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Jason Fell

Rolling Stone Rolls Dice on Restaurant Business

Jason Fell Audience Development - 12/07/2009-13:50 PM

Move over Hard Rock Café. Watch out Planet Hollywood. A music magazine is leaping off the printed page into the frying pan.

Rolling Stone founder/editor/publisher Jann S. Wenner announced late last week a partnership with the principals of real estate developer the Lucky Rug Group to launch a 10,000 square-foot restaurant/bar/lounge/private event space next summer at Los Angeles’ Hollywood and Highland Center—situated along the Hollywood Walk of Fame and home to Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the Kodak Theatre.

Details were sparse concerning the forthcoming mega venue’s food menu and drink list but Wenner, et al., said it would feature “exposed black brick, tufted leather and vaulted ceilings throughout the location, as well as a stunning antique iron staircase.” There won’t be any music industry memorabilia (read:  bric-a-brac) like you see plastered all over the walls at a Hard Rock, though.

“We are both excited and determined to bring the spirit of the magazine to life—the edginess, the coolness, the classiness and the timelessness—in making this venue a place to see and be seen,” Lucky Rug Group co-owner and Rolling Stone stakeholder Niall Donnelly said in the announcement.

Cool? Edgy? Sure, it’s had its moments, but those aren’t words I’d necessarily associate with the granddaddy of music magazines, at least not for the last several years.

At any rate, getting into the restaurant businesses for anyone is, well, risky businesses. Planet Hollywood, for instance, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a number of times.  

The Rolling Stone brand, though, seems like a strong enough platform from which to launch a restaurant/bar project. It’s recognized across ages, gender and music preference. And, besides, Rolling Stone isn’t the only print magazine business that’s rolling the dice on branded venues.  

Maybe I’ll check out the new restaurant some night, but only if Wenner’s working the bar.

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Jason Fell

John Byrne to Navigate the Stormy Media Seas

Jason Fell emedia and Technology - 12/01/2009-17:31 PM

It’s been only a week since BusinessWeek executive editor/BusinessWeek.com editor John Byrne confirmed the rumors and announced his resignation from the magazine, but already has revealed details about his new media venture, called C-Change Media. Byrne [pictured] has launched a Blogspot account about it, for which he conducted an interview with himself in what he said was an effort to explain to his curious friends and colleagues exactly what he’s up to.

The catch is that he doesn’t say exactly what he’s up to.

Can you be more specific about what C-Change will do?

Not yet. It’s too early to tell everyone what our first products will be, but I do envision more than a single platform. It will be a network of niche products for the business audience with an emphasis on mobile applications.

While lacking specific details, Byrne said C-Change (“For the past five years, we’ve been witnessing nothing less than a sea change in the media business.”) will tap into the “unprecedented opportunity” he sees ahead on the horizon for new media entrepreneurs. “I passionately believe that the future of media is digital and that newcomers have tremendous advantages over incumbents,” wrote Byrne. “Most of traditional media remains in a complete meltdown, dragged down by high costs, old ways of thinking and legacy work processes … we’re going to see a media boom in the next three years, the launch of tens of thousands of new media entrepreneurs on the Internet.”

A complete meltdown? Yes, please go on: “As tough as the three years have been for traditional media, the next three are going to be nothing less than brutal: more closures, greater losses, increasing layoffs of highly talented journalists and editors.” Byrne went on to say that he believes the new generation of print will emerge from dominant online products.

Talk about flipping the script, traditional media! I think his points/predictions hold water, though. (Read Byrne’s entire post here.)

One telling detail that our comrades at FishbowlNY spotted: Byrne launched the C-Change Media blog on October 17—less than a week after former BusinessWeek owner McGraw-Hill said it agreed to sell the magazine to Bloomberg. I guess Byrne’s wheels have been turning longer than we assumed.

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Jason Fell

Media’s ‘New Wave’ Still Finding Its Way

Jason Fell emedia and Technology - 11/30/2009-17:05 PM

Scrolling through the now seemingly endless collection of sites that cover media and magazines Monday morning, I came across a great post by New York Times media columnist David Carr called “The Fall and Rise of Media.” In it, Carr expounds on media’s fall from the dot-com-era gluttony to the digitally-minded youth who might very well shape the future of the industry—online and in print.

Without citing a source, Carr said traditional media jobs in the U.S. began declining 2.5 percent each year starting in 2001, then began to nosedive in 2008. In New York alone, 60,000 communications jobs have evaporated since 2000 (according to the state’s comptroller).

In addition to the masses of unemployed media professionals on the market now, Carr talked about new firms like Demand Media (a company I blogged about a few weeks ago) that rely on computer-generated algorithms to come up with story ideas, and pay their content producers a pittance for their work. “The skills that once commanded $4 for every shiny word are far less valuable at a time when the supply of both editorial and advertising content more or less doubles every year,” Carr wrote.

For us content producers and media observers alike, this paints an arguably glum picture on the state of our beloved media landscape. But Carr went on to discuss a new wave of budding professionals that live and work outside the realm of traditional media. “Young men and women are still coming here to remake the world, they just won’t be stopping by the human resources department of Condé Nast to begin their ascent,” he wrote. “For every kid that I bump into who is wandering the media industry looking for an entrance that closed some time ago, I come across another who is a bundle of ideas, energy and technological mastery. The next wave is not just knocking on doors, but seeking to knock them down.”

It’s an unthinkably crazy time to consider entering the media industry now—especially magazine publishing. Once a year for the last three years I’ve returned to my alma mater, Emerson College in Boston, to speak to undergraduate and graduate magazine publishing students about the industry. I can tell you one thing for sure: They’re scared. Every year they pick my brain about the future of print, about when the industry might rebound and, more than anything else, if they have a chance in hell of landing a job after graduation.

Despite the industry’s contraction and the subsequent swell of unemployed talent out there now, I’m not sure there ever will be a job waiting for some of them. Each year I go there I see the same thing: The majority of students are convinced they’ll be in New York writing or editing for Esquire or Cosmopolitan in no time. Very few have known what terms like SEO mean, or have ever worked in a CMS or with Flash. They laugh when I bring up the possibility of working for a trade publication.

Emerson just recently hired a professor to teach and develop e-publishing courses. For what it’s worth, I urged the students to take those courses. I also urged them to start their own blogs, to get their hands dirty in all things digital and social media (after getting a suitable handle on publishing fundamentals first, of course).

It’s been six short years since I graduated in 2003 and already the industry has changed so much. The key, of course, is to make yourself a worthwhile investment by being exposed to, if not proficient in, as many publishing-based skills as possible.

The new wave of media professionals has a lot more on their plates today than ever before.

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Jason Fell

e.Republic’s Scientology Factor

Jason Fell M and A and Finance - 11/24/2009-11:46 AM

After putting Governing magazine on the block this summer, owner Times Publishing Group agreed late last week to sell the magazine to Sacramento, California-based state/local government and education technology publisher e.Republic.

Two days after I filed my report on the agreement, the New York Times published a similar story, although one that focused on e.Republic’s founder and top management—including CEO Dennis McKenna—for their beliefs in controversial religion Scientology. The NYT story pointed to Times Publishing’s “series of scathing articles” on the Church of Scientology, published in its flagship St. Petersburg Times newspaper. (Scientology is headquartered less than 20 miles from St. Petes in Clearwater, Florida.)

Given Times Publishing’s hard reporting of Scientology, the NYT story called the sale of Governing to e.Republic “a bit of a shock.” News outlets erupted over the next few days with headlines like this one, from Catholic Online: “Times Publishing Sells D.C. Magazine to Scientology?”

Call me crazy, but I don’t understand the controversial connection here. So what if the St. Petersburg Times published an investigative series on Scientology? It’s a high-profile church that has drawn a significant amount of negative attention to itself. As the local record of news, the paper would be remiss not to “own” that story, despite what its staffers might really think about the religion. It’s their job.

I spoke this morning with e.Republic COO Paul Harney about the Scientology connection. Despite anyone’s religious beliefs at e.Republic, he said there is no conflict of interest. “We run this business just like any other for-profit media business, serving the markets we’re in,” said Harney, who is not a Scientologist.

But in the NYT piece, Governing magazine founder Peter Harkness indicated that the magazine’s staff was concerned because of a 2001 Sacramento News and Review story that said e.Republic staff were required to read a book on management written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. “There are certain tenets of the religion that affect management,” Harkness said in the report.

Perhaps that’s the bigger controversy, but Harney doesn’t think so. “We don’t require anyone to read any book on management or Scientology,” he said. “We feel all of this attention is a distraction and has nothing to do with our business or the transaction.”

To that point, I agree.

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Jason Fell

Sarah Palin: ‘I Absorb News Via Many Sources’

Jason Fell Editorial - 11/19/2009-10:36 AM

It’s been more than a year since former Alaska governor and ex-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin did her first in a series of on-camera interviews with CBS’ Katie Couric. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, it was during that interview in October 2008 that Couric asked Palin what newspapers and magazines she read to inform her worldview. A visibly annoyed Palin said she reads “most of them,” “all of ‘em,” “any of ‘em,” but wouldn’t (or couldn’t) name even one specific news source.

Now, after so many months, America finally got an answer to the question Wednesday night when Palin told Fox News’ Sean Hannity: “I read, I read Newsmax, and the Frontiersman, and the Wall Street Journal, and everything online. I absorb the news via many, many sources.” (See a clip of the Hannity interview below.)

The Frontiersman is the local paper serving Wasilla, Alaska. Newsmax, of course, is a politically conservative print magazine and Web site.

Palin also talked about the apparent controversy concerning the recent Newsweek cover [pictured above] featuring Palin and the cover line: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah?” “It was just—just another little shot,” she told Hannity. “I think that the American people, they're tiring of the tabloidization of some people, like me.  And they want to get to the issues.”

Palin recommended we all steer clear of tabloidization in general, and the “haters” out there in media-dom, in order to form a better judgment of the real Sarah Palin. “They need to start by reading my book and not believing the tabloidization or the mainstream media that wants to portray me as something that I am not.”

Ah, that's right, the book. That’s why she’s making the media circuit now, after all.

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Jason Fell

Buyout Window Closes, Layoffs Loom at Time Inc.

Jason Fell Consumer - 11/18/2009-13:34 PM

Wednesday was the deadline for representatives of the Newspaper Guild to notify Time Inc. brass about how many staffers accepted buyout offers as the company looks to eliminate as many as 500 from its overall workforce.

Time Inc. is expected to begin slashing jobs as early as next week. The number of cuts will depend on how many volunteers stepped up for the buyout packages. I was told today by a company spokesperson, not unexpectedly, that Time Inc. won’t be disclosing the number of employees who accepted the buyouts.

The New York Post’s Keith Kelly has a relatively detailed outline of how the layoffs might play out: The publisher’s biggest magazines (Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Money) could eliminate 90 editorial positions—as many as 40 possibly coming from Fortune.

During a recent earnings call, Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Inc. parent Time Warner, said the company will incur a $100 million charge during the fourth quarter as it begins a restructuring of Time Inc., primarily in respect to its news group. He said the restructuring will be “more targeted” in comparison to the massive changes that were made this time last year, resulting in around 600 layoffs.

And about those layoffs last year: They were made department-by-department, instead of happening all at once as part of a collective announcement. News of more and more and more layoffs were unveiled in slow motion.

We saw the same thing happen this fall at Condé Nast. Following the closure of Gourmet, Cookie, Elegant Bride and Modern Bride, hundreds of layoffs happened, but were announced at a painfully slow pace, over several weeks. It must have been a killer for employee morale. (In fact, morale hit such an “all-time low” the company reportedly hired a crisis intervention expert.)

As Time Inc. gears up for its latest wave of job cuts, I hope, for the sake of its staffers, that the axe falls swiftly and that workers aren’t paralyzed, waiting for days and weeks for the final word about whether they will remain employed.

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Jason Fell

Is Playboy’s Print Future in Jeopardy?

Jason Fell M and A and Finance - 11/13/2009-13:25 PM

Ever since taking over as Playboy Enterprises CEO in June, Scott Flanders has been adamant that he is not only “absolutely committed” to keeping Playboy in print, but that he’s a big believer in print and that he’s certain “the magazine will come back” to profitability.

More recently, during an earnings call last week, Flanders said that while “bolder steps are required” to get the print edition in the black again, three things are sure. Among them is that he is working on a joint venture in the development of a new business model for the company.

Now comes news that Playboy is in separate talks with brand management firm Iconix Brand Group and another group led by Playboy’s former entertainment group president Jim Griffiths to acquire the company and take it private. The pricetag might be more than $300 million, reports say. The company’s stock price shot up from about $2.90 a share to more than $4 yesterday on news of the sale talks.

So, is this the “joint venture” Flanders was referring to? I would have asked Flanders himself but the company issued a public statement Thursday, in response to inquiries related to a potential sale, saying that as a policy it doesn't comment on rumors.

The first thing that jumped out to me was what a sale of Playboy Enterprises could mean for the future of the print magazine. Despite all of Flanders’ assurances that the magazine would remain in print, it could go out the window if new owners take over, right?

I asked DeSilva + Phillips managing partner Reed Phillips about what he thinks might happen. He said a buyer would most likely keep the magazine in print, at least for a while, but is “very unlikely to commit to keeping the magazine in print as part of the deal.”

Phillips also called Iconix’s interest in Playboy strange. “In my experience, whenever a strategic buyer who is not in media or publishing acquires a magazine company, it is for reasons that have little to do with growing the media business and more to do with how that business might help grow the buyer's primary business," he said. "In this case, I suspect Iconix sees value in exploiting the Playboy brand beyond media. My guess is that if they acquire Playboy, they'll continue to publish the print magazine for a while, but the emphasis will shift to managing Playboy as a brand without much allegiance to whether it remains in print for the long term."

In the end, however, it all boils down to what company founder and aging ladies man Hugh Hefner wants to do, as he continues to hold roughly 70 percent of the company’s voting stock. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, a buyer would have to persuade Hefner to not only sell the company but also to stay involved with it, “given his importance to the brand.”

And what about his sentiment for the print product (assuming he has any)? While holding onto poorly performing products because they matter to you personally isn’t exactly the smartest business practice, Playboy’s print edition is the bedrock on which the entire brand was built. It’d be a shame to see it go.

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Jason Fell

Could Time Name Twitter ‘Person of the Year’?

Jason Fell Editorial - 11/12/2009-23:42 PM

After a more than hour-long debate, six panelists were split between two candidates they thought should be named Time magazine’s 2009 Person of the Year. Neither, for the record, were actually human beings.

Three panelists voted for Twitter. Three voted for the economy.

“Twitter affects a lot of people, but not as many as the economy,” said former New York City mayor and debate panelist Rudy Giuliani. “From the wealthy to the poor who are out of jobs, the economy affects us all.” Other panelists included Barbara Walters; cardiac surgeon and newly-named television show host Dr. Mehmet Oz; O the Oprah Magazine editor-at-large Gayle King; restaurant founder and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio; and Luke Ravensthal, the 29-year-old mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A number of highly deserving, and living people also were talked about Thursday night on the eighth floor of Manhattan’s Time/Life Building. Here’s a quick look at who made the conversation:

Nancy Pelosi, in relation to Obama’s proposed healthcare bill (suggested by Walters); “patient zero,” the first person who contracted the H1N1 virus (Dr. Oz); U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (Colocchio); recently-named associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor (King); General David Patraeus and Chesley “Sully” Sulenberger, the US Airways pilot who successfully carried out an emergency landing of an airplane in New York’s Hudson River in January (Giuliani). Giuliani, of course, also couldn’t help but nominate longtime New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

OK, the Yanks won the World Series, but he hardly qualifies as the most significant global influencer of the year.

But between Twitter and the economy, which has the better shot at unseating president Barack Obama as Time’s Person of the Year (he was named last December)? Both arguably are relevant and have had significant global influence this year.

But is there a clear winner? I don't think so. And how much stock does Time actually put into these annual debates?

But if not for the social implication, I for one enjoyed another of Barbara Walters’ suggestions for the business aspect: despised Ponzie schemer-turned-jailbird Bernie Madoff. “If you want to sell some magazines, you name someone like Madoff,” Walters said. “People would pick up those issues and say, ‘How dare you?’”

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Jason Fell

Late to Augmented Reality Party, Esquire Delivers Solid 3-D Package

Jason Fell emedia and Technology - 11/12/2009-13:04 PM

In terms of innovation in the print medium, Hearst’s Esquire magazine has been a pioneer on a number of fronts in recent months. Last year, it partnered with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based E Ink to produce an electronic “paper” display for the magazine’s 75th anniversary October issue. Then in February, Esquire produced a cover “window” that opened to a mini table of contents and featured an advertisement on the back flap. Its May “How to Be a Man” issue featured perforated covers that act like a flip book, allowing readers to make 27 combinations of the facial features of Barack Obama, George Clooney and Justin Timberlake.

Now, the magazine is tapping augmented reality technology to take innovation into the digital realm.  Throughout the December issue (which hits newsstands November 17) are coded markers that, when readers/users hold up to their computer’s Webcam, trigger interactive video “experiences” to appear on their screens. Four articles and the cover are equipped with the AR functionality.

For example, when a user holds the cover to their Webcam, cover feature/actor Robert Downey Jr. appears on their screen, talks about the issue, sings and shows a clip of his upcoming film, Sherlock Holmes. Car maker Lexus is the issue’s exclusive advertiser for the AR technology, with an ad that's AR-enabled.

But while Esquire was first (or near first) with its other “innovations,” it’s late in delivering augmented reality in magazines. In June, Bonnier’s Popular Science utilized augmented reality firm Metaio’s Web application software to create an interactive image (provided by General Electric) featuring wind turbines when readers held up the cover of its July issue to their computer cameras. Time Inc.’s InStyle magazine used augmented reality to make some advertisements in its December holiday gift guide issue three dimensional. Last month, publisher Future US also utilized the technology for the December issues of Official Xbox Magazine and Playstation: The Official Magazine featured an advertising campaign that generated an interactive 3-D war scene.

Instead of kicking open the AR door for magazines, Esquire has simply contributed to a “rising trend.” Or has it? To be fair, I haven’t seen the magazine in my hands yet, but it looks like Esquire has in fact delivered a superior AR experience, compared to those we’ve already seen. Check out editor-in-chief David Granger’s video introduction to the issue below.

Aside from who’s first and who’s not, perhaps the better question is whether utilizing AR is true “innovation” or all gimmick. What’s the real value for print magazines?

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Jason Fell

UPDATE: Feeling the Pinch, Garden & Gun Skips an Issue

Jason Fell City and Regionals - 11/05/2009-17:20 PM

It’s been a whirlwind year for high-end Southern lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun. In January, rumors swirled that it was on course to run out of money and go out of business. Less than two months later, the magazine was acquired by Indigo Acquisition LLC, a company co-created by publisher Rebecca Darwin—effectively tossing the title a lifeline saving it from going out of business.

So why haven’t readers received their October/November issue? It was due out in mid-October and—nada. In an e-mail sent to readers Thursday, Darwin explained what happened:

To help shore up our business for 2010 and beyond, we recently made the difficult decision to skip our October/November issue. This was a painful thing for the G&G team, and we hate to disappoint you, our loyal subscribers. However, please rest assured that you will receive the full number of copies you ordered when you subscribed or joined one of our club levels. (We will handle that for you, so no need to call our customer service.) And know this: We will never compromise on the quality of the writing, the photography, or the beautiful paper that Garden & Gun is printed on.

In these tough economic times, it’s not unheard of (or unreasonable, really) for publishers to combine or skip an issue to cut production/distribution costs. What I haven’t heard of, at least off the top of my head, is a magazine that announces the elimination of an issue after the fact.

The next issue subscribers should expect is December/January [pictured], which is set to ship in late November and hit newsstands December 8. That is, if the magazine scrapes up enough money to publish it. UPDATE: In an e-mail, Darwin told me the December/January issue has indeed gone to press.

When we reported on its potential demise in January, and its subsequent saving in March, we received a number of comments praising the magazine (“the very best magazine I have ever had the pleasure of reading”). For its loyal readers, I hope Garden & Gun pulls through.

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Jason Fell

What Went Wrong with Purpose Driven Connection?

Jason Fell M and A and Finance - 11/05/2009-09:28 AM

On Wednesday, Purpose Driven Connection—the quarterly published in partnership between Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren and the Reader’s Digest Association—became the latest magazine casualty of 2009 as the groups decided to move the product online-only. Until September, RDA said the title, which launched in January, was still in “development stages.” After four issues it was never green-lighted for a full launch off the newsstand.

What gives? When RDA announced the launch late last year, it billed the agreement with Warren and Saddleback as one of the company's “most important and far-reaching ventures ever.” Yesterday, in a statement, Warren said “impressive reader feedback has prompted us to focus all our energies on our digital format so our content can be expanded, international and free.”

So, what about the print product? With a $9.99 cover price, was it a dud on stands? A RDA spokesperson called sales figures “encouraging,” especially at outlets like Wal-Mart, but said the company wasn’t releasing specific numbers. He told me the magazine failed to generate enough full membership buys—$29 for the quarterly magazine, DVDs with each issue, study guides and access to its Web site. Those packages were offered by the church to its immense membership base.

In other words, the lack of interest in the full package, and subsequent lack of expected revenue made Purpose Driven Connection an unattractive business for RDA going forward. They made the decision to kill the costly print magazine, and agreed to host its Web site at least through the first quarter next year.

I asked the spokesperson directly if RDA considers the Purpose Driven Connection venture a failure. Of course he said it wasn’t a failure. From an operational point of view, he said that shutting down an otherwise interesting product that doesn’t meet financial criteria “is every bit as important as green-lighting others to go forward.” He also said RDA gleaned “proof of concept” insights into serving a community like Warren’s that’s bound by faith or philosophy.

“We believe that we could take this forward with a community that had a somewhat different characteristic—larger, more open to purchasing memberships, more universal, global, etc.,” the spokesperson said.

More open to purchasing memberships. That might be key.

This shouldn’t suggest, though, that Saddleback hasn’t had any success from the venture. The church said subscribers to the Daily Hope devotions newsletter have grown to 400,000 since Purpose Driven Connection launched early this year.

If not for monetary reasons, I think the loss for RDA is substantial, despite the positive lessons it says it learned from giving it a shot. It has to be tough, especially for a company that’s now steering itself out of bankruptcy,  to watch a product it called one of its most important ventures ever fail after only four issues.

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Jason Fell

TheAtlantic.com to Ring Up 103 Percent Revenue Growth This Year

Jason Fell emedia and Technology - 11/02/2009-16:44 PM

As part of its “Game Changers” package, the editors at the Huffington Post have come up with a list of the 10 biggest innovators in media—people or organizations that are using the Web to change the industry. Some of the more well-known names on the list include CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Katie Couric for launching Web-based interview program @katiecouric, and Tina Brown for transitioning from print to online for launching The Daily Beast.

Visitors can check out the list here, and vote for who they think is the ultimate media game changer.

From the world of magazines, making the list is editor James Bennet and editorial director Bob Cohn from TheAtlantic.com. According to HuffPo, the site is expected to report 103 percent growth in digital revenue in 2009. It said the site—and its writers—is “as prolific as it is impressive.”

Even while most publishers are ramping up (or scrambling) online, The Atlantic’s Web site has added channels including business, politics and food; launched the Atlantic Wire, an opinion news aggregator; and has plans for a forthcoming business site. The site has bolstered its blogging efforts by hiring big names like Jeffrey Goldberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan, who was named to the 2009 FOLIO: 40.

Did I mention 103 percent digital revenue growth? With gains like that, it’s hard not to include TheAtlantic.com on any online media innovator list.

Who else do you think should have made HuffPo’s list? Let us know. Leave a comment below.

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