Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Why Bloomberg spells trouble for BusinessWeek

September 10, 2009News

It looks like Mayor Bloomberg is kicking the tires at my magazine, BusinessWeek. That's according to Keith Kelly at the New York Post and BW's Jon Fine. No doubt Bloomberg can afford it. It probably would cost him less than his re-election campaign on Staten Island alone.

Bloomberg has lots to recommend him. He has a prosperous franchise that is built on subscription fees, not advertising. That leaves him nearly impervious to the collapse of advertising (though vulnerable to turbulance on Wall Street). He has built a company dedicated to good and reliable journalism.

Still, he could spell bad news for BW staffers. Here's why. The potential bidders, says one of my colleagues (who knows the mag business far better than I), fall into three categories.

* The best for employees, at least in the short run, would be a vanity buyer, someone who would enjoy owning a global brand and could stomach losses for a while. (The downside of a vanity buyer: The magazine needs fixing, and sticking to the status quo would likely spell extinction in the medium term.) A vanity buyer dedicated to remaking the magazine would be ideal. That could be someone like Bruce Wasserstein.

* A more painful alternative would be a financial investor, like one of the private equity players. They would wrench the magazine toward profitability, causing pain, risking death, but perhaps saving and even resurrecting it.

* The third and most painful possibility would be a media company with legacy businesses that overlap with BW's. This could be the case with Bloomberg. Conceivably, he could buy the brand and the subscribers, hold onto a handful of staffers and get his own employees to do the rest of the work. But who knows? Politics might help. Axing loads of Midtown journalism jobs would be an embarrassment for the New York mayor, one he might choose to avoid.

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