A rare time for business magazines

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Has there ever been a time where there was more upheaval and change in the business magazine business than what has occurred in the past four to six months?

ForbesI can think of only one other period — the time between September 1929 and February 1930, when both BusinessWeek and Fortune launched to compete against Forbes. Ironically, it was also a time of great upheaval in the business world as well, and I don’t see anything comparable in today’s corporate America.

Just to provide the big picture of what’s been going on, we’ve seen the naming of a new magazine Conde Nast Portfolio that won’t publish its first issue until the spring of 2007, yet has hired a number of high-priced business journalists for its masthead and generated a lot of attention for the money being thrown into its launch. Making things more interestins is the fact that Conde Nast is a private company, so profits aren’t an issue — at least not in the beginning.

Speaking of private companies, Forbes has remained a private for nearly 90 years, yet earlier this year the company sold a big minority stake in the business to a venture capital firm that counts U2 lead singer Bono as one of its investors. Forbes said that it needed the money to continue expanding, and it has made a big push to expand the presence of its Internet web site.

Fortune, meanwhile, is part of a public company that has announced that it wants to sell some of its magazines, but not Fortune, so that it can concentrate on some of its higher-profit publications. Fortune has also been in the hiring mode, as evidenced by some recent hires, and it has successfully fended off Portfolio from poaching some of its stars — notably Bethany McLean.

BusinessWeekAnd then there is BusinessWeek, also owned by a public company. Under new editor Stephen Adler, the past 18 months have been a whirlwind of change, as he has added new columns by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo and former GE CEO Jack Welch and his wife, Suzy. Having said that, there appears to be a number of talented people leaving the weekly, as evidenced by 12 people getting cut from the staff in late September. In addition, there is some institutional memory disappearing with the retirement of former ME Mark Morrison and others leaving for new jobs outside of McGraw-Hill.

Fortune magazineAnd then there are those below what will become the Big Four once Portfolio hits the newsstands. Morninsgtar founder Joe Mansueto is trying to turn around Fast Company and Inc., while Time Warner’s Money has undergone an overall as well.

Right now, the winners appear to be Fortune and Forbes. What are they doing that the others aren’t? My impression is that they have identified an audience that was virtually unaffected by the changes in the businessworld in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble collapse. BusinessWeek, after dominating magazine awards for much of the 1990s, seems to be looking for a new identity that it has yet to find, and readers have noticed.

I also wonder if BusinessWeek is being affected for being too bullish on the Internet and technology companies that were the darlings of the 1990s. Having said that, Fortune doesn’t seem to be affected for having named Enron one of the most admired companies for years.

It will be interesting to see which one of the existing players will be affected by Portfolio, or whether Portfolio expands the business magazine market to new readers.