It's been over a year since Bloomberg bought the venerable yet ailing Business Week, and since then its staff has undoubtedly been grappling with questions like: How far down must a billionaire dig into his pockets to finance what Bloomberg Businessweek President Paul Bascober hopes will be "the most influential business magazine in the world"? And, is that goal impossible -- or simply irrelevant -- with the weekly print business pub possibly as dinosaur-like as the print newsweekly in the face of digital competition?
On that first question, I'll just note that the newly named and revamped mag, which launched in April, at least seems to be decreasing its rate of ad page decline: from a massive 33.8% for 2009 (according to Folio) versus 2008, to a rate of 4.7% for January through September 2010 compared with the same period last year, according to Publishers Information Bureau.
Meanwhile, the new editorial product seems to be trying to combine lessons from Web publishing with many of the traditional strengths of print mags -- not always successfully, though.
With the number of BBW's edit pages raised from 55 to 66 (according to Folio) there's more content here, now organized for quick accessibility. The table of contents, like the best home pages, breaks down into very specific departments: five categories of shorter news and analysis items; longer features; and "Etc.," which seems to encompass lifestyle and leisure, plus managerial topics. After the TOC, an index of names (boldfaced), companies and topics in the issue functions as a reference and de facto search engine.
Continuing the user-friendly vibe, every news story leads with two boldfaced summary statements, and ends with "the bottom line": a one- or two-sentence conclusion. You could read just that and feel on top of things. However, if you read further, you'd find stories snappily written, well-reported, and reaching below the surface for trend analysis -- as in a piece about how big chains like Wal-Mart are gearing up to open smaller, food-focused outlets in inner cities.
The mag's art folks have done a good job of vamping up the pages visually, using clever illustrations and a variety of typefaces appealingly. For example, the cover for "The Great Copper Heist" features tiny, unsavory-looking characters in traditional thieves' garb (striped sweaters, caps, five-o'clock shadow) attempting to grab a piece of the copper letters spelling out the story's title.
However cute that cover is, it's somewhat misleading editorially. You expect a fast-moving, caper-like story, but the essential narrative (of how Dallas police attempted to stop the recycling of copper that's been stolen from city essentials like power lines) is bogged down with too much explanation and too many statistics.
Here's a case where BBW needs to compete with the Web by emulating the best of long-form print journalism, which charms and entertains as well as informs. I'm thinking of magazines like Esquire, but consider also those great front-page features in The Wall Street Journal, geared to an audience that appreciates a stylish turn of phrase as well as the latest stock prices.
Another feature, "The Pistachio King and the POM Queen," succeeds with more narrative zip when profiling Beverly Hills billionaires Lynda and Stewart Resnick, object of two lawsuits. Killer quote: Lynda saying of Marie Antoinette, "She needed a better publicist."
Then there's the featurette "Could Anything Have Saved The Beatles?" -- the discovery of which led me to begin regular perusal of BBW. The piece, ostensibly a review of Peter Doggett's book "You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup," looks at the Beatles not as a cultural phenomenon, but as a money-making machine that went bust too soon. Writer Hugo Lindgren theorizes that a "neutral third party" like a therapist (performing an intervention like the one that kept Metallica from splitting in 2003) might have dissolved the bitter, childish Lennon-McCartney feud, thus averting "one of the worst managerial blunders in the history of the entertainment industry."
For a baby boomer like me, who grew up with the Beatles, this was fascinating, ground-breaking stuff.
So here's one way to fight back against the digital capture of magazine audiences: with provocative, thoughtful analysis and insight, the best of print journalism's fire. Couldn't hurt, even if you've got a billionaire backing you.
Published by: Bloomberg L.P.
Frequency: 50 issues a year