Like every other magazine loyalist with the Spy logo tattooed on his lower back, I arose at 5:30 a.m. PST last Wednesday to catch the live announcement of the National Magazine Awards finalists. As Jules Asner and Dave Zinczenko ran off the list of honorees in a ceremony aired live on CNN and P!: Print TV, I found myself impressed and delighted by the skill with which interns had filled out the award applications. I found myself drawing analogies between the magazine academy's L-U-V for Texas Monthly and the Grammies' crush on Alison Krauss. I found myself wanting to give each of the nominees a hug and whatever change I had jangling around in my pockets, then congratulate them with a chipper "You're all winners! Because you still exist!"
Understimulated dolt that I am, I got to wonderin': Did the titles that set critics' hearts aflutter in 2008 prompt similar swoons by marketers? So, for one of the cursory half-journamalistic projects in which I specialize, I decided to check the 2008-vs.-2007 ad-page stats for each of the 21 magazines nominated for a general-excellence award that report results to the Publishers Information Bureau. It was an unfair and unbalanced exercise for any number of reasons -- you can't draw relevant conclusions by looking at two year-end ad-page snapshots in a vacuum -- but, gosh, who has the time for actual reporting nowadays?
Of those 21 magazines deemed generally excellent, exactly one saw a year-over-year increase in ad pages in 2008: Fast Company. Duly impressed, I set about trying to answer the question: What is Fast Company doing right that every other magazine publisher in the advertising-starved universe is doing wrong?
Short answer: I dunno. Fast Company doesn't partake in any of the activities we commonly associate with "successful" magazines. It does not traffic in sass or celebrity. It does not glibly announce new, sexy trends based on a few isolated occurrences. Its April issue doesn't feature a single photo of, commentary on, or allusion to hot spring footwear.
No, Fast Company is content to be curious, provocative and, most of all, useful. It's as if its editors and publishers sat down and resolved to strip the larded-up business-mag model of its excess. It has dispensed with personality-first profiles and dopily anecdotal story leads ("On a brisk March afternoon in New Hampshire, at a diner packed with locals whose dark, hollow eyes practically glow with the humiliation of being jobless and hopeless during this Titanic of economic downturns, Tim Geithner orders a piece of pie"). Indeed, Fast Company is the only business publication, in print or anywhere else, that makes answering the question "Why does this matter?" its defining purpose.
Take the mag's April issue, the cover of which is plastered with any number of perpetually buzzy biz-mag mainstays: Obama! Facebook! Google! Walmart! The Obama/Facebook piece, however, chronicles how the online efforts spearheaded by Chris Hughes shaped and activated any number of pro-Obama communities, and relays a wealth of advice to organizations hoping to accomplish the same thing. The piece on NPR eschews the obvious death-of-journalism angle to explain how a publicly funded entity efficiently and intelligently allocates its resources, while the one on yoga-gear seller Lululemon serves as a primer for both niche retailers hoping to expand their product slates and companies hoping to better tap into the enthusiasm of their ground-floor sales forces.
Fast Company has de-formalized its design in recent months, breaking free of the story/sidebar/map pairings that have grown so stale in comparable titles. The world doesn't need another "Ways to Rev Up the Car Business" story, to be sure, but FC's graphic-heavy treatment -- including a bit in which MTV's Xzibit pimps up/out a Prius -- invests the premise with new life. Similarly, the mag deserves kudos for its organizational framework. Features run from the middle of the book to the third-from-last page, sparing us the half-baked book reviews and related effluvia that clog most titles' back ends.
I don't know how Fast Company will fare at the April 30 awards ceremony -- get yer StubHubbable ducats here! -- because it's up against the mag business' flaxen-haired wonderchild (The Economist) and an enthusiast title gone smartly mainstream (Runner's World). And let's be honest: The evening's showstopper is going to be the video montage of dearly departed titles, inevitably set to the strains of Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You." Hell, it might take 12 minutes to run through them all. Will Domino, Best Life or Blender get the one-final-teary-bow slot given to Paul Newman at the Oscars? I'm guessing Atlanta Peach won't.
Either way, the lack of an officially sanctioned industry pat on the back shouldn't diminish what Fast Company has accomplished in the past 18 months. It has managed to make some of the most obscenely over-reported business stories of our time crackle with energy -- no small feat during an era in which even the least savory morsels of business news are chewed up, swallowed and regurgitated within a single news cycle. If you're reading only one business magazine, Fast Company oughta be it.