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How to remake BusinessWeek?
|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
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
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 BusinessWeek.com 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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