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.