BW BLUES: Early this morning I heard the news on the radio, and couldn't believe my ears: At my alma mater Business Week, "ad pages declined 18.8% in the fourth quarter and 12.8% for the year." Naah. Impossible. Can't be that bad. Then I got the press release and I saw that it is true.
I know that everybody in the business has a pet theory why ad pages have been so crummy for the biz magazines. My theory, which I admit is self-serving, is that there hasn't been nearly enough hard-hitting reporting. Now, anyone who knew me at BW can tell you that I've been saying that for quite some time, even when there was a lot of hard-hitting reporting in the magazine.
Still, I think that readers and advertisers expect more of a "mix" of stories than they have been getting. There are a number of reasons for this, and I deal with them in Wall Street Versus America, and one of them is reflected in those awful numbers -- staffing. Reporters who are working to fill the weekly "book" don't have time for lengthy projects. The magazines are thinner, so there is less space for even routine stories. That, and a reduction in ad pages, results in pressure to reduce the staff still further. It's a kind of vicious circle.
It's been going on for a long time. For a worm's-eye view of what I'm talking about, let's compare the number of people covering finance in late 1986, when I joined, to the current day:
In 1986 we had two people covering "markets and investments," two covering "corporate finance" and one covering "money and banking." (I think the latter department may have been short one person, in fact.) I was hired as a "swing person" to write about a little of each, and in addition we had two senior writers covering finance.
Overseeing all of them were two senior editors, both experts in the markets and economics -- one, Seymour Zucker, was an economist, and the other, Dick Janssen, was a veteran of many years at the Wall Street Journal. In overall charge was Bill Wolman, also an economist and, like Seymour and Dick, a really brilliant, massively experienced guy.
OK, so that's eight writers and two editors, all with Lord knows how many hundreds of years of experience between them, and that's not counting a separate staff covering personal business and of course Gene Marcial's stock market column.
Today, the number of people covering finance is exactly half what it was twenty years ago. The beats have been shifted around a bit. Now there is one person covering Wall Street, one covering banking and finance, one concentrating on investment banking and a senior writer with broader responsibilities. Overseeing them is one editor. Gene is the only survivor from twenty years ago. All good, smart and experienced people. But, still, that's just half the number that were tasked with covering a less complex and far less journalistically competitive financial beat in 1986.
When you have fewer people, it greatly affects the ability of the staff to carry out lengthy, investigative projects. And I'd argue that this deficiency shows up in the ad pages. As I said, it's a vicious circle.
UPDATE: Business Week's "Blogspotting" blog picked up on my little item above, and noted a couple of rather insidey-seeming comments.
I've also received a number of emails from present and former staffers. Guys, feel free to comment anonymously, with confidentiality protected of course. I have no way of knowing who is posting anonymously. However, please remain within the boundaries of propriety and good taste, if possible.
THE COMMENTS: They all vanished when I installed Haloscan, but ...... I was able to retrieve them and have reposted them.