Bloomberg BusinessWeek: Working On Its Comeback Story

Josh Tyrangiel

I’m not a life-of-the-party kind of guy, which may explain why one of my simple pleasures on any given Friday night for many years was reading the latest issue of BusinessWeek while drinking a stiff martini.

Under the 21-year tutelage of Steve Shepard, the magazine served up an impressive mix of news, features, and insightful analysis written by experienced and collegial reporters who were bent on producing great journalism and not promoting their individual brands.

In Shepard’s day, quality journalism actually drove circulation, not social media, Google rankings and the like. Something was clearly working: BW‘s readership increased some 40 per cent while Shepard ran the show.

Shepard left in 2005 for academia and was replaced by Stephen J. Adler, an aloof, Ivy League-educated former Wall Street Journal editor who, it is rumoured, was once a front-runner candidate to lead that newspaper. Adler literally drove BW into the ground by diminishing the quality of its journalism and implementing a questionable redesign. When he exited the doors four years later, BW‘s value had deteriorated so badly it was hardly worth the paper it was printed on. BW‘s longtime owner McGraw-Hill nearly shut it down, but opted instead to essentially give it away to Bloomberg L.P.

At the time of the acquisition, Bloomberg had already become the premier U.S.-based business news organisation. In terms of collective talent and experience, it has unquestionably surpassed The Wall Street Journal, a feat accomplished in part by poaching a substantial number of that newspaper’s journalists and editorial alumni. Yet despite its experienced in-house stable of capable editors, Bloomberg tapped Josh Tyrangiel, a 37-year-old Wunderkind from Time to be BusinessWeek‘s editor and renamed the publication Bloomberg Businessweek.  

To fully appreciate the chrysalis-to-butterfly transformation of Bloomberg Businessweek under Tyrangiel’s nearly 18-month reign, you need to understand three things: he had no previous business journalism experience when he took the job; he is, according to his boss Norm Pearlstine, a “true dude;” and he likes to pal around with fellow unabashed “dude” magazine editors.

To his credit, Tyrangiel has restored some of BW‘s former excellence. The publication once again is chock full of insightful and tightly written articles, and its overseas business coverage is considerably broader. BW‘s graphics are impressive as are its business book reviews, and its iPad app does Steve Jobs proud. Suffice to say, BW is once again as compelling as…well, as compelling as Tyrangiel himself.

That said, readers still want substance over style, and on that front Tyrangiel’s lack of business experience is abundantly clear, particularly in the magazine’s cover stories.

BW last year ran an appallingly naïve profile of Charles Schwab, portraying the founder of his eponymous brokerage as someone who champions the interests of individual investors.  While that is how “Chuck” – and his marketing team — like to portray the founder and his company, the facts are very much at odds with the story line, as this story by New York Times reporter Floyd Norris makes clear.

More recently, BW ran a gushing cover story about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, painting her as a sensitive and caring boss who sometimes cries at work and provides “adult supervision” for the company’s young staff. The reporter was so smitten by Ms. Sandberg that he opted to gloss over the not insignificant detail that the FTC will soon decree that Facebook’s privacy policies constituted “unfair and deceptive” practices and the company will be subject to periodic privacy audits. As the story went to press, news was breaking that Facebook had hired Burson-Marsteller to conduct a clandestine campaign attacking Google’s privacy policies without disclosing that Facebook was behind it. Ms. Sandberg, a former Google executive whose responsibilities include communications, is likely tougher and politically more brass-knuckled than BW understands.

As well, some of BW‘s articles of late appeal more to stereotypical “dude” sensibilities than individuals looking to gain some business insight.  For example, the magazine ran a cover story in February about Ashley Madison, a niche website that provides a venue for men and women looking to cheat on their spouse. The article’s only particular insight was the owner of the site purports to be the consummate family man. The magazine has also recently ran articles on the “business” of cougars and lingerie football, and profiled a small 15-store lingerie chain specializing in custom-fitting bras. It’s hard to take seriously a business magazine that refers to Victoria’s Secret as the “Goldman Sachs of ladies underwear.”

I’ve long maintained that mainstream journalism’s declining influence stems from the repeated promotion of failed editors and journalists writing stories to impress each other rather than the readers they serve. Underscoring my point, Stephen Adler, the former BW editor, in February was named editor-in-chief of Thomson Reuters, an even bigger news organisation. Fortunately, Mr. Adler just hired former Dow Jones executive Paul Ingrassia, one of the few business journalists with a successful leadership and management track record, to serve as his deputy.

As for Tyrangiel, if he wants BW and the impressive editorial team he oversees to garner the respect they rightfully deserve, it might behoove him to spend more time focusing on the stories truly shaping the economy and the business of business. Leave the “dude”-esque stories to publications like Maxim.