Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

BusinessWeek’s Future Is Cloudy, but Better Than It Could Have Been: The Grim Non-Bloomberg Scenario

BusinessWeek employees are waiting to hear if they’ll have jobs once Bloomberg takes over the publication, and I’m told that staffers expect to hear their fate shortly after Thanksgiving. “Either you’ll get an offer or you won’t,” is the conventional wisdom among the 400 staffers, an employee tells me.

That has to be unnerving, but I can at least offer a little bit of comfort: The worst-case scenario the employees would be facing had they been purchased by private equity firm ZelnickMedia, which was also bidding for the publication.

The short version: Almost everybody gets fired.

Here’s the longer version of the plan, provided to me by a person familiar with ZelnickMedia’s bid. It sounds like a plausible idea for a PE group that specializes in turning around distressed assets–and a chilling one for anybody who draws a paycheck at BusinessWeek:

  • Wind down BusinessWeek’s print business “as profitably as possible”–the company would have to honor existing subscriptions and could still sell ads in the magazine. But the focus would be on building up BusinessWeek’s Web site, which has a decent-sized footprint, though not a huge one.
  • Dump almost all of the company’s newsgathering staff and outsource most of that work to Thomson Reuters (TRI).
  • Employ a small handful of editorial employees–perhaps 20, down from the 200-plus who are there now. Some of them would run a Huffington Post-style aggregation site that produces no original content, and some more expensive hires would produce a smattering of high-quality reporting and writing designed to burnish/sustain the BusinessWeek brand. “Just to give it uniqueness and sizzle,” my source tells me.
  • Dump most of the existing business side, as well, but overhaul and bulk up the sales force.

The insult-to-injury kicker: Under ZelnickMedia’s proposal, the buyer wouldn’t pay a dime for the publication it intended to rebuild. Instead, McGraw-Hill would pay the fund to take the publication off its hands. If that sounds implausible, consider that McGraw-Hill just announced that it will save up to $25 million next year by not owning the title.

Given the above terms, it’s easy enough to see why McGraw-Hill ended up going with Bloomberg. For starters, the winning bidder actually paid cash for the magazine, and McGraw-Hill will end up netting a $5.9 million gain, after taxes, on the deal.

Also important: McGraw-Hill won’t have to anguish as it watches one of its flagship properties get dismantled.

So what will happen to BusinessWeek now that Bloomberg owns it? Nothing nearly so drastic, at least in the short term. For now, Bloomberg is talking about bulking up the title, not shredding it, so that’s a good sign for both employees and readers.

Alas, Bloomberg can’t take on all of the magazine employees looking for jobs, and that pool is only going to get bigger.

Forbes slashed deep into its staff this week, and next week Time Warner’s (TWX) Time Inc. will lay out some of its layoff goals. I’ve heard Time Inc. employees refer to layoff plans as “tree-trimming” or “surgical,” but I think the trimming will feel much blunter to the folks who lose their jobs. The publisher’s cost-cutting plans include hundreds of layoffs–something likely similar to the cuts the publisher went through last year, I’m told.

The New York Post’s Keith Kelly reports today that Time’s News and Finance unit, which includes Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated, will be particularly hard hit, and I’ve confirmed that myself.

UPDATE: No surprise here: BusinessWeek President Keith Fox is stepping down. Mild surprise: He’s staying on at McGraw-Hill. Here’s his memo:

When we announced that McGraw-Hill was exploring strategic options for BusinessWeek, I promised to communicate with you as openly and often as I could. In this spirit, I wanted each of you to know that I will be remaining with McGraw-Hill after the deal with Bloomberg is closed. I will continue to play a role in the integration post-close and plan to take on a new role at McGraw-Hill in 2010.

During this process, our collective goal was to find the best buyer for BusinessWeek. I am proud that I played a role in ensuring that BusinessWeek has a new home at Bloomberg, where it will thrive under the leadership of Norman Pearlstine. I am committed to the transition and helping in any way that I can.

It’s been a privilege to be the President of BusinessWeek. I thank Terry McGraw for his confidence and trust in me and Glenn Goldberg for his support, direction, clarity, and sense of humor. I’ve also been a member of an amazing team which has navigated the transformation of the media environment with agility, focus, passion, and integrity.

The team–Steve Adler, Jessica Sibley, Tania Secor, Linda Brennan, Roger Neal, and Carl Fischer–is the best in the industry. Like BusinessWeek, they have bright futures ahead of them. I will miss the daily interaction, but I am wiser (and a little grayer) because of their collaborative spirit and desire to make BusinessWeek the global leader in business that it is today.

I also have a special thanks to Patricia Hipplewith, my assistant, who juggled my calendar, protected me from solicitors, and kept me on schedule and well fed! She is the personification of commitment and integrity.

I am humbled by BusinessWeek’s 80-year history. Thank you for allowing me to play a small part in it.


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