Saturday, December 05, 2009

More Inklings of the New Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Wow, third item in a row on BusinessWeek. OK, anyone not interested can pass this one by, but I think that the transformation of the largest-circulation business magazine is of some significance (and I'd feel that way even if I hadn't worked there for eighteen years).

The first issue of "Bloomberg BusinessWeek" is on the stands, and it already provides a sneak peek at how the magazine is going to be changed under its new management. The issue at left (there is a small "Bloomberg" above BusinessWeek), went to press exactly 24 hours after Bloomberg took over BW, and already changes can be seen in the magazine.

Bloomberg has already moved fast, closing BusinessWeek SmallBiz and adding two new columnists: Charlie Rose and veteran tech writer Rich Jaroslovsky. I'm underwhelmed about Rose, as it reminds me of BW's foray into "celebrity columnists" under the old regime. But I thought the addition of Jaroslovsky is intriguing, and may be a better indication of the primary editorial focus of BW under its new ownership, which is to make maximum use of the existing Bloomberg staff.

The media coverage of the ownership change has, I think, failed to adequately emphasize the fact that BW writers appear to be deployed to the wire, not the magazine. Meanwhile, the Bloomberg staff now has a far more visible "platform" (man, do I hate that word) for its work.

There are vestiges of the old regime. The cover story is by BW's Stanley Reed, and there are other pieces by BW writers, including one by Steve Baker, who is not being retained. A column by Gene Marcial, who also is going, likewise appears. No surprise: the magazine changed hands on Tuesday, Dec. 1, a day before the magazine was going to press.

But already, Bloomberg people were putting their stamp on things. A preview of things to come can be found in this article on hedge fund guy John Paulson (who, coincidentally, I profiled in Portfolio). BW has perfectly competent people covering hedge funds, and most of the finance staff has been retained by Bloomberg. But the article was not written by any of them, and rather is a group effort by four Bloomberg reporters.

It's a good piece, informative, but it lacks graphics, which sort of surprised me (no performance chart for the guy?) and, also surprisingly, contained no comparative performance data for the S&P 500. I know, hedgies don't like to be compared to the S&P. Tough. That's the performance benchmark familiar to most readers. Indeed, the benchmark used in the article is not even identified.

But the main thing that struck me was the writing style--flat, and lacking in what we used to call "forward spin." The way BW articles have traditionally been written, a point of view was always present even in the briefest article. By the end, or "kicker," you knew what the writer (actually the magazine itself, given the group editing) thought about the subject matter. It was formulaic and perhaps hackneyed, but it worked. Here is a good example of what I'm talking about, a Matt Goldstein article from 2007. Note that it has a particular point of view, which the Paulson article lacks.

The Paulson article begins by raising a question it doesn't (and really can't) answer, which is whether Paulson is a "one megahit wonder." No analysis, no stab at "forward spin." Instead we have a competent article that, I believe, breaks news by describing Paulson's latest and not-so-great investment returns.

By the way, if it is a news beat, why doesn't the article say so? Why did I have to go to Google News to find out if it is? Why doesn't it say "according to documents obtained by BW" or something like that? The reader ought to know if he's reading it in BW first. And the magazine should not be afraid to thump its chest a bit if it has a scoop, even a minor one.

In all, a nice piece, but basically not dramatically different than what you'd find on the Bloomberg wire.

But you know, that seems to be the point of the acquisition. It won't be great for the former BW writers who now toil for the wire and may have to fight to get in the magazine. It sure isn't great for the former technology writer Steve Wildstrom, who used to do the tech column and was not retained.

BW readers, however, get the resources of an immense staff and the talents of Jaroslovsky and other experienced Bloomberg writers. Will BW readers notice, or care, about the changing bylines and the stylistic differences? Do they miss Wildstrom and "forward spin"? More importantly, will advertisers?

I don't know. What I do know is that nothing like this has ever been tried before. It must be a morale-crushing experience for BW's survivors but hey, that's progress.

Another thing I know, or at least suspect, is that there will be another redesign. And I know, not suspect, that it could not possibly be worse than the last one.

UPDATE: Clusterstock, one of the more popular financial blogs, has a follow-up with a hat tip to this item. Seems that BW just isn't on as many required-reading lists as it should be.

Also, I neglected to point out that "forward spin" isn't just a stylistic nicety but a selling point in the quest for advertisers.

WWD points out that the magazine doesn't have a masthead and that there was no letter from the new editor. I don't think either is very significant. However, if the masthead is eliminated entirely it would be a further indication of the melding of the two organizations.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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