Business Week

I'm inherently suspicious of any magazine issue (not to mention any sale, sauce or sitcom episode) that bills itself as "special." Take the April 3 BusinessWeek: if it's truly special, does that mean that the issues preceding it, which lacked comparable cover braggadocio, were ordinary? Is it so darn special that the issues following it will cower in its imposing shadow, relegated to treading water in its furious wake? I can only imagine the pressure that the mag's staffers must be feeling today as they rush to close the April 10 edition--which, absent the front-page designation of "special," will be perceived as decent at best. Labels can be so hurtful.

I'll leave the question of whether the April 3 BusinessWeek attains specialness (specialitude? specialistasticity?) to the marketing wonks who tagged it as such. Instead, I'll wonder aloud how a single publication can alternate between some of the smartest content to be found in any magazine--business or otherwise--and items that would be deemed too lower-middlebrow for a college newspaper. In the simplest terms, this is what happens when a high-thinking magazine attempts to perk itself up for consumption by dullards.

Take the "BusinessWeek Fifty" cover feature on the corporate world's top performers, as determined by a formula that takes into account everything from sales and earnings growth to inseam measurements. It's a catchy editorial gimmick, sure, but one to which Fortune long ago laid its claim. It doesn't help that the accompanying featurettes on a handful of the ranked companies (yet another rapturous paean to Apple, a Goldman Sachs primer that sheds no light on the firm's tactics) elicit little more than shrugs.

Then there are the items which must have found their way into the issue via some kind of production snafu. Extending an olive branch to business folk who don't read newspapers, watch TV or leave the house, BW breaks the story that banks are no longer relying on Mr. Coffee giveaways to lure new customers. Al Jazeera International's difficulty in securing distribution from U.S. cable and satellite providers is presented as somewhat of a surprise--how could it be anything else, given Joe Topeka's stated preference for an I-spit-on-your-value-system counterpart to American Idol? And apparently those "free Wal-Mart gift certificate!" e-mails aren't real. Next they'll tell us that the Tooth Fairy isn't really married to Fiona Apple.

On the plus side of the ledger, BW still boasts a smattering of magazinedom's sharpest regular columns, including Stephen H. Wildstrom's "Technology & You" deconstructions and Jon Fine's arch "MediaCentric" dispatches on marketing and media. The mag handles workplace and related issues with aplomb, as witnessed by the you-are-there report from a Seagate corporate retreat in New Zealand.

Given the U.S.-first thrust of so many magazines and newspaper business sections, BW impresses with its global wingspan. In the April 3 issue alone, we learn that Adidas and Nike are waging some kind of apparel warfare on one another in advance of the upcoming World Cup, that there aren't enough lawyers in Japan and that the Germans like eBay almost as much as they do David Hasselhoff. Each of the stories teems with anecdotal flair and pointed analysis, as opposed to canned bleats from the usual slate of talking heads.

Additionally, BW's design transcends the USA Today-ish murk in which its mass-market competitors find themselves bogged. While sidebars flourish like hothouse flowers, the mag complements them with decidedly arty touches: a mining concern's CEO posed in front of old photos of workers, an illustration of a CEO striding confidently atop a stock-market-graph dealie.

As has been noted before in this space, I hate stupid people and publications that pander to them. So I guess it saddens me when a venerable title like Business Week temporarily lets down its guard, weighing down an otherwise lean editorial mix with fluff about "culinary travel" and waterproof, genetically modified super-dungarees. Last I checked, there were one or two lifestyle magazines on the ol' rack; BW would clearly be better served by leaving the pap to those purveyors of low thought and getting back to, uh, business.

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