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

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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.”

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