Friday, October 30, 2009

If Zelnick Had Bought BusinessWeek

It's still unclear how many former BusinessWeek editors will be hired by Bloomberg L.P., but one thing is increasingly clear: it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Peter Kafka describes the nightmare scenario: a purchase by private equity bloodhounds ZelnickMedia that would have been only marginally better than a simple shutdown of the magazine.

This is how one-sided the Zelnick offer would have been: McGraw-Hill would have wound up paying Zelnick to take BW off its hands. In return, BW would have been ripped limb from limb, and the entire staff would have been laid off.

Kafka reports that the sale would have entailed:

  • Wind down BusinessWeek’s print business “as profitably as possible”–the company would have to honor existing subscriptions and could still sell ads in the magazine. But the focus would be on building up BusinessWeek’s Web site, which has a decent-sized footprint, though not a huge one.
  • Dump almost all of the company’s newsgathering staff and outsource most of that work to Thomson Reuters (TRI).
  • Employ a small handful of editorial employees–perhaps 20, down from the 200-plus who are there now. Some of them would run a Huffington Post-style aggregation site that produces no original content, and some more expensive hires would produce a smattering of high-quality reporting and writing designed to burnish/sustain the BusinessWeek brand. “Just to give it uniqueness and sizzle,” my source tells me.
  • Dump most of the existing business side, as well, but overhaul and bulk up the sales force.
These are known as "bullet points" in the business. And how. Bullets as in firing squad, with BW--and McGraw-Hill's reputation, being the blindfolded prisoner. It would have been an enormous humiliation for Terry McGraw.

Fortunately, the cavalry stepped in, in the form of Bloomberg. Compared to other media shutdowns, then, BW's sale turned out to be far better than expected.

That still doesn't let M-H's management, and the magazine's, off the hook for a redesign that failed to keep the magazine alive and was a major departure from the magazine's traditions.

Kafka reports that BW president Keith Fox is stepping down, as expected, but somewhat surprisingly is staying with the company. Fox's departing memo says, "I am humbled by BusinessWeek’s 80-year history." He sure ought to be.

© 2009 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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