Josh Tyrangiel has a preposterous mission: to convince readers that a weekly business magazine left for dead two years ago is now a must-read.
That would be challenging enough in a good market. But in 2011, with print advertising still in crisis, there may not even be such a thing as a must-read magazine anymore.
“Is any media brand with the word ‘week’ in it going to survive?” asks Larry Kramer, the founder of MarketWatch, a successful online news brand.
The “week” in question is Bloomberg Businessweek, which Bloomberg LP bought in October 2009 for a dollar, when it was still just called BusinessWeek, and soon after handed to Tyrangiel, a young Turk (he’s now 39) at Time magazine. Arguably this editorship was the best job in journalism; it was also arguably the worst. Businessweek was now being funded by a company with a great deal of money and great ambitions; the publication was also losing $63 million a year.
So far, the Bloomberg money has bought signs of life. Businessweek has bulked up to an average of 66 well-designed editorial pages that offer a level of global business coverage not found among other weeklies. Ad pages are up 21 percent year-on-year for January through July; the rate base will soon be raised from 900,000 to 980,000 (approaching Forbes’ 1,020,000); and subscriptions are up 12 percent. The magazine now loses, according to Adweek sources, between $20 million to $30 million annually.
But Tyrangiel’s mission is not survival. His mission is “indispensability”—without question, his favorite word.
“For a weekly magazine in this climate, the only bar that you have to clear is indispensability,” he told Monocle last year. “Indispensability is the hallmark of the product,” he told Charlie Rose in December. “Greatness is indispensable,” he told Adweek.
When Bloomberg offered Tyrangiel the position, the 80-year-old, recession-worn Businessweek was a slim remnant of the robust weekly it had once been. Tyrangiel himself says he stopped reading it years ago. While negotiating the terms of the position, Bloomberg LP’s chief content officer, Norm Pearlstine, using a slightly different word, told Tyrangiel that the one ambition Bloomberg had for the magazine was that it be “great.”
“No one is ever going to say that to someone of my age again,” Tyrangiel, who was then deputy managing editor at Time and heir apparent to top editor Rick Stengel, remembers thinking. “No one is going to say, ‘First thing first: Make it great, and we’ll figure out the strategy from there.’”
Tyrangiel told this story while sitting in a glass-encased conference room at the Businessweek midtown New York office building, infamous for its group work spaces (read: lack of privacy). It’s a striking building, which The New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger described as “one of the most exhilarating workspaces I’ve ever seen, with both the high energy of a trading floor . . . and the buzz of the newsrooms of old.”
Tyrangiel, however, refers to it as something out of The Jetsons, betraying the fact that he still feels a bit out of place.
“I fully concede I woke up on third base in some cases,” he says of the money and other types of support at his disposal. “This magazine has advantages that other magazines did not, and I’m grateful for them every day.”
But for all the advantages, one is left with a persistent and uneasy sense of illusion. Why exactly is Bloomberg pouring its resources into a weekly magazine?
You can’t trade on Businessweek’s information the way you can on the parent company’s stock in trade, the Bloomberg Terminal. It doesn’t offer subscribers insider information about the relevant goings-on in Washington, D.C., the way Bloomberg Government does. It rarely even offers breaking news like Bloomberg News. In the vast, bustling Bloomberg universe, which thrives on providing exclusive, up-to-the-minute information, a weekly magazine is an anomaly.
So is it merely a vanity project for New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who, it’s believed, desperately wants his own version of The Economist? Is it simply a marketing effort for Bloomberg LP—a way of reaching an audience that hasn’t been on the company’s other platforms? Or is it just a way of leveraging the global staff Bloomberg already has?
All of the above, perhaps. But none of that changes the fact that, week in and week out, Tyrangiel is responsible for making Businessweek “great.”
Many in the industry contend he has already achieved that on the design side. One of his first moves in 2009 was to hire creative director Richard Turley, former art director at the Guardian’s G2 section, one of the most innovative examples of print design. Turley redesigned the magazine based on Tyrangiel’s vision. As soon as Turley got to New York from London, Tyrangiel, who sits with his staff in the newsroom, put Turley’s desk directly across from his own in order to keep the editors and designers in an ongoing conversation.
“He has a very good design sensibility and aesthetic, which is reflected in the magazine,” Stengel, managing editor at Time, says of Tyrangiel.
No one would ever mistake Businessweek for its more staid rivals. For a recent profile of a rarely photographed Wall Street executive, Turley and Tyrangiel compensated for the lack of a photograph by leaving the title spread blank except for a few explanatory words in very small type. When, for an issue on cyber warfare, they decided to blow up a computer for the cover shot, they made sure the cover lines responded to the explosion, creating jumbled text. As a whole, the magazine succeeds in being both familiar enough to navigate and novel enough to arrest.
“I think you could say it’s kind of Economist meets New York,” says Turley, who cites the latter as an influence. “You have the weight, the heft of The Economist, but then we dress them up a lot more, give them a lot of entry points.”
On the editorial side, however, Tyrangiel has yet to achieve his goal—if only because his goal is so ambitious: to make Businessweek “obviate the need to read other things.”
“Why am I reading this article in this magazine? Why am I reading this right now in this magazine? And what am I going to be able to take away from it? Apply those three questions to most stories,” he says. “That’s how you get to indispensability.”
According to a staffer, Tyrangiel is “obsessive” about furthering that mission.
“If your projection of your own value is $4.99, you have to earn it every week,” Tyrangiel says. “You have to create that consistency week after week after week so that people know what the value proposition is, why they come to you. And when they come to you, you have to deliver on that time and again.”
Tyrangiel has pushed to make Businessweek as comprehensive as possible. The front of the book—a five-part roundup of the week’s news in Global Economics, Companies & Industries, Politics & Policy, Technology, and Markets & Finance that’s probably the most traditional part of the magazine—has the same value proposition as The Economist. It offers a wide-ranging report of the week’s news—in this case, business news—from around the world, making it the layman’s weekend edition of the Bloomberg Terminal.
According to Kramer, this is where Businessweek makes its bid for indispensability. “The front of the book determines if [it will] survive or not,” he says. “The real value here is, you come away one level more intelligent on a lot of subjects, you gain intelligence. . . . The payoff doesn’t have to be, ‘I sold a stock and made more money.’ The payoff can be, ‘Man, I sounded smart in a lunch with the boss.’”
The feature well is where the magazine’s editorial content gets away from tradition. If the front of the book is comparable to The Economist, the feature well is more like New York—and the writing strives for that sensibility. The talent Tyrangiel has brought in reflects that. To bolster the magazine’s technology coverage, he hired Brad Stone, then The New York Times’ top tech reporter, and later added two more tech reporters from the Times and The Economist, respectively. In July, he grabbed Joshua Green, who at the time was a senior editor at The Atlantic, to cover politics.
Now, the magazine is looking toward a global market. In 2012, Businessweek will launch European and Asian editions—an important symbolic victory, since the magazine shuttered those same editions in 2005, under its previous ownership. Those editions will join local-language versions in Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Turkish, Arabic, and Polish.
“We’re growing our footprint around the world in a way that I think advertisers are really craving,” Tyrangiel says. “It indicates that what we’ve done may be working.”
Unsurprisingly, the Bloomberg management sings Tyrangiel’s praises.
“Josh took an 80-year-old magazine, a significant part of the American media landscape, and in a really short period of time, updated it to make it a must-read in the increasingly digital world that we are part of,” says Matt Winkler, the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.
But Businessweek is still not really a must-read for most people. Newsstand sales fell 27 percent in 2010 and 34 percent in the first half of 2011. Those figures aren’t key to its business strategy, but they’re not all that reassuring for the indispensability campaign either.
“It takes a long time,” Kramer says. “The audience has to get it themselves. You can sell them as much as you want, but after they’ve read it six times, the seventh time they have to be drawn to buy it again on their own.”
That point is coming up. Tyrangiel has spent two years reinventing Businessweek, making it the most exciting business magazine out there. But he still needs to convince readers that it’s essential.
“I’m ever vigilant,” Tyrangiel says. “Having lived through some very difficult times and wondered if I was ever going to get to do a job like this, I am ever vigilant about success.”
Success takes not just reinvention, but time—and the time that Bloomberg can afford him may be its ultimate resource and gift.