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Why BusinessWeek Matters (from a former BW writer)

July 13th, 2009

The news that BusinessWeek is now up for sale puts to rest any doubt that traditional publications are in a death spiral. This may  be old news to my counterparts in Silicon Valley, who have been writing off “traditional publications” for years. But I always felt there would always be a handful of business publication stalwarts—BW, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, etc—that would resist the tide, somehow survive, even thrive again one day.

Now I’m not so sure, and the future of another big name publication–and the lives of 190 BW editors–is in limbo. 

Obviously, the golden age of print publications—and journalism—is now long over. I was lucky enough to be one of those journalists during the 1980s, writing for BusinessWeek for almost a decade (bureau chief in Houston and Denver). I departed in early 1992 to take a job as a senior writer at Intel, where I eventually moved into marketing and pioneered  a national educational outreach effort, becoming Intel’s “PC Dad.”   That would bring TV and radio appearances, a book deal, syndicated column and later a career shift, into consulting.

I never looked back, but even today, I  fully appreciate what journalism—and BW in particular—did for me.

Simply put, BW provided me the skills to research, master and write about complex subjects quickly and the courage to tackle tough subjects. My writing became tighter, more polished, more “efficient”—and more effective. I learned to become a true communicator.

But it was more than that. For almost a decade I got to work with some of the top journalists in the field, and within an efficient editorial and publishing system that, despite some glitches, worked well. Damn well.

The best examples came when I was tested.

Once, early on, I was assigned to write a news story detailing the downfall of an independent refiner in New Orleans. The story included accusations of how wreckless management doomed the company, leading to a Chapt. 11 filing. My editor complained when I handed in the first version of the story: “not tough enough” and too many holes, he barked.

I went back and reviewed all my research, which included more than a dozen interviews, and reworked the story. The next version was tougher, tighter and more solid. After two more editors reviewed, and we went over all the facts; it was approved and published two days later.

The next day I got a call from the president of the small company. He was furious and ranted on for several minutes, how he was going to “kick my ass” and hire a high-powered law firm out of DC (which had just won a well-publicized case against the Washington Post) to pursue legal action. The guy had already fired his PR manager and was now moving on to the source of his problem, me –and BusinessWeek.

He did hire the law firm, and a week or so later I was forced to turn my notes over to the lawyers of McGraw Hill, the parent company of BW. The two sides went back and forth for a few weeks but MH wasn’t budging; the law firm eventually backed off.

This was way back in the 1980s, not even a decade after Watergate broke.

Today that refiner might get an easier ride. What blogger is going to tackle an investigative story or contentious subject like this—or stand up to a legal assault? Who’s going to pay the lawyers?

To be clear, I’m not arguing to hang on to an outdated business model. This IS an old, tired industry, badly in need of a revamp. It’s been weakening for years—wouldn’t it have been great if a newspaper (ala Watergate) had broken the Madoff story? Meantime bloggers and “citizen journalists” have brought new passion and energy into the business. Who couldn’t be impressed with the grass-roots reporting and video clips that recently came out of Iran?

But the system we are ushering in so quickly is not enough to fill the void being left by the old guard (despite all their weaknesses). Sure, anyone with a pulse and a Wordpress account can blog. But who will break the tough stories?  Who will uncover the political and business corruption? Who will  do the hard reporting, the hard work?

Sorry, it won’t be the Huffington Post.

I’d like to think that BusinessWeek could be completely revamped to be more interactive, more open, more fluid, starting with its online edition. Stories could be more organic, allowing for even higher levels of interaction on Businessweek.com. Citizen journalists could play a role, while even providing a platform for the business subjects. Imagine if a CEO could give us a glimpse behind the scenes of their daily routines?

(Purists would howl about some of these ideas which violate the church-state policies, but the old school of journalism is basically damaged  anyhow).

BW’s editors, led by editor in chief John A. Byrne, have already launched more than a dozen blogs and are slowly moving this direction.  But BW’s problems run much deeper than this and even these changes would unlikely to be enough to help the ailing print publication (circ 936,000), which depends so heavily on advertising (down more than a third in 1h 09).

With the red ink expected to continue, BW’s options are almost all bad–and its competitors like Fortune and Forbes aren’t faring much better (see article).

Options and potential buyers appear to be few and far between, and BW isn’t expected to fetch much in this environment. They need more money and more time—and right now, both appear to be in short supply.

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