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October 17, 2006 10:25 pm

BusinessWeek looks to web in battle for readers

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For the editor-in-chief of the world’s biggest business magazine, one goal is paramount: keeping his title on the “must read” list.

“You don’t want to be a discretionary read, that is too dangerous,” says Stephen Adler, the 51-year-old who last year stepped into the potential danger zone, taking over responsibility for all of the content in BusinessWeek, its website and its seven foreign language editions.

The perils come from the fact that financial news and information, most of it free, has proliferated online. Also, newspapers increasingly provide the analysis that weekly magazines used to, putting the role of titles such as BusinessWeek, Forbes and Fortune under scrutiny.

“The competition is terrific, but I like the business information area,” Mr Adler says, speaking in his mid-town Manhattan office, with BusinessWeek covers in a myriad of languages decorating the shelves.

“There is no question people need reliable and accurate business information. I want BusinessWeek to be in a position not to care too much if they want it in print, online or on mobile devices. As long as we’re doing that, we have a purpose in the world.”

Mr Adler is no stranger to the challenge that the internet brings to traditional media. In his previous role as deputy managing editor at the Wall Street Journal, he was in charge of that newspaper’s online efforts.

Although newspapers and magazines talk about the need to be available to consumers anywhere, any time and any place, many are only now starting to put this into practice.

At BusinessWeek, which has been published since 1929, change has also been slow: until last year the editor of its website was a part-time job.

Mr Adler, softly spoken and with an almost professorial air, said he made his pitch for the editor-in-chief job by emphasising just how much could be gained by really taking the web seriously. “The game is to build online,” says Mr Adler.

As well as appointing a full-time web editor, BusinessWeek journalists were instructed to write more for the web: in terms of word count, so far this year 46 per cent of the content on the website is exclusive to it, versus 33 per cent in 2005.

With cost cuts high on the agenda at magazines and newspapers, including the owners of BusinessWeek, McGraw Hill, one of Mr Adler’s first moves was to ditch the European and Asian print editions of the magazine. Instead, the on-line versions of BusinessWeek are now customised for these regions.

A number of high-profile writers have started regular blogs on BusinessWeek.com, which also has video content and interactive features. Adweek, which put Businessweek.com in its “website hotlist”, says it has a “rich library of well-produced exclusive content, which offers good opportunities for advertisers”.

Its web presence has certainly grown. In August, BusinessWeek reached more than 7.1m unique users, its highest yet, and page views were nearly 50m. Online advertising at BusinessWeek.com rose 61 per cent year on year. Print advertising was largely flat.

“With online now representing 13 per cent of advertising revenues, growth becomes more and more significant,” Mr Adler says.

The magazine itself, with an average weekly circulation of 930,722 (which has fallen after recent questions about circulation accuracy and rule changes), has not been immune from the web’s influence. The layout is more colourful than it was, with more graphics.

However, more competition is coming, and not just from the web. Next year, Condé Nast will launch Portfolio, a monthly business magazine. Many of Mr Adler’s friends from the Wall Street Journal have taken up senior positions there.

“Portfolio is doing something entirely different, it will be a high quality feature publication that feels more like Vanity Fair,” he said. “BusinessWeek defines itself as timely, concise and useful – I don’t think that is how Portfolio would describe itself.”

Still, the publications will be vying for a similar pool of advertisers.

BusinessWeek’s rivals are also emphasizing the web more. The Forbes family recently sold a stake in their 89-year-old magazine, raising $300m for internet expansion and for launching print versions of Forbes in foreign languages.

“What I love about the web is you know instantly whether or not something is a hit,” Mr Adler says. For BusinessWeek to retain its title as the world’s biggest business magazine, there is more pressure than ever to make sure there are more hits than misses.

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