Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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How to remake BusinessWeek?

July 16, 2009General

Monday I learned that BusinessWeek, where I've worked for 22 years, is on the block. It may be sold, or stay in McGraw-Hill (where it's been for 80 years). But the business is losing money (I don't know how much). Whoever ends up with it is going to have to figure out quickly how to turn a business news operation built primarily as a weekly magazine into a profitable franchise for the age of near ubiquitous and real-time information.

I was thinking about about this obsessively this week as I closed three magazine stories, two that I wrote and one that I edited. For three days, I was immersed in the what I call "the last 5%." It involves a large team of professionals engaged in tweaking, polishing, compressing and dressing articles--hopefully giving them the gleam, smarts and clarity of a top-rate product.

This last 5% consumes a sizeable effort and expense. The question the next (or current) owner of BusinessWeek is going to have to grapple with is whether such attention to detail is worth it, or, alternatively, whether there's another way to achieve the same goal.

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting with a good friend and editor. We were studying a one-page story I had edited on India, and we were focusing on the wording of one problematic sentence. I told him that this level of detail was driving me crazy. He said he loved it. What's more, he argued that it was precisely this work that gave BusinessWeek its value--that without it we would sink into commodity journalism (and probably disappear).

I should add here that the last 5%, for all my bellyaching, can sometimes transform stories, turning what looks like a marginal piece of news into something smart, clear and insightful. At its best, this process goes far beyond cleaning up copy. It can add intelligence and ideas. And the maddening process of trimming an article to fit to a page or two demands more disciplined thought and writing, which can be a very good thing for readers. (I would argue that the 140-character constraint of Twitter accomplishes the same thing: It compels writers to put more thought into editing.)

But my problem with the 5% process has to do with insularity. Much of the analysis has to do with a team of people in a midtown skyscraper imagining what "the reader" knows and wants to know. With blogs, we now have the tools to ask. But the business model calls for secrecy. So instead of asking, we imagine. Our discussions involve conflicting interpretations of what is going on inside of the reader's head.

That "reader" is more than 900,000 different people who subscribe to or buy the magazine every week, plus the people they share it with. It's also the millions of people who visit the Web site, where all these stories appear (along with other, less polished fare). So when we try to read the mind of the reader, we're playing a numbers game. I might calculate that 45% of the readers will be interested in my slightly geeky paragraph about algorithms, that another 25% won't hold it against us (I should know about this stuff...). Yes, others will no doubt skip over it, discouraged, and turn the page, if they've even gotten that far. But on balance, it's still a valuable paragraph. Another editor might view the readership differently and call for the section to be removed. But some of our most important readers, I might argue, will really care about that information. On and on...

The entire discussion is based on the one-size-fits-all paradigm of the industrial age. It's got (at least) two problems: First, it's expensive. Second, readers are seeing in rest of their lives, from TiVo to their double-shot half-skim half-caf latte, that one size doesn't have to fit all. Even dogs these days are built to order. In this world, many business readers want and expect customization.

The future (or current) owners of BusinessWeek will have to figure out how to cut costs and fit the product to the readers' varied needs. Much of this, of course, will occur online. But here I'm talking about the magazine, which still delivers most of the revenue and will have to sustain, at least for a while, much of the news operation that emerges from the painful process ahead.

I see two possible solutions: communities and algorithms.

First, communities: If we published the stories online earlier, before the last 5%, "the reader" could tell us what he or she wants to know. We wouldn't have to guess quite as much. Perhaps that process could inform what we eventually publish in the magazine.

I'll deal with the algorithms in a later post. It's much more relevant to than to the paper magazine. But suffice to say that plenty of sophisticated information companies are grappling with the idea of customizing news to individual readers.

One last thought: Three years ago, I was talking to Jeff Jarvis, Ross Mayfield and others about the possibility of building a Wiki on the BW site. The idea was that some of the best minds in every field from design to finance would gather there with one mission, to fix General Motors. I was excited about the project, but then got my book deal and moved on to the Numerati. But now I'm thinking we could try the same approach with another mission, to remake BusinessWeek? Thoughts?

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