John Huey, the editor of Fortune and father of its new spin-off title, eCompany Now, is looking out over the construction on the San Francisco skyline and praising the New York Times. He is praising the Times for the way it has responded to a suddenly competitive political season. They're back, he says. They're on top of their game. They're the best.
As it happens, this is terrifically faint praise. It's a little like saying the tabloids do a good job of covering sports. Because what Huey is really saying is that politics is just a sideshow to the real deal, which is that America is being remade by capital flow, technology development, new business models, and the titans of this golden commercial age.
Partly, Huey is getting at a significant journalistic point: Business changes things faster than politics; it is more open, more accessible, and probably more democratic than politics; it attracts better, smarter, more interesting people (all this says, of course, as much about politics as it does about business). And business is a better story. But partly what Huey is reflecting is if not downright smugness then certainly a personal victory (it's interesting to see glee on such a baggy, hangdog face), because business reporters were once a clear bottom of the journalism heap (below them came technology reporters). To the extent that the character of this business epoch has been fueled by a whole series of reversals -- East to West, old to new, analog to digital, corporate fat cat to start-up entrepreneur -- Huey is delighting in the fact that business journalism and business journalists are now the big machers in the news game. (Every age gets its editor -- Hef, Jann, Tina, et al. -- and Huey is definitely interested in that job. Maybe he has it already?)
When the 51-year-old Huey began his business-journalism career in 1975, at the Wall Street Journal's Dallas bureau -- "Do you think I really wanted to be a business weenie?" -- a non-business person could easily go through the day without encountering any business news at all ("Most people would not have been able to tell you if we were in a bear market or a bull market"). Now business information is at least as prevalent and as broadly distributed as sports news; the information revolution is in fact mostly a business-information revolution. And it's not just data -- business news is full of emotional narrative, hot gossip, dramatic scoops. In some sense, business coverage resembles the best kind of war reporting -- the daily sense of following history, of the unstoppable march of events, of waking up to dispatches that will radically alter our lives (not to mention the kill reports and body counts).
"You can't have a new age without the romance of the new age. John Huey, arguably, bears responsibility for Bill Gates as much as Bill Gates does."
"This has happened over the last five years. Over the last five years everything has changed. God, these last five years have been incredible," says Huey, his feet up on the desk in an empty conference room of the new, vast, and still-staffing-up offices of eCompany, in a very corporate non-new-media-ish building in downtown San Francisco (the lights, which are movement-sensitive, keep going off and Huey waves his arms balletically, and then frantically, to bring them back on -- but we end up sitting in the dark). Coincidentally or not, these past five years coincide with his tenure as the editor of Fortune.
Indeed, Fortune, which is celebrating its seventieth anniversary this month, was the best-selling magazine across Barnes & Noble in January (outselling, Huey seems especially pleased to note, even Maxim -- meaning, he implies, that Americans are more interested in business than in beer and babes, which seems obviously true) and is, per subscriber, the most profitable magazine in the Time stable, Huey says. Surely, business media itself is the fastest-growing content business. Now, along with the major business magazines, the personal-finance titles, television's pervasive and profitable business news, and the online business hubs, portals, chat rooms, and trading sites, there are the strictly new-economy magazines: The Industry Standard, Fast Company, Red Herring, Business 2.0, together with Revolution, which launched last week, and Fortune's eCompany, which launches in May.
Not only is every self-respecting ambitious journalist becoming a business journalist, but the great sucking sound is the sound of people being pulled away from newsrooms everywhere by the persistence of business-press headhunters and the doubling and tripling of general-news salaries. The Industry Standard, which will shortly have its second anniversary and now has 200 employees, will hit $100 million in revenue this year. At that rate, it will, for instance, soon be making more than Rolling Stone.
Last week, a New York entrepreneur who is about to launch a well-funded business portal site remarked to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter (who is leaving the paper for one of the business magazines making him competitive offers) that if he'd really been smart, the entrepreneur would have launched a paper business magazine. Likewise, looking for real revenues, the owners of the URL Business.com (who discussed co-branding with the new Fortune title) are now out looking to start a print magazine called Business.com.
Of course, there is the bubble analysis. That would be that this emphasis on the drama of free-market capitalism is an anomalous version of the news occasioned by the stock market and by the enthusiasm (or mania) for the Internet, and that when such manias pass (as all do), the business press will return to its limited place. But that analysis may be, ironically, too business-oriented. What it says is that business journalism is supported by business success instead of the other way around.