Monday, November 2, 2009

David Carr In the Breakdown Lane

If you read David Carr in the NYT this morning, you were treated to a snarky interpretation of what's wrong with business journalism today. According to Carr, the "collapse" of business journalism has been caused by one simple development: business isn't heroic any more. The way Carr sees it, business journalism is about larger-than-life heroes of capitalism making huge financial bets that result in enormous personal gains. Inspired by glossy coverage of epic corporate chiefs, readers flock to business magazines, hoping to learn how to do what their out-sized heroes have done.
But Carr's column tells us less what is really wrong with business journalism and more about what's wrong with too much time spent in New York, drinking the same kool-aid as every other journalist in Gotham. When everybody sees it the same way, you can be sure that nobody really sees what's going on.
There's a reason why the magazines that Carr writes about have lost their way--and it isn't because business is any less interesting, dynamic, or important than it was 5 or 10 or even 2 years ago. Let's go through the failures and then talk about some of the successes and see what we learn.
Why did BusinessWeek get sold for $2 million? Because the idea of a weekly news magazine that thinks its job is to report "news" is preposterous on the face of it. That said, BusinessWeek is far from worthless: it has a terrific web site and with serious re-work, could be converted into a valuable property. But not if it thinks its in the news business.
What happened to Portfolio, the $40 million business bust launched and then killed by Conde Nast? Early in Portfolio's development, I asked one of its top people what the mission of the magazine was--what was its definition of victory? The answer I got was telling: "This is Conde Nast," I was told. "The mission of the magazine is to make money." And how does that relate to the reader? And to why a reader should bother to subscribe?
What about Fortune? In 1929, when Fortune was launched, it was a magazine of business sociology, telling the story of the growth of the new-to-the-world American corporation. Eighty years later, Fortune has lost its editorial purpose. In the 1980s and 1990s Fortune wrote about Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch. It had covers devoted to "the 10 toughest bosses in business," as if being tough were a postive definition of leadership. In the early 2000s, Fortune picked Enron as America's most innovative company--several years in a row! This is a magazine that needs to re-think, not its frequency, but its way of writing about business and the service it provides its readers.
Now let's look at The Economist, a publication that is writing about business, writing about the ideas behind business, writing about the changes going on in business--a publication pointedly ignored by David Carr. Why is The Economist doing so well? Because it has a clear idea of its mission. It understands what it does for its readers. It presents, not news, but a lens on the news. It offers a seasoned, experienced, intelligent eye on business, economics, and the mixture of the two. It has no by-lined articles. But it has a very consistent editorial voice--a slightly right-of-center British economist's interpretation not only of what is news-worthy, but also what the news actually means.
And what of my old magazine, Fast Company? It has never been guilty of the description offered by Carr. From the beginning, Fast Company has focused on a different idea of what is important about business. When Bill Taylor and I started the magazine, we went so far as to say, "We're not a magazine--we're a movement." What did that mean? It meant that we had an agenda for business--a different definition of leadership, a different idea of how business could and should be done. We didn't focus on the same old CEOs--we wrote about "people before they're famous, ideas before they're safe." That's still what Fast Company writes about: innovation, change, new ideas, best practices, new thinking, and new business models.
Business magazines aren't in trouble because business is less interesting than before the big crash.
Business magazines are in trouble because the crash revealed a fundamental fault that existed before the crash: Most of them had lost their reason for existing. They no longer understood what their mission was; or their mission had lost its relevance and they had failed to adapt.
But business today is more, not less, important than ever. It needs smart, thoughtful journalists who can wrestle, not with celebrities and heroes, as Carr suggests, but with new ideas and fresh ways of creating value.
If David Carr doesn't understand this fundamental point, he'd do well to talk with his colleague at the Times, Joe Nocera, who not only understands what business journalism is about--he practices it with every column he writes.

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