Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Not to Revive BusinessWeek

Alan M. Webber, co-founder of Fast Company, has some ideas in Huffington Post on how to revive BusinessWeek. I'm glad that someone of his caliber is thinking about that--heaven knows, BW needs new ideas--but the ones he has presented indicate, to be quite blunt about it, that he hasn't followed the magazine too carefully in recent years.

Webber says as follows:

. . . a rejuvenated BW could be the American answer to The Economist. It wouldn't report the news--instead, it would interpret it, coverage off the news rather than on it. BW could bring fresh energy, opinion, and perspective to all of the change in business that is so hard to make sense of. It could use interpretive graphics and recruit opinionated columnists--with renewed opportunity for bloggers who can compete for space on the web site. A renewed BW could cherry pick the best old school business journalists (who are all dying for a new venue) and add in the new generation of academics and trendspotters who are producing hit books blending sociology with new management practices. BW could feature conversations from around the world that migrate back and forth from the web. In other words, get out of the news business and go on offense! Stop playing defense--attack, attack, always attack!
The fact is that BW moved away from regurgitating the news, and moved in the very direction that Webber suggests, quite some time ago under the former editor Steve Shepard, and has done so to an even larger extent under his successor Steve Adler.

Adler tossed out the "top of the news" section (one of his few initiatives that I agreed with). He introduced columns by Jack Welch, Maria Bartiromo and some wine expert whose name escapes me. He built up the website, recently redesigning it quite handsomely, and assigned a top gun to the job, his exec editor John Byrne. He and Byrne enormously expanded the number of staff-written blogs on the website. He initiated a "reader-written" issue last year. Reader input was constantly sought and reader participation played up to a ridiculous extent.

Webber says "Most of all, BW needs to create a franchise." Excuse me? BW had a franchise before Adler came on board, and that franchise has since evaporated. I have nothing against the guy personally (I've never met him, and I left BW before he came on board), but that's a fact.

BW's franchise, which it built up in the 1980s and 1990s, was an emphasis on interpretive reporting and scoops. Sure, good stories appeared and BW continued to break news in recent years, but it didn't seem to do very much good. The damage was done. True, Adler didn't have the ad pages and money that Shepard had in the 1990s. But my feeling is that his 2007 redesign went in the wrong direction, that he made a mistake by building up a bureaucracy of middle-management while staff was being chopped, that the new columns were a waste, and that he generally did not make optimal use of the magazine's resources and brainpower.

It's a shame, and hopefully the new owner, if there is one, will recognize what went wrong and act accordingly. Personally I'd like to see something of the old BusinessWeek spirit revived, which is why the idea of BW coming under Joe Mansueto, publisher of Fast Company, appeals to me.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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