By Sarah Chaney
When Bloomberg LP bought the McGraw-Hill-owned BusinessWeek in 2009, the publication was flailing in turbulent waters.
Stephen Shephard, who left BusinessWeek as editor-in-chief in March 2005, said the magazine started falling off a cliff under Stephen Adler, who served as editor-in-chief from 2005 until the Bloomberg takeover in 2009.
“They started losing money for the first time since it started up,” Shephard said. “It went from one of the most powerful magazines around to a magazine hemorrhaging money, and they essentially gave it away to Bloomberg.”
Though the 2008 financial implosion had business consequences, Mark Vamos, a former senior editor at BusinessWeek, said it was the magazine’s editorial content that had hit rock bottom.
Many believe the magazine is still losing money, as well as compromising its former values in order to reach a younger age cohort, but current Bloomberg Businessweek editors say its editorial content, told through a prism of commercial activity, has improved.
The capabilities a financial media company has in churning out more illuminating and educational articles might counteract the numerous challenges of integrating the terminal and magazine.
“There’s more of the expectation that people have to be comfortable with financial information and continually work to mine the data that’s in there,” said Bloomberg Businessweek Director of Special Projects Cristina Lindblad.
“My Bloomberg colleagues are good at using and finding supporting data.”
Looking Back to See How It Looked Forward
Though it had added columnists such as Maria Bartiromo and Jack Welch to increase corporate coverage, BusinessWeek began to lose its hard-hitting stories during Adler’s term.
And while editorial content tried to find its footing, the business side of BusinessWeek decayed.
According to a Wall Street Journal article published in October 2009, BusinessWeek lost $43 million in 2008, including money allocated for rent and other infrastructure shared with McGraw-Hill.
Bloomberg agreed to pay nearly $5 million and take responsibility for more than $10 million in liabilities, according to the Journal article.
Joseph Weber, former reporter and chief of correspondents for BusinessWeek, speculated Bloomberg was attracted by this financial bargain.
“The Bloomberg folks thought there was a logical fit there,” he said. “It made a lot of sense to have Bloomberg reporting network feeding the magazine. There was a lot of synergy there.”
Bloomberg’s management team knew the magazine needed to change, and Josh Tyrangiel, current editor of the magazine, had ideas for how to push the magazine in a new direction.
While other magazines have cut back on frequency, Bloomberg Businessweek continues to publish approximately 50 issues per year. In 2014, it will publish 49 issues.
The overhaul also resulted in a sharp increase in the number of pages per magazine, with some issues such as the November 2013 “The Year Ahead: 2014” edition breaking the staples.
The magazine has added 20 percent more editorial pages and doubled the number of stories to deliver more value to its audience since 2009.
“When readers pick up a copy of Bloomberg Businessweek, they now get the sense they’re getting what they paid for,” said Rachel Nagler, communications director for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Lindblad said this decision was based on the magazine’s weakening financial state.
“When we were acquired, we were still losing money, so we decided to maintain a certain size of the book,” Lindblad said. “It’s packed with a lot more calories.”
There is a perception that Bloomberg Businessweek is still losing money, but Nagler said statements about the profitability of the magazine are not publicly available.
As part of the larger Bloomberg enterprise, the magazine is more than just a large collection of pages. Paul Barrett, a senior writer and assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, said the magazine provides an outlet for Bloomberg news material.
“That apparently is of considerable value to the man whose name was on the door (Bloomberg),” he said. “I’ve heard him say in meetings that he thinks the magazine, both print and web, helped sell the terminal.”
The terminal is the main source of revenue for the larger company and what drives the livelihood of Businessweek.
“If you stripped it away from everything else, the magazine in all likelihood would have gone away many years ago,” Barrett said.
“Mass circulation magazines will go away in a few years unless they find some new configuration, some other version of what has happened with Businessweek. The old equation of the ad revenue minus what is going out doesn’t work anymore.”
Turnover Has Some Turning Over
With the purchase of the magazine in 2009 came the loss of jobs for a quarter of BusinessWeek’s editorial staff. Some were fired, and some chose to leave.
“It’s not like this is all sweetness and light,” Barrett said. “The simplest example is the guy Steve Adler who was out the door because of the change in ownership of the magazine.”
Weber said the consolidation, though a money-saving measure, has ultimately hurt the content of the magazine.
“From the Bloomberg perspective, that may have made some sense to them,” Weber said.
“They figured they had their own reporters. They didn’t need to have a large staff of relatively high-paid people. I think the product would have been better today if they had kept some of the former BusinessWeek people.”
Fun and Feature-y
After a couple years into Adler’s stint, BusinessWeek cut back on its publication of sports, lifestyle and politics articles, instead focusing on writing from a businessperson’s point-of-view.
Today’s Businessweek is aimed at churning out entertaining articles and accompanying imagery, which a quick flip through the magazine will reveal. Glasses of whiskey, Shaquille O’Neal with a contorted facial expression and an elaborate photo illustration of the Twitter bird icon are all examples of recent Businessweek feature images.
“It is much livelier, it is more irreverent, it is more entertaining in a broad sense,” said Barrett.
“Not that every single article is a laugh riot. We just hope people get kind of a kick out of it and say, ‘That was a fun, lively experience.’”
Weber said among other characteristics such as solid content and a deep understanding of corporate culture, a good business magazine needs a bit of humor.
“It’s got to have a light touch, some personality, some sections that are dessert,” he said.
Lindblad said she thinks this new approach to writing gives reporters more of a voice in their stories than in the past.
“We’re more entertaining than we used to be. We used to be more preachy.
“The feature tone is completely different,” she said. “We do much more narrative stories than we used to. They’re more upbeat — but some people have said they’re not about business.”
Grumpy Editor blog’s Hal Morris is one such individual. In an email, Morris said the magazine’s writers and editors need to keep in mind that the title of the publication is Businessweek.
“Sometimes its editors forget that, as a weekly, it should recap, amplify or update business events of the week,” he wrote. “Some stories have nothing to do with business/finance.”
But one of Bloomberg Businessweek’s goals is to rope in a broad audience — or at least a readership more diverse than the businesspeople Adler aimed to reach.
Lindblad said lifestyle stories draw in a wider audience and have allowed the magazine to reach women, a demographic historically underrepresented in the magazine’s readership circle.
“We have stories about clothes and makeup and shoes,” she said. “Our goal is not to be an elite product, but to reach people. If we’re pulling you in, then good for us.”
The ‘Old Days’
Bloomberg Businessweek is a widely acclaimed magazine.
Jack Shafer of Reuters called Bloomberg Businessweek “the best magazine in America.” Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum wrote, “Tyrangiel has in a very short time turned Businessweek into far and away the best read of any business publication.” And Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, called the magazine’s Jobs memorial issue “the best issue of any kind produced in the past five years.”
Despite praise from media peers, Bloomberg Businessweek might in some ways lag behind its predecessor.
Weber said Bloomberg Businessweek has certain areas that just don’t stack up to the McGraw-Hill-owned version of the publication.
“I think when they set out to do their big projects, like cover stories, they are every bit as good as the stuff we produced in the old days,” he said.
“I think that the more day-to-day and week-to-week stuff, a lot of it I just don’t find terribly interesting.”
Part of BusinessWeek’s staff turnover upon its acquisition in 2009 resulted in a new kind of writing influence on the magazine.
Weber said that while Bloomberg is a top-notch deliverer of financial news, its writers tend to carry over their wire service writing style into the magazine content.
“They have to look up from their terminals and realize a magazine story is not the same as a terminal story,” Weber said.
“They have a fair number of wire service reporters and magazine editors who are editing it. They have this short, clippy, just not as elegant of an approach.”
But Lindblad said she thinks the collaborative effort is successful, as the data-driven capabilities of wire service reporters meshes nicely with the expertise of the magazine editors.
“In some cases we will take stories that appeared on the terminal and editors will try to shape them more into magazine pieces,” she said.
“If they’re writing something for us, they can turn it into a magazine piece.”
Barrett agreed that Bloomberg Businessweek’s model is grounded in a strategy that works.
“That just shows you that there are a lot of instruments in the orchestra and a lot of ways to play the instruments,” he said. “I think that was the whole idea that the Bloomberg people had when they bought the magazine.”
Nagler said among its many awards, Bloomberg Businessweek received the 2014 SABEW Best in Business Award for Magazines.
However, Weber said the Businessweek of today hasn’t racked up nearly as many accolades as the publication did during his tenure.
One of the problems plaguing Bloomberg Businessweek might be the emphasis on verticals, he said.
“We had a concept that everything had to be horizontal, meaning that you wanted to reach people in many different areas of business,” Weber said.
“If you were writing about a drug manufacturer, it should be interesting to people in an accounting firm. They have too many vertical stories, which are interesting to people who have one area of interest.”
Still, Lindblad thinks Bloomberg Businessweek is grabbing hold of not only a larger audience, but a larger source pool.
“I think trying to reach more people in the sense that you’re reaching a bigger audience means more people will be willing to open doors to you,” Lindblad said.
“Before there was a certain category of executives who would speak to a business news reporter. Now that you have Businessweek and online, it makes it more attractive to some people.”
Scandalous or ‘Just for Fun?’
From images of a man with arrows jutting out of his belt to two airplanes “getting it on,” Bloomberg Businessweek has turned out some sexually obtrusive and controversial covers.
These edgy designs are part of an effort to attract a younger age group and surprise and engage more readers.
Weber said he thinks the covers are tarnishing Businessweek’s reputation, though he hasn’t noticed any recent covers that emit sexual messages.
“I think some of the sexually suggestive covers are an embarrassment,” he said. “They try to get edgy and get noticed.”
Lindblad said the covers are creating buzz and not based on the intent to shock but to humor.
“We have a very edgy design team that has made us look very different from our peers,” she said. “We’re trying to appeal to a new demographic. It’s a worthwhile gamble for us.”
Richard Turley, the creative director at Bloomberg Businessweek responsible for many of the controversial covers, recently left for a job at MTV.
Morris said Businessweek is competing with other news outlets such as Fast Company to garner younger readers’ interest, although the current Fast Company issue spotlights Chelsea Clinton on the cover with the line: “She’s Got Power, Influence, and a Plan to Change the World.”
Nonetheless, the covers and design of Bloomberg Businessweek have achieved acclaim for pushing the boundaries of traditional newsweekly and business magazine design.
In 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek received the Magazine of the Year award from the Society of Professional Designers, Creative Review’s 2012 Studio of the Year Award and was Magpile’s Best Magazine Design winner for 2013.
From ‘W’ to ‘w’
When Bloomberg bought BusinessWeek, the uppercase ‘W’ became lowercase. The change did not only signify the shift in ownership, but a change in initiative and a growing need to adapt to the Internet age.
“It’s hard to compare one magazine to another because it’s not the same era,” Shephard said.
“They have been very smart about adapting to a new world. I think they’re still losing money, but I don’t think they’re losing as much as they were in 2008.”
The trend toward digital operations began under Shephard himself.
“One of the things that had happened at the magazine during the time under the stewardship of Steve Shephard, the editors really recognized how important technology would be,” Vamos said.
The definition of a good business magazine has subsequently changed with the times.
“At the time — during BusinessWeek’s heyday (which I was part of), it was being comprehensive that made for a good magazine,” Vamos said. “BusinessWeek could cover very broadly the world of business — everything from technology to industry to finance to the moon.
“What makes for a great magazine now, it has much more to do with a sharper focus, a voice…it’s a very different game.”
But even though comparing the McGraw-Hill version of the magazine to the Bloomberg version might be akin to comparing apples and oranges, there is reason to think the magazine has improved.
According to Alliance for Audited Media statements, circulation is up 8 percent to 989,000. This has been driven by individually paid subscriptions, which are up more than 40 percent. Average price paid by subscribers has also risen to the highest rate in 10 years.
“Has Businessweek improved? 100 percent yes,” Lindblad said. “It’s a completely different magazine, but it’s one that people are more likely to read.”
Chaney is a business journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill. She will intern this summer at the Triangle Business Journal.