Monday, April 26, 2010

Businessweek's No-Scoop Policy May Be a Problem

The newly redesigned Bloomberg Businessweek is out, and seems to be getting generally favorable reviews, such as this one by former BW chief of correspondents Joe Weber.

I've been jaded by constant BW redesigns--this has got to be at least the fourth redesign in recent years--but I think that this one may be the best. A lot of the junk added in the last editorial regime has been discarded, and the magazine has a much more substantial feel, with longer articles and less of a "Readers Digest" quality. Old-timers will find this new magazine reminiscent of the magazine in its salad days--with some exceptions, and they are substantial.

First, the magazine lacks a strong editorial voice. That may develop in the weeks to come, but seems contrary to the Bloomberg culture.

BW in the old days was noted for taking distinct, somewhat "reformist" positions on issues, both in its long-discarded editorial page and in staff-written commentaries accompanying news articles. It was a contrast to Forbes, which has always been right-leaning and libertarian.

When BW worked well as a magazine, for instance, a cover package as significant as the Goldman scandal would have been accompanied by a strong, staff-written commentary and/or editorial. In this issue there was a column by Michael Lewis, and it was, of course, a great piece of work. But Lewis is a freelancer with a point of view all his own, and doesn't speak for the magazine.

That's a quibble, however, compared to a far more substantive issue. In Stephanie Clifford's article in the New York Times today, she reported as follows:

Moreover, any breaking items from the magazine will appear elsewhere first. “Any scoop from anywhere in the world is going to run on the terminal,” [Bloomberg chief content officer Norman] Pearlstine said, adding “the terminal is the focus of everything we do at Bloomberg.”
To me, this is stunning. How can you have a news magazine that doesn't break news?

As far back as the 1990s, BW used to run certain time-sensitive, competitive articles online -- not on the Internet but on America Online, which used to carry BW exclusively back then -- a few hours before they ran in the magazine. However, this was done sparingly, for the simple reason that it eroded BW's franchise as a news magazine.

Indeed, one of the "ten commandments" of the former BW editor Steve Shepard was that BW breaks news. This was essential, for it was believed that otherwise BW would not be worth reading.

If a scoop runs in Bloomberg first, it is no different from any BW competitor getting to a story first.

I have no idea if there are any exceptions to the no-scoop rule, such as major investigations by the BW staff. What I do know is that a weekly news magazine that doesn't consistently break news is not going to be of much value to either readers or advertisers, no matter how many pages are run or how pretty it may be.

For the sake of my alma mater, I hope that Pearlstine was misquoted.

UPDATE (5/1): Apparently he wasn't misquoted. Bloomberg seems intent on scooping its new acquisition.

In the next issue, Bloomberg's James Sterngold had a devastating scoop in BW on Lehman's Dick Fuld not disclosing $200 million in compensation. His piece moved on the Bloomberg wire at 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon, several hours before BW went to press. It will be old news to BW readers by the time they get their copies of the magazine.

© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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