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.
But you can’t have a new age without the romance of the new age. Gates and Buffett and Welch and Clark and Grove and Case and Karmazin and Yang are, of course, media creations. John Huey, arguably, bears responsibility for Bill Gates as much as Bill Gates does.
“Who do you think my hero is?” Huey quizzes me.
I reflexively guess Teddy White because Teddy White is the hero of everyone who works at Time Inc. (Although Huey, much of whose career was spent at the Journal, and who, in fact, lives in Charleston and commutes to New York, is not a Time Inc. regular.)
“No, that’s Walter’s hero,” Huey says, laughing, meaning Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, with whom, it is said, he vies in a rivalry for the editor-in-chief job at Time Inc. now held by Norm Pearlstine, the former Wall Street Journal editor and lion of business journalism who made Huey managing editor at Fortune.
“Harold Hayes,” Huey says, naming the great Esquire editor of the sixties. “And Clay Felker,” he adds, naming the editor of this magazine in the seventies.
His point, in addition to putting himself in the best company, is that his influences have little or nothing to do with business, per se, and everything to do with pop culture – even more to the point, the packaging of pop culture.
Now, there is a kind of good old business guy who collects back issues of Fortune. This is because Fortune was a class artifact. For 65 years, Fortune was associated with Anglo-Saxon industry (and industriousness). The business of America was serious stuff. It was in some sense secret stuff too. Clubby stuff. You had to pass a lot of tests to get into the executive ranks (special handshakes, special ties). What’s more, business was, of course, no fun. But Fortune is, in fact, no longer for the guy who collects old Fortunes (Forbes may still be for that guy).
A reasonable definition of the new economy has little to do with economics and a lot to do with culture. Business changed because it bled into the other half of American life; there was a right-brain-left-brain crossover. Business became a lifestyle issue; the service economy, the financial industry, the media business, and personal technology entered our homes. CEOs came to have more influence on our daily lives than politicians.
“I knew there was a breakthrough kind of change when Fortune put Andy Grove on the cover because of his prostate cancer,” says my friend Randy Rothenberg, the Ad Age columnist.
Counterintuitively, Huey went the other way from niche publishing. He took his business magazine and gave it wide appeal. Business, he foresaw in 1995 when he took over the magazine, was about to become the great American pastime. The new businessman was becoming the new cultural hero – rebel, philosopher, authentic person as well as rich man (but the money itself was so vast, and so apparently easy to make, that it was beside the point; character was the issue). Business was no longer about the organization man but about expressing yourself.
“And Jane Amsterdam,” Huey says, continuing with his shortlist of formative influences.
Which is an important missing link.
The first wave of provocative business figures (the Boesky and Milken generation) emerged in the eighties and was chronicled by Amsterdam’s Manhattan, inc. Now, a good many of those figures were crooks, and their end, as well as the end of Manhattan, inc., was coincident with the collapse of the stock market in 1987. But what remained is an analysis that pushed business figures, men who controlled capital, who could imagine or reimagine the way capital could be used, to the forefront of the culture. Manhattan, inc. and the Wall Street Journal under Pearlstine (with writers like Barbarians at the Gate co-author Bryan Burrough, Den of Thieves’ James B. Stewart, Laura Landro, and Jane Mayer) made an explicit connection between capitalism and character, money and drama.
My argument would be that Manhattan, Inc.’s true successor magazine – following the recessionary period of the late eighties and early nineties – was Wired, which moved the center of capitalistic gravity from finance to technology and further developed the new fascination with the entrepreneur as folk hero. Wired not only articulated a culture and a reason for being that the technology industry formerly lacked but provided a road map for the rest of the media. I’d argue, too, that Fortune, following this map, embraced these folk heroes and became Wired’s successor, spreading the entrepreneurial faith and boom belief through the ranks of upper-middle managers everywhere.
With a little critical interpretation, you might say that the rise of the new economy owes as much to magazines as to silicon chips.
Their myth-making capabilities, their pageantry of advertisements and boosterism, their singular ability to distort a reader’s worldview (after a few weeks of reading The Industry Standard’s 200-to-300-plus-page issues, you’ll surely find yourself believing that no one talks or thinks or dreams about anything but the Internet), certainly help fuel an irrational enthusiasm.
Oddly, or not, the most sought-after business journalists have no background in business – Jim Ledbetter, The Industry Standard’s New York-bureau chief, was a well-known left-wing journalist at The Village Voice. Feature writers, culture writers, political writers are all coming over. The truth may actually be that business magazines in their relentless drive to fill pages will hire nearly anyone. But what is at a premium is writerly skills. If you can make it larger than life, tell a page-turning story, make romantic heroes out of accountants, then John Huey wants to hear from you.
So you the reader, instead of feeling like some guy in a hub city commuting to a useless meeting, can pull that telephone out of the seat back and really believe, like Warren Buffett or Jerry Yang or Mad Max, that you’re on your way somewhere.