BusinessWeek Selling for $1? Not So Fast, Say Wharton Faculty

Has it come to this for the hobbled business of selling journalism on paper? BusinessWeek magazine, which is expected to be offered for sale by McGraw-Hill, could sell for just one dollar — and that's not just for a single copy, but the entire enterprise. To be sure, that's the view of just one industry analyst, as reported today in the Financial Times. Still, the fact that such a scenario can be reasonably suggested out loud speaks volumes about the state of the magazine business.

But two Wharton marketing professors, David J. Reibstein and Eric T. Bradlow, can see a brighter future for BusinessWeek and other magazines. That future may be only online, and it will require content that is truly unique and timely.

A look at the numbers shows the challenge facing the print side of the news and information business. Advertising pages in U.S. magazines dropped 29.4% in the second quarter of 2009, following a first quarter plunge of almost 26%, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Media Daily News says that at the current rate, "2009 is shaping up to be the worst year for consumer magazines since 1932, when total revenues dropped 30%." Already this year, U.S. News & World Report cut its publishing cycle from weekly to monthly, and Conde Nast's glittery business magazine, Portfolio, ended a 21-issue run in May; even its web site will be turned off later this year.

The cause of all this is no secret. It's the same one-two punch that is battering newspapers: a recession on top of the disruptive force of the Internet. Marketers like the fact that they can measure the impact of online advertising, notes Reibstein. "You can easily measure click-throughs online, whereas in traditional media, you don't know who has seen your page."

Reibstein believes BusinessWeek, and other magazines and print products, can survive on the Internet if they have, as his colleague Bradlow suggests, unique content. "They have to have special writers who readers know and want to read," Bradlow says. "They have to have special interest forums. They have to have content that you just can't get anywhere else."

BusinessWeek can bring another valuable asset to the online world, Reibstein adds: "They still have a great brand," which already draws visitors to its online site.

But it hasn't and won't be easy for traditional print media to grow online revenue sufficient to sustain what may be their strongest asset: professional news and information gathering staffs. Just ask the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, which says that at least 250 business journalists have lost their jobs this year. Today, it's offering a conference call to counsel its members on "Staying Positive After Losing Your Job — and How To Find A New One." The teleconference is to be moderated by Bill Choyke, a former business editor at the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk. He was laid off at the end of last year.

More on publishing and the Internet from Knowledge at Wharton:

How About Free? The Price Point That Is Turning Industries on Their Heads

Urgent Deadline for Newspapers: Find a New Business Plan before You Vanish

All the News That's Fit to … Aggregate, Download, Blog: Are Newspapers Yesterday's News?