Tuesday, March 16, 2010

R.I.P. BusinessWeek's Independent Identity

A BusinessWeek editor reconsiders traveling to Planet Bloomberg

There's a classic Twilight Zone episode about a bunch of aliens landing on earth. The earthlings rest easy when they find that the aliens have a book called "To Serve Man." So everybody happily climbs on the spaceship until the end, when the rest of the book is translated. The heroine shouts, "It's a cookbook!"

I was thinking back on that great old episode as I pondered the fate of the staff of BusinessWeek after its acquisition by Bloomberg L.P.

No question, the magazine has improved in a number of ways, and has gotten praised to the hilt, largely because the depleted staff is now supplemented by people from the wire. It's helped a lot that recent BW stories have been by name journos on the Bloomberg payroll like Amanda Bennett, author Roger Lowenstein and my former Portfolio colleague Dan Golden, a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter.

But as for the BW staff, which was pleased and excited by the prospect of being acquired by this mighty news organization--well, let's face it, that old Twilight Zone episode isn't off the mark at all, as best as I can see.

Prior to the acquisition, BW folks were assured that they were cherished, and that the quality of the staff was a major consideration in the decision to pick up the magazine for peanuts.

That was the promise. Then came reality.

There was a substantial head-chopping when the magazine was acquired late last year, with 123 people losing their jobs, and then another crushing layoff last week, involving 25 staffers getting pink slips and another 12 moving to the wire.

How many are left? It's hard to say. BW hasn't published a masthead in a very long time, which makes the calculation difficult. So does the fact that a lot of BW people -- some officially listed on Bloomberg directories as being on the staff -- actually work for the wire, not the magazine.

Here's a baseline: When I left the magazine in 2004, there were 251 people on the masthead of the domestic edition. That counts pretty much all the people on the editorial staff, including a couple who were on contract and not on staff.

And here's the best guess as to the size of the current staff:

During the layoff last week, Ad Age reported that 25 people were laid off and another 12 were transferred to the wire, accounting for "roughly one-third" of the staff (that is, the editorial staff, the writer of the article tells me). If those numbers are correct, there were 111 people before the layoff and 74 afterward, more or less.

That number seems a bit low. One insider, using the directories available internally, tells me that the editorial staff now comprises about 100 people. But that's just an estimate.

A more interesting indicator can be found by looking at the number of New York-based writers employed by the magazine.

In 2004 there were about 35 of us, with titles ranging from "senior writer" to "department editor," writing about subjects ranging from finance to economics to the Internet and science. Most of us also edited from time to time, but writing articles was the main part of the job.

Today there are three New York-based writers at the magazine. Now, not all the vanished are out on the street. Most of my colleagues at the Finance department, for instance, now write for the wire.

What this means is that BW's institutional memory is fading fast, its corporate culture has been totally up-ended, and its independent identity is pretty much gone.

Does any of this matter? Well, as Starkman points out in his blog, the magazine was pretty much at death's door at the time of the acquisition. Ad sales were collapsing, as they were for most business magazines, and the magazine's editorial franchise was staggering. To quote Starkman, the magazine became "the Reader's Digest of American finance."

It was either sale or a funeral. Still, it's tempting to consider what might have been, had McGraw-Hill decided to keep the magazine and try to turn it around, rather than give up.

© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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