How Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek Can Save Themselves

050409194655newsstandI’m getting shit for this post no matter what. By insinuating business magazines are better off than papers when I currently write a column for BusinessWeek people will call me biased. (As Arrington would say, “consider that your disclosure.”) Likewise, I have a lot of friends at all three publications who probably won’t appreciate what I have to say, because it’s not in their economic interest.

But Arrington keeps berating me to write a post today, so here goes.

24/7 Wall Street did a post the other day saying the sun was setting on Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek, and its facts about the finances of these publications are sad and mostly indisputable. Indeed, cutting frequency and staff are near certainties for at least BusinessWeek and Fortune. But I don’t agree that those realities mean the magazines can no longer afford quality, edited, long-form investigative stories.

There’s an obvious option for these magazines, and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it: Ruthlessly collapse the print and online staffs, run everything online as soon as they write it, except one or two cover-length, long-form glossy pieces. Those will anchor the print issue, rounded out by the best stories from online. Then cut the money spent on trying to court new subscribers, shifting the entire marketing budget to promote the Web or real-life conferences and branded events. You could even use reader comments to flesh the online pieces out more for the print edition, driving more engagement in both the print and online versions. Voila! One publication, not two pretending to be one. And guess what? One publication is a hell of a lot cheaper, even if it’s printed on dead trees.

Under this system, you still have the enterprise articles, like the Fortune piece 24/7 cites about Bernie Madoff. You just focus and only do one or two of them an issue, keeping 99.9% of your staff focused on writing stellar daily online content. And you optimize your staff to be scrappier, more productive and adapt from an old way of doing journalism, to something closer to blogging. People who can’t or refuse to adapt won’t have jobs. That may sound cruel but if the magazines themselves don’t adapt, no one there will.

This plan would save a ton of money. That’s right: They can save tons of money and still print a publication. Big national magazines have different economics than a metro daily paper. In some cases the biggest cost is a bloated staff, in others a highly-paid staff with generous corporate credit lines. Remember, most of these staffers were hired during better times and while layoffs have been frequent, they haven’t been as far reaching as they probably should have been. With all due respect to 24/7 Wall Street, the average compensation package at one of these three publications isn’t $60,000 unless you got hired out of school in the last few years. Think higher. Much higher.

Now a lot of these publications will tell you they’re all one staff now. But go through the staff boxes and see how many of those names blog, write breaking news online or write anything online with any frequency. Hint: If the question “Is this for print or online?” keeps coming up in your organization, you’re doing it wrong. Aside from one investigative piece per issue, there shouldn’t be a difference between the two. As a practical matter, it’s not that different from all of the magazine copy running online after the fact. But if you think about it, that policy elevates the magazine above online. It should be reversed.

Why not go the route of closing print completely and going online? First off, you’d kill the print ad revenue stream which is still the bulk of these magazines’ business. But it also abandons the magazines’ competitive advantage. For a lot of people magazines are different from newspapers. They’re printed on nice paper with glossy, glitzy photo shoots and painstaking graphic design for a reason. People in them like putting them on their coffee table—or better yet, framing them. Don’t underestimate the power reporters working on a cover have to convince a reluctant CEO to talk to them or give them exclusives. It may be one of the few advantages they’ve got over increasingly influential blogs. Similarly, there’s still a huge swath of readers who like flipping through a hard copy of BusinessWeek or Fortune on the plane, or even on a Sunday afternoon. The business world isn’t all tech, after all. And as a reporter, I have to be honest. There’s nothing quite like seeing your article printed in a glossy magazine. That can be a valuable retention and recruiting tool when used well. As can the implicit promise that the publication still values long-form, investigative reporting that has some shelf life to it.

It’s not that big, glossy, deeply-reported magazine stories are better than blogs. But they are a different way to tell certain important, complex stories, the same way a book is a different way to tell a story than an article. Not all news needs that kind of methodical, intensely-edited and graphic designed treatment, but I’d argue one or two per month do. And if newspapers keep crumbling, magazines are going to be the only places left that know how to do it.