Media Matters

Out of Business Week

By 7.21.09

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Media mavens have been predicting it for some time, but when the once-powerful Business Week magazine went on the block last week -- reportedly for one dollar -- it came as a shock, perhaps most of all to the BW journalists who have been covering the shift away from print.

"It couldn't happen here," one New York staffer told me. "But it has."

Proprietor McGraw-Hill hid behind corporate jargon in merely announcing it was examining "strategic options" for the troubled weekly. In fact the corporation is desperate to dump the magazine. Business Week, which once made $100 million a year, now reportedly loses that amount.

McGraw-Hill chairman, president and CEO Harold McGraw III is quoted in magnificent understatement as saying, "Cost containment will be a priority for us all year."

Business Week once carried more than 3,000 ad pages a year, making it one of the fattest books in the country. In the first half of this year, it sold only 590 ad pages, compared with 702 for Fortune and 911 for Forbes. All were down more than 30 percent compared to the same period last year.

I had a ringside seat during the magazine's heyday as a BW news supplier through McGraw-Hill World News, the in-house news service that I directed. I worked closely with BW department heads to meet their exacting journalistic standards -- a far more demanding brief than anything I had seen at the Associated Press, my previous home.

This was 1976-1981, a period when the magazine was a beacon of national and international business trends. Business Week was must-read material for executives who wanted their news in perspective. Washington political figures also followed the magazine, and many, including Henry Kissinger, were accessible to its dynamic 30-person Washington bureau.

The late editor Lew Young was an international power himself, attracting top business executives to his off-the-cuff speeches and his road show presentations with key staffers. He was a regular on NBC's "Today Show," interpreting economic trends in his salty locutions.

Young invested heavily in foreign coverage, adding new bureaus and personally prodding his reporters to go after exclusive stories. Although no intellectual, he was on friendly personal terms with such thoughtful leaders as Felix Rohatyn and Pete Peterson.

I once organized a lunch for him in Paris, and had no trouble attracting 25 French business heavyweights. Lew stunned them by predicting, among other things, that AT&T would soon be broken up, and it was. (He also predicted IBM would be broken up. He was not quite infallible.)

It was a set of old-fashioned journalistic principles that kept Young's magazine fresh. Every story, he repeated to his editors, had to be "relevant, timely and useful." There was no room for fluff. He wanted BW to lead the business news agenda despite its weekly frequency. Any story in the works that showed up in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times before BW's Wednesday night closing was ruthlessly killed.

"Readers always remember if they have seen a story before. We can't be repeating something they already know," I recall him saying.

Although firmly in the corner of free trade and global business, the magazine's editors occasionally veered left. One cover story in my era called for a national industrial policy, accompanied by an editorial suggesting it was time for wage and price controls. A Heritage Foundation essay once called BW the "anti-business business magazine." Young responded with a letter calling the writer "either a fool or a knave".

Those lapses in ideology were rare, however, and BW under Young never stopped flourishing.

Many readers and ex-staffers date the beginning of the magazine's decline as far back as Young's departure in 1984. His low-key successor, Stephen Shepard, chose to broaden editorial content to satisfy a corporate goal of a magic million circulation, up from 950,000. Shepard's formula temporarily achieved the McGraw-Hill target but at the expense of the magazine's hard-earned gravitas.

As circulation numbers slipped back under 1 million in the 1990s, Business Week revenue that had once propped up the corporation was now locked into a steady downward course.

Shepard left in 2005 after an extended search turned up Steven J. Adler, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a Harvard Law School graduate -- a rare credential in the news business -- as his successor. Speculation was that Adler had a chance to save the magazine and move upstairs to the 49th floor executive suite.

The BW chalice proved poisoned, however, and Adler has spent four years slashing staff and frantically trying to reinvent the magazine and its website. Moving ever further away from the BW of its glory days, he has chopped up editorial content and brought on celebrity columnists, including former GE chairman Jack Welch and his new wife Suzy Wetlaufer, and Maria Bartiromo, a CNBC personality also known as "Money Honey."

Yet ad pages have declined steadily since Adler came aboard. He is likely to be sold off with the magazine, assuming a buyer can be found. Time Warner and Forbes have both said they are not interested. In fact the industry is now waiting for Fortune and Forbes to be treated to their own "strategic options."

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.