Posts tagged ‘BusinessWeek’

Apocalypse 36: Status Report

By , 4 September, 2010, 2 Comments

For over two years, I have been writing a series of posts on the media industry called the Apocalypse. I am often asked whether that’s overly pessimistic. My answer: ‘apocalypse’ is a term we use for the end of the world, sure, but it’s also, to those who take the term seriously, supposed to herald the revelation of something new and extraordinary. That is what I believe is coming to media, whenever the chaotic collapse of the model we know is over.

Occasionally, the Apocalypse Series has attempted to read the tea leaves and make predictions about the new model. I don’t believe–as other media prophets seem to–that there will be no more Big Media. Human history suggests that power tends to consolidate, break down and then consolidate again. I believe that the new consolidators of power will be organizations who can mix and match. It will be the people who can take the nichification that the web brings and use it to deepen rather than to flatten what we know.

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Smug Edition

By , 3 June, 2010, 5 Comments

Since I started writing professionally in 2005, I’ve covered a pretty wide terrain: from tech to media to energy to regulation to macroeconomics to international geostrategy. The upside of that is the rich and diverse set of experiences I’ve had. The downside is that I rarely stay on a beat long enough to see a company or person I’ve followed through their career.

This blog is great fun for me because I get to write about all my beats at the same time, to keep my fingers in multiple pies even when, professionally, I’m covering just one or two.

Today, I learned that Lending Club, a peer-to-peer loan site has hit the 10 million dollar mark in loans, secured its Series C round of funding and started to tap top talent from other e-businesses. I haven’t written about social media in a while, but way back in 2007, I wrote about Lending Club for BusinessWeek, where social media was my primary beat. I said then:

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Apocalypse 31: What’s in a Name?

By , 15 October, 2009, 1 Comment

Not much, I hope. Since a favorite publication–BusinessWeek–is about to add “Bloomberg” to its title page. Bloomberg BusinessWeek (BBW for short!) doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

That said, Bloomberg buying BusinessWeek is about the best thing that could have happened, given that the alternatives all involved some kind of private equity entity, and as I’ve previously articulated, those kinds of mergers are bad news. Still, there are reasons to worry, because there’s a lot of uncertainty about HOW Bloomberg plans to use BusinessWeek.

Bloomberg could take two approaches:

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Vikram Pandit needs PR 101

By , 21 September, 2009, No Comment

The other night I attended a Q&A; between BusinessWeek editor Steve Adler and Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit. It was part of a series called “Captains of Industry” and I’ve been to some talks with other business leaders in the past. Usually Adler focuses on their personal story and character, rather than on the specifics of the business they run. This can work in interviewees’ interest: they BENEFIT from being candid/controversial/self-deprecating to counter popular perceptions of business leaders as cold and calculating and give wise-older-person guidance to the mostly young professionals who seem to populate the audience.

Now in Pandit’s case, the setup for personal storytelling seems ideal–his unpopularity is stunning, there are tons of young confused would-be financiers in New York hungry for advice, and he’s got a great narrative: an Indian immigrant running an American giant at a time when India is on the rise.

But instead, Pandit flat-out refused to answer questions about himself as a person, almost as though he didn’t understand that it was to answer those questions that he was there. Even Adler seemed flummoxed–I’ve never seen him or anyone actually admit mid-interview that the chat wasn’t going to plan. It didn’t diminish my already considerable esteem for him as a reporter: after all, the questions he asked were much tougher than the drivel Charlie Rose put to Pandit in the fall. Indeed, it somewhat comforted me as a young reporter that even veteran aces get phased sometime by their sources.

Here’s the thing: Pandit had a few decent and interesting things to say about Citi itself, successfully avoiding the ugly truth about the company without outright lying. That made me think he was operating in the persona required of him at a CEO conference call, where hedging is key and ‘no comment’ is sometimes appropriate. He seemed to simply not understand that what this event called for was precisely the opposite. Is that Pandit’s stupidity, or a massive PR fail at Citigroup where someone forgot to brief the boss about what to do? (I’ve seen this problem before–there are many executives who seem not to understand how much they benefit from taking a side, even if its risky, in their answers to questions, and how much more cynical and hostile press coverage gets when they try to please.)

Watch the video and let me know what you think. It’s about an hour long, so if you’re rushed, these are some highlights (not verbatim, I don’t type that fast):

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You Win Some, You Lose Some

By , 16 September, 2009, No Comment

Mixed results today of my recent bets on the future of media.

1. BusinessWeek’s potential buyers have turned in their bids, and BW’s own media writer Jon Fine is on the story. It looks like vanity buyers (aka Wasserstein) have pulled out, and real media companies (aka Bloomberg) are back in the lead, but the LBO firms are hanging on. When I blogged about this earlier in the summer, I said I was rooting for Bloomberg over the LBO folks, so, so far, I’m winning.

BW staffers appear to be grieving for Wasserstein because they believe a vanity buyer would be a more patient investor than even a media firm; I disagree–the example of Sam Zell suggests that vanity buyers behave more like LBO firms in trying to squeeze fast profits, not because they need the money, but because the vanity buyer psychology works something like “Oooh I want a shiny media gem to wear in my crown. If I buy a rusted media gem I must make it shiny.” Wasserstein figured out BW wouldn’t be shiny (ie a gold mine) anytime soon, and walked away.

BW staffers also appear weary of Bloomberg in particular because they think he will be unfriendly to BW’s newer ventures into social media, basically creating networks for managers to discuss their industry and trends. While I think this a cool feature, I think the best thing BW has to offer isn’t that; it’s their investigative unit and wide angle coverage; Bloomberg is a luxury outfit that has shown willingness to spend a lot of money on reporting. That can only be to BW’s benefit. Moreover, BW’s focus on news managers can use will serve as a complement, not a competitor, to Bloomberg’s focus on use investors can use.

Fingers crossed that this works out.

2. Mark Zuckerberg blogs that Facebook now has positive free cash flow. That means it’s taking in more cash than it’s paying out, but it doesn’t mean the company is profitable yet, since there are lots of non-cash expenses like debt that FCF won’t reflect. That doesn’t quite erase my suspicions about their Ponzi-ness (Ponzi schemes, by definition, have lots of positive FCF when they are growing), but it does give me pause about writing off their potential to develop a real business. I’ll think this one over again and be back.

3. Google announces FastFlip, a platform that basically lets you read media pages in their designed form. That makes it easier for publications to give you the user experience of reading an old fashioned glossy mag, and yes, the feature looks pretty damn cool, but it also means that Google can sell ads not only against content on its pages, or on the pages of its partners, but over, above and outside whole websites that may have their own ads. It’s meta-advertising, and supports my long-standing conviction that Google’s macromarket strategy precludes any publishers’ attempts to figure out an ad strategy for content sites.

I Told Ya So

By , 31 August, 2009, No Comment

Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times Magazine is one of the highlights of my weekend. It might be because she writes so wittily; it might be because I read the magazine on the treadmill and her column, which appears within the first ten pages, is often the last thing I read before I become too sweaty and tired to think straight.

But I digress.

Her column this week is about the Facebook Exodus, the impending backlash of users fleeing the site because they are frustrated with its increased busy-ness and diminished privacy. On the one hand, I think she nailed the trend. On the other hand, I’m a wee bit bitter since I’ve been saying as much on this blog and elsewhere for awhile, and I’m not alone.

What do you think? Can the Facebook bubble burst?

Apocalypse 29: In Search of Patient Investors

By , 14 July, 2009, 4 Comments

BusinessWeek, my one-time employer, is on the sales block as of today with potential buyers being Bloomberg, Pearson or a private equity fund of some kind. My first reaction is just sadness for all my friends there, a group of sharp-as-nails writers and editors. My second reaction is to pray that a media company beats the LBO boys for the buyout. Here’s why:

The brutal reality of news media is that there’s no business model right now. Our output is divided between ‘old’ and ‘new’ platforms at one ratio, while our revenue is divided at a different ratio. It will stabilize as we create a business model for monetizing online, whether by premium subscriptions, better more expensive advertising, or both. I wouldn’t be entering this business now if I didn’t think so. But I’m betting it will take at least five years.

A media conglomerate ultimately wants to be in whatever new media form emerges in five years. So they will invest—not recklessly, but liberally—in a magazine or newspaper as the industry gets to its future state.

An LBO firm, by definition, buys distressed assets to get profits out of them fast, and then exits the business to try something else. Trying to cost-cut your way into profitability at a time when sustainable profits are years out is a fool’s errand. That’s the lesson Sam Zell learned at the Tribune. I sure hope we don’t have to watch BW go through the same.

Round in Circles

By , 12 June, 2009, 2 Comments

My first story as a Fortune reporter is up, and predictably, it’s about social networks. In particular it’s about Facebook’s new offer to give users custom urls/usernames the way other networks do. I wrote a little about social media during my time at Forbes, but not nearly as much as I did at BusinessWeek or as an undergraduate newspaper columnist, so this is a bit of a homecoming. Plus ca change…

Apocalypse 19: The Bright Side

By , 19 March, 2009, No Comment

Not a week goes by these days without some casualty of the journalism apocalypse. Unlike so-called media pundits who simply make money celebrating the demise of media, I am generally saddened to see good papers die. Not because I have any attachment to dead trees, but because I believe the future of news media–digital and collaborative as it will no doubt be–has to involve the expertise of the people in those newsrooms.

Startups should lead old-timers in the right direction (more opinion, more interactivity, more transparency) but not disparage them. A scalable replacement for the social function of print will come from an organization with some scale that merges with some smaller newbies or a newbie that acquires scale by harnessing the expertise and resources released by the old organizations. The assets and talent underneath the managerial fat at many of these papers cannot be allowed to go gently into the night, and laughing at newspaper folk does not exactly build a base for future collaboration.

Some new media evangelists are better than others at being modest. Clay Shirky’s poignant, stunningly written indictment of poor managers and how they got us to this point gets my approval because he stops short of the self-congratulation that seems to accompany others’ writings on this topic. He admits he doesn’t have a better solution, yet.

Some print outfits are better than others at making the transition. The FT’s decision to launch its own content aggregator for businesspeople is a good experiment, though it’s not entirely original–BusinessWeek did the same months ago. The policy journals–the Atlantic, Foreign Policy–are doing a great job turning their websites into a collection of blogs to which the print ‘zine can be a collector’s bonus. A handful of daily papers–the Boston Globe, the SF Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian–are building websites that can become standalone hyperlocal offerings, if only they could take the leap and make these sites the primary offering. Unfortunately, the papers that are actually forced by their finances to make the leap to killing their print product don’t have such developed web products to fall back on, and they often just close up shop.

That makes the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and its replacement by the all-online SeattlePI.com, especially notable. Seattle’s Congressman, Jim McDermott, was here on Cappuccino some weeks back brainstorming funding models to keep papers like his afloat in print, because, at the time, he seemed quite convinced that the Internet just couldn’t fill the same role. Now, he’s a blogger who says the changing times have all the progressive potential of the 1960s. Whoa. Commenters are beating up on him for taking a job writing for the PI site, since the old paper was fairly sympathetic to him and it seems like backscratching but I’ll come to his defense: give credit to a Boomer who can get his head around change this quickly. And give credit the new SeattlePI.com for being exactly the kind of expert-audience collaboration we want to see online.

Of course, making a website like this pay for itself is still a challenge. The Pew Project’s most recent “State of the News Media” report says we’re spending too much time on models that won’t work (micropayments) and not enough exploring options that might. The Pew folks suggest: giving news organizations a cut of the fees we pay ISPs, like we do with TV broadcasters; turn mass news websites into portals for commercial activity (example: an Amazon widget on the Book Review page that lets you buy the book right there); the Newsweek model I’ve discussed before, of subscriber offerings for elite niche audiences.  All three suggestions have potential, though I wonder if the first isn’t just a proxy for state supported media, since we’re eventually headed towards free public broadband access in most markets.

Also, the Pew crowd say there was more news content produced about politics with increasing frequency in 2008 than in previous elections but that it was more reactive, passive and less investigatory than in year’s past. That’s quite a rebuttal to those who see citizen-media as somehow replacing the Fourth Estate. Some of these citizen/professional partnerships, however, might just do it; here’s to hoping the recession brings on some more of those.

Good Riddance to Tired Biz Memes

By , 23 February, 2009, No Comment

If there’s one thing that really raises my blood pressure, it’s people misusing the word “innovation” to describe any and all kinds of newfangled change. In the business journo world, that usually applies to PR representatives who call to tell me that their client’s new product/venture is innovative just by virtue of being new. There’s a subcategory of these people who think anything that uses the Internet is innovative by definition. But innovation is more than just a new way of conceptualizing; it’s that new concept applied, successfully, in the real world. A new idea that is unworkable, or turns into a bad idea on contact with reality, is not innovation.

BusinessWeek’s Innovation expert Bruce Nussbaum is normally pretty sound on this point. He called President Obama out early in the transition for conflating technology investments with “innovation.” But then he misapplied the innovation label to praise Secretary Hank Paulson when Paulson began flip-flopping between his initial plan to create a “bad bank” for bad assets and the British strategy to take big stakes in existing banks to help them deal with bad assets. Yes, Bruce is right to argue that innovators must have the freedom to change their minds and optimize their ideas as they learn more information; that is Design Strategy 101. But that’s not what was happening at Treasury: what had Paulson changing his mind was not new economic data, but the changing office politics of his department. Calling pillar-to-post behavior innovative cheapens the term.

No surprise then that Nussbaum now feels innovation is a dead concept, killed by its misapplication and “overuse.” His proposal for a new concept? “Transformation.” I like it because I think it carries the practical side of new ideas on its sleeve. Innovate is an intransitive verb, but transform is a transitive verb. You innovate, period but you transform something, which means the USE of the new idea is baked into the concept.

Meme cleanup may be the new meme these days: TechCrunch says it’s time to stop calling everything digital “Web 2.0.” I’m guilty of misuing that label; consider this post my promise to stop.