Will BusinessWeek Escape from the Vultures?

BW2This summer it has appeared that the venerable BusinessWeek, born in 1929 at the dawn of the Great Depression, might not survive the Great Recession, at least not in its traditional form. In July it came to light that McGraw-Hill was seeking a buyer for BW, which like many other print outlets has been suffering from a sharp decline in advertising revenue.

Numerous observers have claimed that the magazine is essentially worthless, speculating that it might sell for a token price plus the assumption of liabilities. It has also been taken for granted that the new owner would sharply scale back or even eliminate the print operations and take a machete to the staff.

The potential buyers whose names surfaced over the past two months have included media industry vultures such as Platinum Equity Partners, which bought the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this year and embarked on a frenzy of layoffs, and OpenGate Capital, which last year paid all of $1 to take over TV Guide (and its debt) and got seller Macrovision to lend it $9.5 million to boot.

So it is encouraging that the Wall Street Journal is now reporting that Bloomberg LP is considering a bid. Of all the potential buyers that have been mentioned, Bloomberg seems most likely to preserve BW’s unique position in U.S. financial journalism.

For decades, BW served as the one relatively independent voice among the major business magazines. While Fortune (after its early years) and Forbes functioned as cheerleaders and hagiographers for the business elite, BW was often willing to take an honest look at the shortcomings and outright transgressions of major corporations.

This was demonstrated most clearly in its famous (among progressives) September 2000 cover story that asked whether corporations had too much power, noting: “Part of the problem is that no one’s reining in business anymore. Most of the institutions that historically served as a counterweight to corporate power — Big Government and strong unions — have lost clout since Ronald Reagan came to town crusading for deregulation and local control.” These themes were echoed in an October 2003 cover article “Is Wal-Mart Too Powerful?”

BW’s March 1986 cover piece called “The Hollow Corporation” sounded the alarm about the way major companies were eroding the U.S. industrial base by contracting out their production activities to foreign firms. Its April 1987 article “Warning: The Standard of Living is Slipping” was one of the early reports on the reversal of upward mobility.

The magazine also diverged from its competitors on the issue of labor—both by covering unions more seriously and by declining to demonize them. In 1991 it published a commentary by its long-time labor writer Aaron Bernstein headlined “Busting Unions Can Backfire on the Bottom Line” and in 2004 it put SEIU’s Andy Stern on its cover for a piece entitled “Can This Man Save Labor?”

It is difficult to imagine the private equity firms and other bargain hunters said to be considering bids for BW supporting this kind of journalism. Bloomberg, on the other hand, has exhibited similar moxie in the editing of its Bloomberg Markets magazine. For example, as noted here, that publication recently published a hard-hitting piece on the way major U.S. corporations are contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon and thus exacerbating the problem of global warming.

In an era of continuing corporate misbehavior, we can ill afford the loss of an information source such as BusinessWeek. Let’s hope it escapes from the vultures.

Note: I recently did a thorough update of my guide to online corporate research as well as the index of information sources mentioned here in the Digest.

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