David Bradley Says He Failed—I Think He Misses John Fox Sullivan

By Jack Limpert

David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media, said this week that the National Journal will drop its print edition later this year to focus entirely on its digital offerings. He explained the print decision by saying, “I believe I failed….A few years back…distracted from National Journal’s work, I took both my eyes and hands off the task. In the long run, I don’t think a weekly print magazine can thrive. Still, had I not failed for a time in my role, I think National Journal might have prospered longer.”

The National Journal first published in 1969 when Tom Schroth and several other editors left Congressional Quarterly to start a weekly magazine to cover the national government more broadly and aggressively than the Poynter-owned CQ. It was not a friendly parting. The Times Mirror company then bought the weekly in 1986, and Bradley bought it in 1997.

It has had a small circulation—many of the subscribers were corporate executives, lobbyists, or lawyers who had been willing to pay $1,000 or more a year for well-reported stories about what the national government was up to.

Its publisher since 1975 was John Fox Sullivan, one of the shrewdest media executives ever to come through Washington. After Bradley bought the weekly, Sullivan bonded with Bradley and he became president and group publisher of the Atlantic as well as Atlantic Media. Sullivan was very good at putting on National Journal events, say a breakfast that a company such as Microsoft would pay $50,000 to sponsor so some of its executives could eat and chat with journalists and key government officials.

In 2010 Sullivan turned 67 and he was was elected mayor of Washington, Virginia, known in DC as Little Washington. It’s a town of a few hundred people 90 minutes from DC that is the home of The Inn at Little Washington. The inn’s restaurant, run by Patrick O’Connell, has a national reputation and often was selected by the Washingtonian as the region’s top restaurant.

Knowing how important Sullivan was to the National Journal, my guess is that his increasing distance from the nation’s capital hurt the National Journal more than anything Bradley didn’t do.
While at the Washingtonian, once or twice a month I’d invite someone interesting in for an off-the-record sandwich lunch. One of the most memorable lunches was with David Bradley.

We started the lunches at noon and tried to finish by 1:15. Along with the guest, six or seven of the magazine’s editors and writers would sit in. The idea was to ask the guest lots of questions about how they worked, what they thought, what they’d learned.

The luncheon format was to have each of us go around the table to tell the guest something about our background and what our role was at the magazine. It gave the guest a chance to eat something and get a feel for who we were. It usually took under five minutes to go around the table, and then the guest would start talking and take questions.

Our Bradley lunch started at noon and when the first of the magazine staffers provided a short bio, Bradley asked him several good questions. The second and third staffers provided short bios and Bradley continued to ask more good questions. I began to look at the clock. At 12:30 we had three more staffers to go, Bradley knew a lot about us, and we hadn’t asked him anything.

Finally I interrupted and said, “David, you’re here to answer questions.” Which he then did very graciously.

We came away from that lunch thinking he’s very successful because he’s smart, he asks good questions, and he listens—better than any luncheon guest we ever had.

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