Are you reading the best magazine in America?

By Jack Shafer
December 14, 2011

My original commitment to Bloomberg BusinessWeek was so small it was almost negative.

About this time last year, US Airways, Delta, or some other crappy airline notified me that my soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles could be exchanged for magazine subscriptions, which is how I ended up spending something like 600 miles to add a year’s subscription to Bloomberg BusinessWeek to my Towering Reading Pile.

My Towering Reading Pile is governed by neo-Darwinian, survival-of-the-smartest-copy laws. With all the good stuff to read directly on the Web, stored on my RSS reader, and stockpiled by my Instapaper account, a mere book, magazine, or newspaper must be exceptional. Some publications (the New York Times) I read thoroughly because everybody I work with (and many of the people I write for) reads it. Other publications I first fillet for their prime morsels, like National Review for Mark Steyn’s ongoing chronicle of a planet gone retrograde and Vanity Fair for James Wolcott’s recombinant experiments with the American language. On Sundays, I make the weekend editions of the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times play gladiator by tossing them into a 55-gallon drum and letting them fight it out. Upon returning a half-hour later, I collect the articles that were strong enough to defend themselves and consume them.

Into this cutthroat mix, BusinessWeek entered and damned if its feature well didn’t shove The New Yorker, New York, and the New York Times Magazine aside to become my primary source of long-form, print journalism.

Who would have thought that “Bloomberg” and “BusinessWeek,” the two most plodding names in the history of journalism, could merge to create a superb general interest magazine? I’m not saying that every issue is a treat, but nearly every issue contains one. The most recent issue, dated Dec. 12, contains several: Felix Gillette on real estate crime in Las Vegas, Brad Stone on the maker of military drones, and a short profile by Sarah A. Topol of the life and times of a Libyan tycoon. The Oct. 31 issue has three as well: Drake Bennett on David Graeber, the brains behind the Occupy movement, Vivienne Walt on a frozen yogurt start-up in Cairo, and Daniel Grushkin on a rare earth prospector/claimholder in Alaska.

Paging through my stack of recent BusinessWeeks, I find other winners: Paul M. Barrett on the coming shale gas economy, Christopher Churchill Brendan Borrell on the Gloucester fish war, Brendan Greeley and Alison Fitzgerald on the market for writing legislation, Ben Paynter on “synthetic pot,” Ken Wells on the pork rind business, and Felix Gillette again on Matthew Freud.

These are the kind of newsy, urgent features that you expect to find in the New York troika of great feature mags, not some biz mag that mogul-mayor-megalomaniac Michael Bloomberg purchased at a 2009 McGraw-Hill yard sale. Given the zombie prose that Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler forces on his scribes elsewhere in the Bloomberg enterprise, we can only assume that Mike and Matt don’t know that the company also runs a magazine named after him. If you like the magazine and hope to see it continue, please make sure they don’t read this piece. (Disclosures: Michael Bloomberg’s Bloomberg L.P. competes with my employer, ThomsonReuters, on a number of fronts. Several BusinessWeek writers and staffers are friends or acquaintances.)

I’m not the only one noticing the magazine’s delightful feature creep. I checked in with Max Linsky, who with Aaron Lammer runs Longform.org, the wonderful site that with the help of readers finds all the best non-fiction work on the Web and posts its recommendations. I asked Linsky to query his database for how many BusinessWeek stories Longform recommended this year compared to various other magazines.

His reply: The Times Magazine scored 52 features; New York 44; The New Yorker (which doesn’t make all features free) 42.

BusinessWeek scored 21.

“BW’s number would be higher if we had posted anything of theirs before April, which we inexplicably didn’t,” says Linsky. “At some point this year I realized that BusinessWeek was a general interest magazine—a really, really good general interest magazine—masquerading as a business publication.”

Additional points of reference: GQ stories scored 42 times this year; Vanity Fair 34. Fortune and Forbes, both of which Linsky says are “kinda off my radar,” got four and zero listings, respectively. Time got two, Newsweek one.

The masquerade extends to BusinessWeek‘s art direction, captained by Richard Turley, which approaches but never quite reaches the thumb-in-your-eye sensationalism that put the original Wired on the map. Earlier this year, Business Insider interviewed Turley and presented a slideshow of some of his more arresting BusinessWeek pages, some of which tip the hat to the old Spy. When Turley really gets going, reading one of his pages is like looking at a terrific building: The type provides both a story to read (duh!) and a superstructure to carry all the eye-engaging details—photos, illustrations, captions that are connected to their subjects by arrows, charts, annotations.

By donning the protective coloration of a general interest magazine, BusinessWeek begins to approximate a newsweekly, but a newsweekly divorced from the previous week’s news–sort of like the Economist but without shouting out its name the way that so many desperate newsweekly editors have before. If not for the publication’s title and its front of the book, with its Bloomborgian editorials and overt business coverage, your average reader would have a hard time identifying BusinessWeek as a business book. Perhaps that’s the plan. If it isn’t, please carry on as if it is, BusinessWeek. And, hey, if its editor, Josh Tyrangiel, is as proud of his magazine as I am admiring of it, he should take a bow. How about publishing a masthead, Josh, so I can identify all the most talented people and have ThomsonReuters hire them away?

******

A dozen times while writing this piece, my BusinessWeek-trained fingers accidentally typed BloomBerg instead of Bloomberg. It looks good that way, doesn’t it? Sort of like a hyphenate that went on a diet. Try it on for size, Mayor BloomBerg. No charge. Send interesting abbreviations and contractions to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and see my Twitter feed for the maximum in compression. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

8 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Jack,
“The two most plodding names in the history of journalism?” Clearly, you have not read BW much over the last 20-plus years, when it was winning just about every mag and journo award out there.
Tyrangiel et al. are doing a bang-up job. They knock the cover off the ball most weeks, addressing the big things. But BW, especially under Steve Shepard, set the standard. If you doubt that, check with Reuters colleagues such as Lauren Young.
And pardon my shot, but your windup takes far too long in this blog. Deliver the ball, please! Get to nut graf before the readers flee. BW always did.
Best,
Joe Weber
Former Chief of Correspondents, Chicago Bureau Chief, BW

Posted by JoeJournofan | Report as abusive

To be fair, Bloomberg has always produced some quality enterprise journalism. By far the best of the financial press in exposing some of the corruption in the markets. Check out their work on municipal derivatives, for instance. Gets lost when buried in between stories on the day-to-day price movement of the Uzbekistani silk futures markets and single-sourced stories about what VP of operations at Widget Co. had to say on his expectations of widget supply for the next three months.

Posted by AngryKrugman | Report as abusive

I get Bloomberg Businessweek. It sucks. I throw it directly into the garbage. I can’t wait for the sub to expire so it doesn’t fill my garbage can.

I don’t believe I have ever read a single good article in the magazine.

Posted by JamesLove | Report as abusive

I think you should take a look at AFAR Magazine. If it isn’t on your radar it should be. AFAR has carved out a voice in the crowded travel space and is growing by leaps and bounds by attracting global citizen travelers who are tired of “World’s Best This” and “World’s Best That” lists.

Posted by SpinTheGlobe | Report as abusive

Bloomberg sure is beating RT in every major domain like journalism, marketdata, media and even legal. I know Thompson has a huge legal base and content but BLAW and BGOV are what is happening now.

Posted by jbgfour | Report as abusive

Yes! Its a great magazine. When Bloomberg bought it from MH and raised the subscription price I committed to try it. Its both a good business magazine and high end general interest.

Posted by RCAChicago | Report as abusive

Josh Tyrangiel is indeed a genius. I know this because the magazine is as good as you say. Also, because he keeps telling me.

Posted by TheJoelStein | Report as abusive

Jack,
Let me get this straight. You – the King of Monkeyfish assignments – are keeping score of the competitors’ depth and breadth of topic while you are sitting at Reuters honing your typing and contracted-hyphenation skills?

Sure, BW doesn’t have your chaste insight, good natured humor and originality…but that is only because Tyrangiel wouldn’t hire you.

But Reuters did. So much for depth at Reuters.

End of argument.

Posted by OlivesDad | Report as abusive