The $1 BusinessWeek Story

We haven’t weighed in on BusinessWeek since news emerged that McGraw-Hill is seeking to unload the magazine.

But I read this Time story this morning that I thought illustrated a number of problems with the press coverage of this story, and thought now would be a good time.

The headline on my phone (via the nifty little app News Fuse): “Business Week for Sale: A Sign that Business Journalism Is Dying?”

First of all, it’s BusinessWeek, guys—one word. Second, um, no.

There’s lots to look at here:

McGraw-Hill has confirmed that it is “exploring strategic options” for the magazine, which is another way of saying the company does not think it can make money off the magazine — ever.

Actually, no. “Exploring strategic options” means lots of things in the business world, usually a sale or deal of some kind, not necessarily “this is a money loser forever!”

And this is unhelpful:

Less than a decade ago, Business Week ran nearly 6,000 ad pages in a year. This week, a banker valued the magazine at a dollar.

What does that mean—6,000 ad pages a year? Plopping it down without context, like how many ad pages it ran last year, is pretty worthless. That information is easily gettable. The New York Times wrote last week that BusinessWeek had just 590 ad pages in the first half of this year. Ouch.

But the sale-for-a-dollar thing is what I’d really like to look at. That has taken off in the press to the point of becoming a meme. I think it calls for a little skepticism.

That $1 number, as far as I can tell, came from a single misleading Financial Times report last week, which attributed the figure to “people familiar with the 80-year-old financial magazine’s losses.”

Now I’ve used the “people familiar with” sourcing before. When I have, those people have been insiders with direct knowledge of the information. The FT knows that’s the form, but you have to read down into the story to realize its sources aren’t exactly primary:

The $1 for which OpenGate bought TV Guide “is probably the kind of deal that would be obtainable for Business Week”, Mr Phillips said. Another banker said: “I think they’ll end up giving it away.”

Peter Appert, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, estimated that McGraw-Hill would receive minimal proceeds from the sale, but would cut annualised losses of ”at least $10m-$20m” this year and remove ”a continuing distraction”.

So we’ve got two apparently unaffiliated bankers, one of whom bases the deal off the TV Guide sale, and an analyst. Not exactly the “people familiar with” that I’m familiar with. Plus TV Guide came with a millstone of debt. It’s unclear whether that would be the same with BusinessWeek. And we don’t know where the analyst got his $10m-$20m figure from. It’s probably a guess.

I’m not saying BW is destined to bring a lot more money, but don’t rely on that FT report for the $1 figure.

It would seem to me there’s still value in the business, even if it’s not in the magazine. Time itself reports that BW’s website gets 5 million unique visitors a month, which ain’t nothing. That’s about half what The Wall Street Journal gets, but BusinessWeek has a newsroom of just 190, about one-quarter the size of the Journal’s. Is it possible it could make it as the first business publication to go Web only? I’d like to see some numbers.

Still, with yet another eminent business publication on the blocks, the uncertainty that brings is dispiriting, primarily because BusinessWeek does the best journalism of the three major business magazines . It’s scrappier and less enthralled with Wall Street and CEOs and Capitalist Tools and the like. Okay, it prints columns by Maria Bartiromo and Jack Welch. You can’t win ‘em all.

But it does real, hard-nosed investigative reporting and its news stories are more detached and skeptical of the powers that be than most other business publications.

Losing it wouldn’t mean that business journalism is dying, but it would be a real blow. We need better reporting on where it’s really at.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.