Magazine Hot List 2009: Editor of the Year, Robert Safian

It’s a cold afternoon in late February, downtown in New York’s financial district, at a time when the Dow is tanking hourly and zombie banks are on the prowl for bailouts. But up on the 29th floor of the newly rebuilt 7 World Trade Center, the sleek headquarters of Fast Company magazine, there’s no discernible doom or gloom—instead, there’s a definite office-of-the-future vibe.

Indeed, while other media outlets are shivering, the feeling here is almost like a SimCity version of a publishing company, where staffers swing in and out of the stainless steel kitchen, collecting free sodas from the refrigerator as they carry their 100-percent recycled cardboard lunch cartons from Whole Foods into the Knoll-furnished dining area, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the East River, offering a view clear up to Queens.

Of course, the dazzling views tend to lighten any mood. Then again, the whole office faces the pit where the new World Trade Center towers are slowly being erected. There’s the enormity of loss, but also the suggestion of rebirth.

The cycles are not lost on Robert Safian, a Money and Fortune veteran who joined Fast Company as editor in February of 2007. As recently as 2005, when German publisher Gruner + Jahr gave up on the U.S. market and put its often warring business magazines, Inc. and Fast Company, on the block, it was widely felt that Inc. would succeed and that Fast Company, which had been founded in 1995–when CEOs were becoming rock stars—would fall victim to the tech bubble and fold.

Instead, Joe Mansueto, the billionaire founder and CEO of Morningstar Inc., the Chicago-based investment research firm known for its ranking of mutual funds, took another entrepreneurial leap and bought both books for roughly $33 million, a fraction of the $550 million that G+J had reportedly paid five years earlier. He immediately started pouring money into the by-then neglected brands; one of his first moves was relocating both magazines from their 1970s, insurance sales-style offices in midtown Manhattan to the futuristic glass tower downtown.

Safian joined Fast Company two years later, and under his editorial direction, the magazine made it onto the AdweekMedia 10 under 50 Hot List in 2007 and, despite the brutal climate, stayed the course and then some in 2008. Newsstand sales climbed 23.6 percent in the first half of 2008 with overall circ flat at 742,316. In a brutal newsstand climate in the second half of 2008 that saw total industry single-copy sales down 11 percent, Fast Company’s declined 8.6 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. For all of last year, ad pages under the direction of publisher Christine Osekoski increased 23.9 percent, to 616.

Meanwhile, Fast Company’s writers and editors continued to rack up industry awards, including two from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and a Deadline Club award for feature reporting. Just last week, the American Society of Magazine Editors nominated Fast Company for two National Magazine Awards, in the General Excellence and Reporting categories. We add another honor to the list, by naming Bob Safian AdweekMedia’s Editor of the Year, for reinvigorating the brand in print and online while successfully refining its innovative niche.

Safian, who turns 45 in April and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three sons, has held some august editorial positions, but still has the aura of a boy wonder. Although he’s unassuming—he walks out to the kitchen to find a cookie, get his own club soda and greet a visitor—he’s clearly driven, and understands his mission.

With its focus on technology, innovation, sustainability and design, the magazine attracts “a constituency of business person who does not define himself by paycheck,” Safian says. “The thinking is more, ‘I had a good day because I did something productive, creative, challenging. I was an agent of progress. I made the world a slightly better place.’”

That’s heady stuff. But Safian knows what brings the magazine’s post-consumer waste recycled pages to life. “When I first got here, I asked the staff, ‘What defines a fast company?’ The definition is very fluid. You either get what we mean when we say fast or you don’t.
We’re more focused on big companies than Inc. [is]. We’re also interested in the fast parts of slow companies. We want to reach the people inside big companies who are trying to be agents of progress. We want to encourage them to continue to push.”

Safian also sees the importance of differentiating the magazine visually, especially when it comes to its covers. “Who would you put on your cover?” he muses. “Is Rupert [Murdoch] a fast character? Yeah, he’s creative, and innovative, but he’s too old. So would it be Rupert or the guy working for him running MySpace? We’d pick the MySpace guy every time.”

At Time Inc., Safian was used to running a much larger organization. “The full staff at Fast Company is smaller than the morning editors’ meeting at Fortune,” he says. But that’s not always a bad thing. Having a small staff, he says, “forces us to be generalists, to look in the gaps between silos, to have more access points.”

Safian was aware from Day 1 of the need to think differently. His first issue was slated to hit newsstands around the same time as the launch issue of Portfolio, the lush, business monthly from Condé Nast, with the immense resources that the publishing giant was putting behind it. Casting about for a way to set Fast Company apart, Safian came up with the idea to profile Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“At that point, most of the rest of the business press was not paying attention to him,” Safian says. “He had had the audacity to say ‘no’ to a buyout by MySpace and YouTube. And it was rumored that Viacom and Yahoo had offered up to a billion dollars.”

As Safian saw it, the story had three great hooks: “No. 1: No one else was looking at him. No. 2, the business had gone from 10 million users to 175 million users in two years. The third component is the emotional. I think about my own kids. My oldest is 15, and if he gets into Harvard, then drops out, screws around in Palo Alto for a couple years building something, and then someone offers him a billion dollars for it and he doesn’t take it, I’ll kill him.’”

As it happened, newsstand sales of that May 2007 issue hit 30,000, well above the 24,332 average for the first half of that year.

Clearly, with 10 issues a year, the magazine isn’t in the position to play off the news. Nor is it able to claim a dominant audience, with the likes of Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek to compete with, not to mention Yahoo Finance, Facebook and Xbox.

So Safian goes for fun and surprise. “Salespeople always want to know what they can sell against,” he says. “But our magazine is made from scratch every month, like a chef who goes to the local green market and makes a meal depending on what’s fresh.”

And even if the subject is familiar, the take is not. “In almost two years here, we had never covered [Cisco] CEO John Chambers,” he says. “And we probably would not have done it if the writer had not come back and said ‘It’s run almost like a socialist enterprise.’” The resulting December/January cover story bore the headline, “Cisco gets Radical,” and explained how Chambers, a hard-core Republican, is transforming his business into a global collaborative, “unfettered by a central command.”

“We got a lot of feedback saying ‘You don’t understand what socialism is,’” Safian says, smiling. “Believe me, we understand what socialism is.”

Clearly, Bob Safian also understands how to run a democracy. He’s well-liked by his staff, both for his dead-on news judgment and considerable people skills. Many of his employees have worked with him before. Articles editor Denise Martin, a colleague from American Lawyer and Money before following him to Fast Company, calls him an “editor’s editor. He’s very smart. He has a good story sense, and a great sense of structure and direction, and is also willing to give the writer a chance to use his own voice.”

Martin also says Safian has a penchant for packaging. “He’ll push us to break stories up more, with more sidebars, more boxes, and more access points. Sometimes we think, ‘Wait a minute, not another box!’ But I would not be working with him for a third time if I didn’t think he was pretty remarkable.”

Safian’s No. 2, executive editor Will Bourne, is the creative dynamo behind the design issue, another point of difference for the magazine. “Bob is a fantastic analyst,” says Bourne. “He has endless patience to go through a story and pick apart the inconsistencies and give the reader a story that penetrates the brain pretty cleanly.”

Bourne’s praise extends to Safian’s management style. “I’ve known some raging assholes in this business,” he says candidly. “Screamers and belittlers who set people up and tear them down for entertainment. Bob doesn’t do that. He treats people like human beings.”

Safian also knows whom to hire. Last December, he recruited Noah Robischon from Gawker Media Network to be the executive director of digital operations. Before, the magazine’s Web site represented an early attempt at social media. Robischon has changed all that, focusing on three channels: technology, design, and something the staff has dubbed “ethonomics” a catchall term encompassing the green revolution, sustainability, social responsibility and ethics. Robischon also started an Internet immersion program to train the staff, used to the monthly print schedule, for the 24-7 nature of the Web.

Media buyers tend to not only get the brand, but love it. “Bob Safian has done a great job in the past couple of years in terms of finding a unique place to live within a broader category,” says Kelly Foster, who manages all print investment for MindShare as managing director of The Exchange, Print, and whose client, Sprint, has been a Fast Company advertiser. “The focus on innovation makes it a little bit different.”

Safian’s first jobs out of Brown University were bartending and working as an intern at PBS’ MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (now the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer), for a stipend of $50 a week. He did “phones, coffee, and lunch,” he says, the latter being more difficult than it sounds, since it involved picking up from the actual Soup Nazi.

That training served him well for his next job, working for the famously hot-tempered Steven Brill at American Lawyer, where he stayed for six and a half years, working his way up from fact checker to executive editor. From there, he went to SmartMoney as articles editor, where he stayed for three years, until he was recruited to go to Fortune in February 1997.

He had been there less than a year when John Huey and Norm Pearlstine picked him, at the tender age of 33, to edit Money. What followed, Safian says, were “three years of a bull market and three years of a bear market.” In a culture not usually open to “outsiders,” then-Time magazine managing editor Jim Kelly brought Safian to the mother ship, where he served as executive editor of Time from the summer of ’04 through June ’05.

He had returned to Fortune as executive editor when Joe Mansueto came calling. Mansueto says he had liked Safian since his days at Money and admired his aggressiveness and ambition: “Being a smaller player, he’s not as constrained. He’s breaking some new ground telling some important stories.”

Safian believes that the texture of a gorgeously designed page can add an extra layer to the reading experience. He talks about the “emotionality of the page—the lush look and feel of print.” Mansueto agrees: One of his first moves after buying Fast Company was to upgrade the paper to a luxurious but still PC, recycled grade. “What I do when I plop down on a couch and read a magazine is very different from what I do on a computer,’’ he says from his office in Chicago. “There’s the serendipity of flipping through the pages. It’s a much better environment for advertisers…There’s a portability about print that’s very compelling. You can develop an attachment to a magazine that you don’t for a Web site.”

Surely, it’s a great advantage to be owned privately in these times, by a billionaire who likes print. Fast Company is challenged right along with the rest of the industry, its ad pages down 36.8 percent to 99 this year through its April issue, versus a 32 percent decline for the business/personal finance category, per the Mediaweek Monitor. Last fall, Mansueto Ventures laid off 20 people along with cutting various perks. Media buyer Foster sums it up: “Survival depends entirely on how much Mansueto wants to put into the books.”

Mansueto admits “it’s not a great time to be in the print business,” but he says he’s committed to investing in the title. “Once you start fiddling with the quality, you put yourself in a dangerous position. I’d rather sacrifice margin to preserve quality. To cost-cut your way to prosperity is a dangerous business.”

CEO John Koten acknowledges the potential misery of a market that hasn’t hit bottom yet, but he also sounds encouraged. “We’re reaching the kind of people who will most benefit from the rebound of the economy—and are probably the ones who will create the rebound in the economy,” notes Koten. “It isn’t going to be GE and General Motors.”

To be fair, if those companies have some fast parts, they’ll be covered by Fast Company. As will the innovative people doing cool stuff that will aid in the country’s economic rebirth. Its clear-sighted editor, Bob Safian, will see to it.     

Barbara Lippert is AdweekMedia’s Critic.

Fast Company and Inc.’s Sibling Rivalry

Editor’s note: Inc. and Fast Company have a history of fighting each other, a rivalry that didn’t go away when they became corporate siblings, first under Gruner + Jahr and then Mansueto Ventures. John Koten (left), who was the editor of Inc. and guided it through the sale and is now CEO, editor-in-chief of Mansueto Ventures, relates the back story.

Koten: Fast Company was started in 1995 by Bill Taylor and Alan Webber. Both had worked at Harvard Business Review and wanted to publish a more contemporary, hip, more journalistic magazine, and the Harvard Business Review was not having it. So they developed this fantasy publication—a combination of Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone.

I thought the business world would never take it seriously. I had been at The Wall Street Journal for 15, 16 years. The Journal kind of defined business journalism: it was 95 percent serious, with one wacky story in the middle column of the front page. They wanted [Fast Company to be] 95 percent wacky and 5 percent serious. I didn’t think it would work, and I was wrong.

Mort Zuckerman launched it in 1995 using the resources of U.S. News & World Report, and it turned out to be one of the most successful launches in magazine history. It was headquartered in Boston, not far from the offices of Inc., which had been in business since 1979.

Gruner + Jahr ended up buying both and lumping them together in one business unit, which was ironic, because the three [entities] hated each other. People at Inc. figured the Germans would never understand the idea of entrepreneurship. So the people at Inc. hated Gruner + Jahr and hated Fast Company because it was its biggest rival. Fast Company had quickly become the darling of the business world, and everybody thought they were so cool, so Inc. looked stodgy and arrogant by comparison. Meanwhile, Fast Company hated Inc. and Gruner + Jahr. G+J redesigned Inc. to make it look more like Fast Company, which confused everybody even more.

G+J had been in heated competition with Condé Nast to buy Fast Company. Condé Nast offered more money, and at the last minute, G+J decided it was paying too much and wanted out. So they offered to pay Mort Zuckerman $300 million plus an additional $50 million if it hit certain profitability markers over the next few years. Condé Nast lost out, and eventually settled for Wired. They felt they could leverage their ad contacts from The New Yorker and Vanity Fair into a substantial business base. Wired never turned into a business magazine. That’s when they started Portfolio.

Meanwhile, G+J won both magazines, and turned out to be the ultimate loser. As soon as the deal closed in 2001, the ad market blew up. They started cutting expenses. That causes a negative spiral. I don’t think G+J ever understood that, unlike the European magazine model, which is newsstand based, it can take years to turn a magazine around in the U.S. They panicked and decided to get out of the business.

They gave bidders five weeks, and in the prospectus G+J itself kind of admitted that Fast Company wasn’t worth anything. One of the bidders, The Economist, had every intention of closing it down. As the editor of Inc., I thought it should close.

But Joe Mansueto didn’t want to. Something about it tickled his fancy. He wanted to invest in it, and created separate sales staffs for Inc. and Fast Company. By the end of last year, he had staged one of the most dramatic turnarounds in magazine history.

When Gruner + Jahr owned the magazines, they sold soda for 25 cents, and then raised the price to 75 cents to save money. That hurt morale. So when Joe bought the company and I became CEO, I declared there’d be free soda.

There was a time that both magazines tried to sabotage each other. I like to think that we’ve moved to a place of friendly/healthy competition. There’s still a lot we can do to work together and cross-sell Inc. and Fast Company to advertisers. It’s a compelling story, because both magazines target the part of the economy that is most likely to save America, if it can be saved. We’re not there yet. But we aren’t trying to kill each other anymore, either.

—As told to Barbara Lippert