Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Contradictory Coverage of BusinessWeek's Sale

I've been following BusinessWeek's sale closely, and what strikes me is the contradictory character of much of the coverage on basic points. Having lived through Portfolio's demise just a few months ago, I can imagine how this must be annoying and confusing to the people directly involved.

Hell, this isn't coverage of the Iraqi war. This is the sale of a magazine. Either something is happening or it ain't.

For instance, is a layoff of 20% of the staff, including 25% of the editorial staff, in the works or not?

That possibility was first raised in a New York Times article two days ago. Reporter Stephanie Clifford said as follows:

McGraw-Hill reduced the magazine’s physical size, and in January, it announced its fourth round of layoffs in two years. This time, a quarter of the editorial staff will be cut, along with workers in other departments, for a total of 85 of BusinessWeek’s 421 jobs.
"Announced" was obviously wrong, as there was no announcement. I interpreted that to be a reference to the last big layoff in December 2007, in which many experienced writers and editors were let go. I was wrong.

Clifford later explained on her Twitter feed: "To clarify a bit further.-Layoff plans were detailed in the memo--haven't gone into effect yet (may not depending on buyer)"

But then, yesterday, she said in a Times blog that the layoff plans seemed firm:

Some employees at the magazine were surprised to hear about layoffs proposed in the first quarter of this year — they said they hadn’t heard a thing about it. Jon Fine, BusinessWeek’s media columnist who’s been covering this story closely, posted an item yesterday saying there was no layoff talk then. But these layoffs are being pitched to investors as something of a done deal. (A BusinessWeek spokesman declined to comment, so it’s unclear where the layoff plans stand now.)
Today her original story was corrected, but not the obvious error that no layoffs were announced in January, and there was no further clarification.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal said today that the layoff was "an option presented to bidders as a starting point to make the publication profitable again." The Journal said, "The cost-cutting plans included slashing about 25% of BusinessWeek's editorial staff, mostly for support functions, according to the people familiar with the matter."

The Journal quoted a memo to employees by BW president Keith Fox, saying "Nothing is planned at this time, but business requirements, including resource needs, ultimately will be negotiated with any prospective buyer." So I guess the memo outlining the planned layoff didn't mean what it said.

I think the Times might want to either clarify or correct or reiterate its previous reporting.

By the way, copy editing is hardly a "support function," and I don't understand the "people familiar with the matter" attribution. This was first reported in the Times, for chrissakes.

Oh, and speaking of Bloomberg, just how interested is it/he/they? Keith Kelly put Bloomberg in the lead and detailed his people's discussions with the company. Jon Fine didn't mention any of that and said "the question looming over the process was whether or not late entrant Bloomberg LP would bid." Fine has not touched the layoff issue, aside from reporting that there was no announcement.

McGraw Hill and CEO Terry McGraw, meanwhile, have done their best to muddy the waters by declining to clarify any of this. Like good sellers, they've tried to make it seem as if there's a lot more interest than there actually is, via McGraw's comment about "93" potential suitors, and his saying that "all options are open."

I guess a seller has to do that, but it's made the contradictory coverage even murkier.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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