OLD Media Moves

A historical perspective of BusinessWeek, sold to Bloomberg

October 13, 2009


BusinessWeek magazine, which was founded in 1929, just weeks before the October stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, has been sold to Bloomberg LP.

Bloomberg staff members were told of the deal this afternoon.

When founded, the magazine had 14 staffers. That number grew to more than 600, but in recent weeks had been down around 400.

Unlike Forbes, which at the time was the only major competitor in the business magazine field, BusinessWeek paid more attention to the economy of the country. One of the biggest indicators of its interest in the economy was a thermometer that appeared on the cover of the magazine for decades, from the 1930s to 1961, that gauged the temperature of the American economy.

The magazine was formed to provide interpretation to what was happening in the changing business world, said Malcolm Muir, president of McGraw-Hill at the time. He stated:

“The Business Week always has a point of view, and usually a strong opinion, both of which it does not hesitate to express. And all the way through, we hope you will discover it is possible to write sanely and intelligently of business without being pompous or ponderous.”

The comment was an obvious slap at the existing competition. B. C. Forbes’s magazine was considered self-important and haughty to many at the time. And one of the reasons that Fortune was later founded was that its creator considered Forbes to be “piddling and inexpressively dull.” But BusinessWeek followed the format of Time magazine in many ways, creating distinct departments within the magazine that would become regular features.

In the first issue, for example, the Business Outlook section cautioned “stock prices are generally out of line with safe earnings expectations, and the market is now almost wholly ‘psychological.’”

However, in the Nov. 2, 1929, issue, the magazine misinterpreted what the stock market crash meant, stating, “The Wall Street crash doesn’t mean that there will be any general or serious business depression…For six years, American business has been diverting a substantial part of its attention, its energies and its resources on the speculative game. Now that irrelevant, alien and hazardous adventure is over. Business has come home again, back to its job, providentially unscathed, sound in wind and limb, financially stronger than ever before.”

BusinessWeek was not the only business medium to miss forecasting the Depression.

Other sections of the magazine in those early years included production, marketing, labor, finance, management, transport, government and business abroad, as well as a Washington Outlook to accompany the Business Outlook. With such reporting, BusinessWeek became one of the first publications to routinely cover the regulatory and policy issues coming from the nation’s capital that affected business and industry. In 1950, it published its first executive pay survey, which today remains a popular feature.

In addition, BusinessWeek had an advantage by publishing every week, giving it the ability to write about business events in a more timely fashion. Forbes was published every two weeks, and in the beginning Fortune came out monthly. In 1933, seeing the success of Time and BusinessWeek, Newsweek began publishing on the same weekly basis.

The magazine, like many other publications during the Depression, struggled, losing $1.5 million from its founding through 1935. Where BusinessWeek succeeded while other business publications failed was in its ability to give a broad, but comprehensive overview of issues and trends affecting industry and the economy. Every week, its content provided a cross-section of various industries and what the issues were in each of them, as well as analysis of the broader trends such as unemployment, the stock market, and trade. Its content changed with the economy.

In the first decade, the magazine added sections called “Labor” and “Management,” as well as “New Products” and “Business Abroad.” It expanded its economics content in the 1940s, and dropped an Agriculture section in the 1950s, and added a Personal Business column. In 1969, it became the first magazine to devote a department to information technology, calling it Information Processing.

BusinessWeek wanted company managers reading its magazine, even if the articles were not about their company or companies in their industry. It believed that these managers and executives would want to know what was going on in other industries that affected their business, and that they might learn management tips or strategies from other industries.

For years, BusinessWeek also attracted readers in an unusual way. It was not sold on newsstands, but instead the magazine solicited subscriptions from corporate management. When applying for a subscription, the reader had to provide his or her title and employer. The subscription strategy changed in the 1970s when the magazine began soliciting readers outside of the business world.

In the 1970s, the magazine began adding bylines to its articles, giving its editors and reporters name recognition with readers. And in the 1980s and 1990s, BusinessWeek became an aggressive magazine under editor Steven Shepard, whose 20-year leadership of the publication included numerous National Magazine Awards. The magazine added an international edition, expanding its reach across the globe and tapping its foreign bureaus for more news and analysis. And it was ahead in defining many business trends. For example, in 1998, it helped define the notion of the New Economy. It also wrote about how the mafia had infiltrated Wall Street.

By 2005, under new editor Stephen Adler, the magazine added a column by CNBC commentator Maria Bartiromo and closed its European and Asian editions. It also began running a column by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch and his wife, and airing podcasts of the column on its Web site.

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