Businessweek has enjoyed a turnaround in its fortunes since being acquired by Bloomberg in 2009. Part of that is down to Bloomberg clout, part of it is down to the leadership of award winning editor Josh Tyrangiel, who on a recent visit to London, met up with Meg Carter to explain his publishing strategy.
Launched just weeks before the stock market crash of 1929, Businessweek long prided itself for being on top of the latest financial twist or turn. And so it was when, following a collapse in advertising revenue during the noughties, the 80 year-old business magazine, by then haemorrhaging $62m a year, was sold by McGraw-Hill for just $5m to US financial news and data company Bloomberg in 2009.
The purchase set tongues wagging. Observers hotly debated the strangeness of the fit between an ageing print brand and a financial news and data powerhouse whose editorial was geared toward wire service stories, not long-form copy. However most agreed the acquisition could help Bloomberg extend its reach beyond its core 'people in finance' customer base into the wider business community while presenting an opportunity to take on the Economist, if the product was got right.
In the two and a half years since, the change in the magazine's fortunes has been striking. Editorial pagination is up 20% and the magazine now claims number one position in both ad page and share growth against its direct rivals Fortune, Forbes and the Economist (source: Publishers Information Bureau data). Bloomberg Businessweek's paid subscriptions rose by 60,000 between late 2009 and 2011 and the title today claims a weekly readership of 4.8 million across 140 countries.
This turnaround has been led by editor Josh Tyrangiel who joined Bloomberg Businessweek post-acquisition from Time magazine where he was deputy managing editor and managing editor of Time.com. One of his first moves was to poach Guardian newspaper art director Richard Turley to be creative director and lead hand on a bold redesign which, along with a number of big name editorial hirings, contributed towards a successful re-launch of the title under a new name, Bloomberg Businessweek, in 2010.
iPad edition Bloomberg Businessweek+ was unveiled a year later - an award-winning app, recently launched on iPhone and iPod Touch, which has now secured more than 100,000 subscribers through a combination of sophisticated design, high quality editorial and in-depth background provided through links to other Bloomberg services and third party web content. The magazine's website was subsequently re-launched in February 2012.
Then, in May, Bloomberg Businessweek picked up the Award for General Excellence (General Interest Magazines) at the American Society of Magazine Editors' National Magazine Awards. And it's while still flushed with this latest success that Tyrangiel agrees to speak during a brief visit from New York to Bloomberg's frenetic UK headquarters on London's Finsbury Square.
"What I found when I arrived was a magazine in significant trouble," he confides. "Structurally there were issues - such as transmission issues with files. Strategically it was a member of a class of magazines that had been able to exist because readers read it out of obligation - because they thought it was important, they felt they should read it. But the web and the complete choice of global content it brought readers rendered that notion obsolete. Add to that the fact that McGraw-Hill was struggling at that point and it's hardly surprising Businessweek was a magazine adrift."
Tyrangiel had two immediate priorities. "When you're running a weekly magazine, something's got to get out. At the same time, though, we knew from the outset what was needed was a full re-conception of what the magazine was. It was no longer a news magazine but more a corporate guidance management book - not a way to argue your relevance in a very crowded news space. So part of the re-conception was about returning to being about business and economics," he explains.
Comprehensive and seductive
A one-time music critic without a track record in business journalism, Tyrangiel encapsulates the core goal of the redesign in two words: to make the magazine "comprehensive" and "seductive" for readers working in business and those outside the business world that have an interest in it. "When you have to argue for your reason to exist, 'comprehensive' is a powerful reason for readers to consider you because you can save them time and make them smarter," he explains. "That meant allotting pages, creating a taxonomy for how we were going to divide up sections and creating consistency where there was none before."
Visual style was also key and the sometimes controversial cover strategy that resulted has attracted particular attention - for example, for a February 2011 cover story exploring the 'adultery economy' depicting a pair of open legs. "Most people's reason for ending a magazine subscription is guilt because the magazines have piled up without being read," Tyrangiel says. "My goal from the beginning was to get people to look in the magazine within the first few seconds of seeing the cover."
Bloomberg Businessweek has 66 editorial pages a week - more than a typical issue of Newsweek or Time, so it was important to balance the need for order and consistency with the need to surprise people. "We set out to ensure there was something on every page that makes the reader stop and think - a break with the rule be that a small gesture or, sometimes, a big flourish," he adds. "A major concern was how to make long form narrative journalism inspiring, beautiful, adventurous. We needed to balance the intellectual challenge of delivering a complex subject with the artistry required to tell a beautiful story."
However news would also have an important role to play. A lot of magazines got spooked by the internet and tried to compete with it - a big mistake Tyrangiel believes. Meanwhile other print products abandoned news reporting altogether conceding victory to rolling 24 hour digital news providers. "Obviously the internet has meant magazines have had to get closer to analysis. But readers don't expect you to tell them the future - they expect you to live in the present, and so long as you are not showing them the past you can, even as a weekly, still do news," he adds.
A powerful advantage of being part of Bloomberg is the access Tyrangiel, who is also an executive editor of Bloomberg News, has to Bloomberg's established pool of 2,000 news reporters worldwide. Bloomberg Businessweek's approach to news is less about breaking news stories, more about reporting new facts and telling stories people haven't heard before, he explains: "That to me is a new definition of how you do news in print. And the network of experts the magazine can draw on for insight, analysis or simply the right lead has been invaluable."
Of course Bloomberg has deep pockets, too - with about $6.5bn in annual revenue from its data services alone, the company can certainly afford to fund the magazine without too much trouble. That said, Tyrangiel insists that despite the interest the company undoubtedly has in making Bloomberg Businessweek successful, the print editorial resources he has at his disposal are "lean" and his budget "super tight".
Perhaps. But Bloomberg is certainly intent on building Bloomberg Businessweek into not just a multi-platform but also an international publishing brand. Earlier this year, the company re-introduced two regional editions - one for Europe, the other Asia - reversing McGraw-Hill's decision to withdraw from both markets back in 2005. It has also struck licensing deals to launch local language versions of the title in the Gulf, Poland, Thailand, Turkey and China. And moving forward, more international content will follow - in particular, using the title's digital platforms.
"We are already a global magazine but do not yet have the global awareness of that, so a priority moving forward will be pushing that harder," Tyrangiel claims. And the recently re-launched website will play an important role in this because it's simply more flexible and cost effective to adapt and localise content online.
With solid web experience accumulated during his years at Time, Tyrangiel has firm views on the roles of and relationship between digital and print. "There's no such thing as platform-agnostic in my view. The message is entirely dictated by the medium. If you are reading a 3,000 word cover story on your desk top in your lunch hour then you are a unicorn because the medium isn't conducive to it as there are too many distractions," he observes.
You need to think about content in increments of time, Tyrangiel says: "There are seven minute stories, seven hour stories and seven day stories. The seven minute story - how Bloomberg News breaks a piece of information and gets it out there clearly and concisely - is hugely important to how we understand the world. But Businessweek.com is a seven hour story venue that's more analytical, more colloquial in style: the seven minute story put into further context."
The aim is to allow "water to flow downhill", he adds: "When your reporters are thinking and writing every day, it makes it easier to put out a weekly printed magazine because you can see which ideas have legs and which don't and judge the reaction of readers to ideas you float on the web as you go along. It's about using online as a sketch pad."
The magazine, meanwhile, provides both the shop front for the burgeoning Bloomberg Businessweek multi-platform brand, an engagement platform and "the ultimate browsing mechanism", Tyrangiel believes.
"You can do things in print with words and art and photography you just can't do elsewhere and in terms of the ability you have to take it anywhere and roll it up then unfurl it, it's still pretty good technology," he says. The printed product still provides a distinct and powerful experience and a way of connecting with the reader digital platforms cannot match. Which is why the future challenges most sharply in his focus aren't structural or technological but content-related and people-focused.
"For me, the biggest issue is that this is a very complicated time and even though we have some of the smartest people in the world covering the Euro crisis, what's going on in China, and the incredible complexity of Dodd-Frank (the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act signed into law by Barack Obama in 2010 to implement financial regulatory reform), the world we are covering gets more complex every day," Tyrangiel observes.
"Bloomberg is spectacular at training and getting the world's foremost experts in to talk to the experts we already have on our staff. But you cannot under-estimate the importance and value of attracting, training and holding on to the best staff. In a business like ours that's all about zeitgeist products that are right for now because they are only going to be read this week (talent) is a major issue. It's huge." For ultimately it's what will shape content quality which, in turn, will further close the gap between Bloomberg Businessweek and its rivals and win more general business customers for the rest of Bloomberg, too.