Reinventing BusinessWeek

A few years ago, BusinessWeek’s Steve Baker and I sat over coffee concocting a scheme to create a crowd-sourced, wiki-based, curated effort to get the magazine’s readers to fix General Motors. Oh, if only we’d done it, BW’s crowd might have saved us taxpayers billions.

Well, now, BusinessWeek is for sale and whoever gets it – it is a valuable franchise with a very valuable and wise crowd – will need to reinvent it. I was going to suggest that the magazine do for itself what we were thinking of doing for GM. But Steve beat me to it.

Steve also contemplates what he calls the “last 5%” of a magazine’s process that picks every nit and sands and polishes. It’s the magazine way, especially among weeklies in America, and though I saw improvements from it, it also drove me nuts when I worked in it. “This last 5% consumes a sizeable effort and expense< " Steve says. "The question the next (or current) owner of BusinessWeek is going to have to grapple with is whether such attention to detail is worth it, or, alternatively, whether there's another way to achieve the same goal." The assumption behind that last 5% is that there's perfection to be reached: a right way to tell this story. I don't think that's true. But there is value to be added in the last - what? - 20% of effort: adding reporting, answering questions, adding perspective, giving context, and - as Steve points out - trimming out repetition and excess, adding efficiency for the reader. That's the value that journalists can add. But how much is too much? Says Steve:

But my problem with the 5% process has to do with insularity. Much of the analysis has to do with a team of people in a midtown skyscraper imagining what “the reader” knows and wants to know. With blogs, we now have the tools to ask. But the business model calls for secrecy. So instead of asking, we imagine. Our discussions involve conflicting interpretations of what is going on inside of the reader’s head. . . .

The entire discussion is based on the one-size-fits-all paradigm of the industrial age. It’s got (at least) two problems: First, it’s expensive. Second, readers are seeing in rest of their lives, from TiVo to their double-shot half-skim half-caf latte that one size doesn’t have to fit all. Even dogs these days are built to order. In this world, many business readers want and expect customization.

BusinessWeek has been trying to bring that customization – its mass of niches – with its Business Exchange, where readers and journalists curate topics. At Aspen, the magazine’s editor, Steve Adler, told me that advertisers also prefer it because BX provides targeting and relevance.

Steve starts the discussion about the next BW speculating on how communities and algorithms can help do what BW has done.

PaidContent also curates others’ suggestions for the new BW here.

I think the future BW revolves around its wise crowd: more than 900,000 people who know business, so how do we get to know what they know? More later.

What would you do with BusinessWeek?

: Note that Fortune, too, is remaking itself.