to be making public policy.''

The fortunes of The Atlantic have done nothing except soar since the new owner ensconced himself on the masthead and in the Arlington Street offices. Although a nasty legal wrangle has arisen over the sale of the magazine, and although more than one editor has questioned the number of book excerpts gracing its cover, The Atlantic has avoided becoming just another slick and trendy publication without its own identity.

Zuckerman's arrival in the newly renovated fourth-floor offices overlooking the Boston Public Garden heralded a rapidly quintupled editorial budget and a beefed-up advertising program. And it included a new editor, the highly respected William Whitworth, formerly of The New Yorker magazine. Within months the Atlantic was literally making headlines.

First came the now-famous David Stockman cover story in December 1981. Other blockbusters quickly followed, including a Robert Caro excerpt on Lyndon Johnson and a piece by Gary Wills on John F. Kennedy. Network TV took notice. Newsstand sales leaped. So did advertising rates. By all accounts The Atlantic regained its publishing prominence.

''The Atlantic is not in the news, it's created news,'' says Adweek editor Geoffrey Precourt. ''I think the period under Zuckerman has been a very good one ,'' adds Osborn Elliott, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The Atlantic is also in the pink of financial health and should soon be out of the red. ''It used to be hard to get appointments with advertisers,'' says the new publisher, David Auchincloss. Now, however, '' 'real circulation' has doubled to 440,000,'' he says, ''and we've opened three new advertising offices.'' Some surveys rank The Atlantic third among all magazines.

Sitting in his plush offices, Zuckerman is clearly a man who enjoys the fruits of his first publishing venture. Plans for expanding ''the back of the book'' - the cultural reviews at the back of the magazine - are already under way. And he has begun to write articles himself.

''I would have loved to have been a writer, but I am happy being involved in the public dialogue this way,'' Zuckerman says. ''And I'm frankly in awe of Bill (Whitworth),'' he admits. ''He is creating a brilliant product.''

Referred to in some publishing circles as the ''Balanchine of writing,'' Mr. Whitworth was long considered the heir apparent at The New Yorker. And it was only after much coaxing - and a sweetened offer - that Zuckerman finally enticed him to join his team. He asserts that Whitworth has total editorial control.

Whitworth, a bearded, soft-spoken man with a no-nonsense manner and a Spartan-looking office, agrees. ''I'm going to sound like an awful apple polisher,'' he confesses in a Southern-accented voice (he grew up in Arkansas). ''But Mort has been the ideal owner.''

In fact, The Atlantic's turnaround is considered something of a Cinderella story for a ''quality general-interest publication'' that a decade ago was hearing talk of extinction. ''The universe is a small one for the vaguely literate magazines,'' says the editor of Harper's, Lewis Lapham. How has The Atlantic managed?

Some industry observers maintain that the well-educated audience for publications like The Atlantic has become a special-interest group. ''The public that is not afraid of the reading experience has become a unique audience,'' says Norman Cousins, former editor of The Saturday Review. Others insist that, after the self-absorption of the so-called ''me-decade,'' the country has renewed its interest in exploring public-policy issues.

But many in the industry say it simply comes down to money - the raw ability to buy the so-called blockbuster cover stories that in themselves make the news. ''There are 50 to 60 bankable writers out there,'' Mr. Lapham says. ''It is a question of who pays the most.''

In fact, Zuckerman has pumped some $1.5 million into The Atlantic's budget - and the prices reportedly paid for particular cover stories have been breaking in-house records. Insiders say the magazine is now second or third after The New Yorker and Playboy in paying writers.

Yet some observers remain less sanguine about the new regime. ''I'm frankly a bit surprised at the direction of the magazine,'' says syndicated literary critic George Higgins. ''I expected a continuation of important original pieces. Instead there's been a preponderance of book excerpts.'' ''It's an act of desperation,'' says Harper's Lapham. Yet many publishing experts insist that books have become the bread and butter for writers today.

Whitworth is candid about his coffers. ''Frankly we can't support a writer the way The New Yorker can,'' he notes. Still, he says he has added four or five writers to his payroll. ''But I won't turn down a piece just because it's part of a book,'' he observes evenly.

''We're a magazine for serious readers,'' adds Zuckerman. ''We always have been and we always will be.''

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