BusinessWeek's Sale and the Future of the Newsweekly

BusinessWeek magazine is now up for sale, with ad sales down 30 percent. This is rotten news for BW, because we're in bad market for weekly magazine buyers, and a low price could require harsh cuts into the editorial and business ranks of the magazine. But bad times for magazines is a good time to mention Michael Hirschorn's article in the current Atlantic, The Newsweekly's Last Stand, which looks at the depressing state of newsweekies in America and finds salvation in our friends across the pond.

Hirschorn doesn't look at business magazines, which have had their own issues this year (BW's sale coming on the heels of Conde Nast Portfolio's shuttering). Instead, Hirschorn looks at the old-fashioned newsweeklies Newsweek and Time, which have seen ad revenue drop off by 27 and 14 percent, respectively. Meanwhile the Economist has notched a remarkable 25 percent increase in revenue over the same period. How can we explain that?

What exactly makes the Economist work is a $64,000 question in journalism. On its face, the idea of writing anonymous editorials about everything from urban politics in South Africa to the medicine news in Bangladesh doesn't seem like a winning formula in an age of journalism that supposedly lives in a bunker under a roof known as the lowest common denominator. But the highminded Economist is succeeding, nonetheless. I would hazard to guess that's because it's a magazine that exists primarily to tell you what to think -- complete with an Oxbridge accent and a biting sense of humor that knows when to bite. Hirschorn's take is thus:

Even as Time and Newsweek attempt to copy The Economist's success, they seem to be misunderstanding what it is, exactly, that they should be copying. By repositioning themselves as repositories of commentary and long-form reporting--much like this magazine, it's worth noting, which has never delivered impressive profit margins--the American newsweeklies are going away from precisely the thing that has propelled The Economist's rise: its status as a humble digest, with a consistent authorial voice, that covers absolutely everything that you need to be informed about. (Tellingly, the very lo-fi digest The Week, which has copped The Economist's attitude without any real reporting or analysis at all, is thriving as well.)

I have no idea if Hirschorn is right. Indeed, I suspect the Economist itself doesn't perfectly understand the motor behind its trend-bucking success. But if one were to try use the Economist model to save BusinessWeek -- or any of the bussiness magazines that are, as Hamilton Nolan rightly notes, in the best of times and worst of times for their business -- what would that look like?

The main thing would be to shift the emphasis of the heart of the magazine from personality-driven features on business happenings to snappy explanations of the week in business, with Opinion. How they would do that might be tricky. The business world does not break down into intuitive regions the way the Economist breaks the world down into Europe, the US, the Americas, and so on. But in a sense, BusinessWeek already has a "humble digest" of world in business in the front of the magazine called "The Business Week," which breaks down the world into Economics & Policy, Strategy, Technology, Finance, and so on. If it blew out that digest -- with analysis, charts, statistics and a take -- to become the body of the magazine, you'd get something very much like an Economist for business. Today, BW gets the news out of the way in the first few pages to focus on thoroughly reported features that its talented writing staff have been slaving over for weeks. But if Hirschorn is right, the magazine model that is working today puts a premium on bringing insight to today's news, not on hunting for long, rich stories of tomorrow.