Making Honest Choices at Fortune

The granddaddy of business magazines says it’s cutting the number of issues per year to 18 from 25, in anticipation of staff cuts both at Fortune and later across Time Inc., The Wall Street Journal’s Shira Ovide reports this morning.

Nothing good there, but I found a glimmer of hope in this part of the plan:

Fortune’s new publishing schedule is part of a remodeling at the magazine that is expected to result in staff cuts and a sharper focus on the long stories that have been its trademark.

And here:

Fortune will publish 18 times next year, down from 25 times this year, with two issues in some months and just one in others. It will focus more deeply on fewer topics and add new columns to help business professionals do their jobs more effectively. It will have a cleaner, less cluttered look and an upgraded Web site.

Executives said Fortune needs to concentrate on what it does best, and cut costs amid the downturn in print media.

Andy Serwer, the magazine’s editor, and John Huey, the company’s editorial director, are sounding the right notes when they say they’re going to increase the magazine’s focus on a few longer stories and increase the number of pages and quality of the issues they do publish. With fewer people, they are going to do fewer things better.

One of the great fallacies propounded by news bureaucrats during the great unraveling of recent years, and this is across both newspapers and magazines, is that, somehow, some way, the same quality and quantity of journalism can be obtained with fewer people producing it. “We’ve got to do more with less,” the manager would say, and all would nod in unison. Never mind the fact that you can’t so the same with less, let alone more; and never mind that no one is measuring how much more the managers are doing with less. No, this nostrum seems to appeal to the macho masochist in all word workers. Maybe it appeals to every journalist’s—heck, every person’s—gnawing sense that, in their heart of hearts, they know they could always be a liiitttle bit more productive. Do we really have to watch Jon Stewart during lunch? Couldn’t that seven minutes be put to better use reading a few pages of that MIT study on income inequality downloaded so many months ago? (Actually, I did read it and highly recommend it.)

But, really, does that make any sense at all? In the end, in the aggregate, fewer people means either less copy or lower quality. End of story. As I’ve said, it is a question of physics, the time-space continuum, etc. Trust me here; I’m a master of science. Grown-up managers recognize this. Fearful bureaucrats, like those, say, at Gannett, try to pretend it isn’t so. If you try to “speedy” things up, like they do at Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, you will get fewer stories based on deep reporting and more hastily produced up-to-the-second ones. These are appreciated by traders and maybe members of the National Security Council, but not so much by normal readers trying to make sense of it all.

So while I’m sorry Fortune is cutting issues, and apparently jobs, and I don’t know what budgetary numbers were used to justify the moves, at least, it appears that its leaders are making honest choices based on the real world of work and not on nonsense that even news managers don’t believe.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.