Media Moves

Fast Company's Safian says business magazines should be fun

July 3, 2007

Posted by Chris Roush

Robert Safian, who became editor of Fast Company magazine earlier this year, is on a hot streak. The magazine, which has been sold twice in the past decade, is trying to recapture its past glory.

Safian, who also oversees the business side of the magazine, has seen the magazine garner a Gerald Loeb Award as well as recent Deadline Club and EPpy wins.To be sure, the journalism that produced those awards occurred before Safian took over. But ad sales, newsstand sales, and Web traffic are all up strongly this year.

FastCompany.com reported an average 925,073 unique visitors per month to date for 2007, a 15 percent increase from 2006 as measured by Omniture’s SiteCatalyst Web Analystics package.

According to Publishers Information Bureau, ad pages for Fast Company increased 8 percent so far this year through June, while competitors lost ground. Forbes is down 4 percent, Fortune is down 17 percent, BusinessWeek is down 11 percent, and Business 2.0 is down 33 pecent.

Robert SafianFast Company is the only sign of growth in the business magazine category with nine of the past 10 issues showing ad page gains. New advertisers that chose Fast Company during the first half of 2007 include RIM/Blackberry, Hewlett-Packard, Volkswagen, Harley Davidson, BMW, Dow, and Dyson.

Safian, who was managing editor of Money and executive editor at Fortune before leading Fast Company, talked to Talking Biz News about the magazine. What follows is an edited transcript.

First, why leave Time Inc. to go to a smaller business magazine? What was the attraction?

Part of the attraction was the way Joe Mansueto, the owner of Mansueto Ventures, talks about print magazines and the potential that he sees that print has relative to digital media in a way that I wasn’t hearing at Time Inc., recognizing that paper as a medium has advantages if you choose to invest in them. While other companies have cut back on print size and paper quality, he felt like investing in making paper a distinctive investment for the reader. He wanted to make Fast Company a lush and memorable experience. And part of it was the excitement and the ability to build a different kind of business magazine from what the traditional business magazines provide.

What are some of the changes that you’ve made at Fast Company?

Some of this is continuing what Fast Company has always tried to do and has often done well, and the goal is to extend it. We think there is a particularly good opportunity right now, and business is moving in the direction that Fast Company has always advocated and talked about, which is making as much money as you can this quarter should not be the ultimate goal of every business. It can often distort a long-term positioning and viability of a business and a business career.

I’ve heard you say that the magazine has to be fun. How do you make it more fun?

Business is fun. It should be fun. It’s at the center of so many things in our culture. There are more established ways that the other business magazines approach the way that they do that is effective for them, but I think leaves room open for another player, for another perspective.

Some of it is more of recognizing that we can not cover news. Coming out once a month, news is not our game. News is done online. You can try to do news if you’re BusinessWeek and come out every week or if you’re Fortune and come out every other week. In many ways, that is liberating. It allows use to identify stories that many might be overlooking.

I will give you an example. The first cover that I was a part of was about Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook web site. What we felt was the traditional business press had written about and embraced MySpace and YouTube in part because they had been purchased by large corporate entities that conferred on them a legitimacy. By turning down an offer by Yahoo, Facebook was being juvenile and foolish because if you can be part of a big company, why wouldn’t you want to?

That left the door open for us to write about a company that hadn’t been written about and find out that maybe it wasn’t so foolish to turn down that offer and that the vision of the company is different than simply maximizing cash flow today or selling out for top dollar as soon as you can. This is a story that the other business magazines could do, but they didn’t. That’s where the opportunity for us it.

Fast CompanyThe cover we have out now is about Al Gore as a businessman. Al Gore is being written about everywhere. What we talked about was how startling his renovation as a brand has been over really just the last three years when he endorsed Howard Dean and his campaign imploded, Gore looked like a joke. You could imagine a situation where the almost president trotting around the country showing a slide show and doing a documentary film would be a joke. Too bad, that’s all he’s got.

How is it that rather than that, those things are a tremendous success for him and he’s a rock star? How did that brand turnaround happen? Our reporting turned to his success as a businessman that allowed and encouraged and accelerated all of that.

What are the biggest issues facing the magazine today?

The challenge with a monthly magazine is that it is always made from scratch. We are like a chef at a restaurant whose menu is determined by what’s fresh at the market. And we have to make something compelling out of what comes in. That’s the fun part. I don’t know what we’re going to do six months from now. There are some projects that we’re starting, but we don’t know how much that’s all going to come together. I am not focused on the challenges. I am focused on the opportunities. There are great characters, and great stories and great lessons all over, and the hardest part is figuring out the great stories to tell because you only have so many opportunities.

How much do you interact with sister publication Inc.?

Their editorial staff and process is separate from ours. I don’t know what they’re doing in their next issue, and they don’t know what I’m doing in the next issue. We interact as executives in the planning and running of the company. And our web sites are managed together by the same people. Inc. chooses its own covers and its own stories, and we choose ours. Inc is a terrific magazine for entrepreneurs. It’s a service magazine, and it has a loyal readership. Fast Company is a modern business magazine for a broader constituency that focuses even the fast parts of slow companies. We want to give license sand encouragement to people who work within even large companies to think differently and try new things and encourage innovation.

Where would you like to see Fast Company five years from now?

I hope Fast Company will still be about innovation and moving business to the next place. But in order to do that, we will keep evolving, and that is what we talk about all the time. We have to evolve the ways business evolves and the way in which our readers evolve.

Are there too many business magazines out there today?

I don’t think so. That’s for readers to decide. Business is a really exciting topic. I think the demographics of business readers is really choice. It’s terrific. Marketers who love business magazines in 1999 should love them just as much in 2007, if not more. You want to reach a valued demographic at a venue that they are passionate about, and business people are passionate about business, again, provided that we as editors can provide a compelling enough experience for them to want to be in that space.

One other appealing thing to me about Fast Company is that Fast Company’s demographics were virtually identical to the readership at Fortune, except the age was younger, and the male female mix was more balanced. I believe that’s more indicative of where the future of business is going, younger and more diverse.

For someone who has never picked up a copy of the magazine before, how do you get Fast Company to stand out?

I hope doing a compelling business story, doing business stories that are compelling for everyone, whether they think of themselves as business magazine readers or not. So many of us are in business and obsessed with business that we spend so much time worrying about our businesses, but we don’t feel like the traditional business magazines speak to us. We don’t necessarily judge our day based on whether we have moved one step up the corporate ladder. And we don’t necessarily want to be a corner office CEO. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t passionate about our jobs. That’s the mindset that we’re trying to tap into.

What did you think about Fast Company when you were with other publications?

There was a time when Fast Company was looked at as a huge threat that could be the future of business magazines. And that’s the legacy that we’re hoping to reinvigorate because the opportunity is there.

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