New York Times Examines BusinessWeek’s Decline

An undercurrent of schadenfreude runs through a New York Times article on the dire straits in which BusinessWeek finds itself.

There’s an irony in the tone and substance of the coverage. After all, the New York Times isn’t exactly in a privileged position from which it can look down condescendingly on its down-at-heels publishing brethren. Like many newspapers, the Old Gray Lady, as the Times is known, is having trouble recasting itself as an invaluable online and offline destination for breaking news and the analysis and commentary that accompany it.

Still, misery loves company.

Perhaps that’s why the article on BusinessWeek’s decline is tackled with obvious gusto by Stephanie Clifford. She does a good job, for the most part, marshaling facts and figures, soliciting quotes from experts and assorted pundits, and providing a big-picture view of deteriorating industry dynamics as well as a sharp closeup look at BusinessWeek’s specific hardship.

There is a notable omission, though. It’s one that got me thinking, a consequence that should concern us all. Toward the end of the article, Clifford writes:

With bids about to land, investors and employees are debating the future of BusinessWeek. There are levers to move, like decreasing circulation or raising the magazine’s price. But it is still a weekly in a nanosecond world.

“They have to be unique, must-read,” said Stephen B. Shepard, the editor of BusinessWeek for 20 years and now dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. “That’s the only hope for almost all these publications.”

Well, it would be folly to argue with Shepard’s assessment. I agree that weekly newsmagazines must do a few things well to ensure their survival. Being a unique must-read publication definitely is one of them.

All of which bring us to the omission, the publication not mentioned, perhaps because it has resisted the powerful currents of doom that have buffeted its counterparts.

As weekly publications decline and fall all around it, the Economist has managed to maintain its footing with both readers and advertisers. It isn’t mentioned in the article. That’s unfortunate, because it might serve as an example BusinessWeek could emulate in its bid to remain viable.

The challenge in emulating the Economist, though, is that it’s practically inimitable. Is it a weekly newsmagazine, like TIME and Newsweek, or is it a weekly business magazine, akin to BusinessWeek? Some people say it’s the former, a standard newsweekly, but I humbly disagree.

Sure, the Economist summarizes the week’s news, just like a newsmagazine; but it does so from a decidedly business-oriented perspective. It also includes more business news and financial commentary that one would ever find in a TIME or Newsweek. In that respect, it is more weekly business magazine than weekly newsmagazine. That said, it’s not a purebred either way, and that might be what makes it unique.

Another difference between the Economist and nearly every other weekly newsmagazine is the tone of the publication. It has a flavor all its own. It’s ironic, skeptical, sometimes cynical. It can be haughty and dismissive in its cool pose as the establishment authority on what happened and why it mattered (or didn’t). Derek Thompson, over at The Atlantic, has given some thought as to what makes the Economist succeed where others have failed:

What exactly makes the Economist work is a $64,000 question in journalism. On its face, the idea of writing anonymous editorials about everything from urban politics in South Africa to the medicine news in Bangladesh doesn’t seem like a winning formula in an age of journalism that supposedly lives in a bunker under a roof known as the lowest common denominator. But the highminded Economist is succeeding, nonetheless. I would hazard to guess that’s because it’s a magazine that exists primarily to tell you what to think — complete with an Oxbridge accent and a biting sense of humor that knows when to bite.

Whatever it is that makes the Economist work, online and offline, BusinessWeek ought to identify it. Then it ought to determine whether and how that insight can be mined for its own salvation.

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