Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can This Business Model be Saved? Thoughts on BusinessWeek & the 5 Percent Problem

The news that McGraw-Hill has put BusinessWeek, the prestigious magazine it has owned for 80 years and that has a paid circulation of 900,000 that has held steady over the past few years, is a sign that we still have a way to go before a recovery.

But the news has also generated an interesting look by Stephen Baker, a 22-year BW veteran, to ponder, "How to remake BusinessWeek."

In trying to figure out "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," Baker refers to the "the last 5%."

According to Baker, "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."

From Baker's perspective, "the last 5%" is a significant problem. Yet the work that gets done during "the last 5%" is also what separates BusinessWeek from commodity journalism.

Having worked as an editor in newspapers and book publishing, and in PR, I know that there's a lot of effort to get the final product to be right, paying attention to commas, hyphens and other grammatical minutiae that most people will overlook as they scan the page. There's a pride of ownership in a final document and a sense of responsibility to get it right.

Baker suggests that may no longer be necessary in a real-time, social media space. After all, as noted before in this blog, there are a lot of people who consider speed to publish is more important than accuracy. That would include, but is not limited to, grammatical accuracy, too.

I think Baker's right that "the last 5%" consumes more energy than the reader may value. But I don't think that's the only problem facing the traditional print business model. The problem also can be attributed to a lack of accountability in how newspapers and magazine spent their money.

In another blog post, "After the Madison Avenue bubble," Baker wrote about how BusinessWeek overspent when he first joined the magazine: requesting and paying for an additional apartment in Mexico City so the magazine could claim to have a bureau office there, along with a secretary -- when Baker could have just worked at his own (subsidized-by-BW apartment). How he lived well in Paris (in another expensive, subsidized-by-BW apartment), sent his kids to subsidized-by-BW private school, etc.

From my perspective, people still want news, still want content that requires the effort of "the last 5%" -- that demand for news has nothing to do with the actual business model. The real problem is the debt many built up and now can't service. Bankruptcy may help some publishers restart their business, by reducing their debt loads.

But it may be too late to stem the tide, to save print media from itself.

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