Consider, for example, the challenges for Business 2.0, a smart magazine with a great editor in Josh Quittner. Its ad pages sank 7.7% in 2005 and slid 5.1% in 2006, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. This year ad sales are off to a terrible start, with pages off 31.6% through the May issue, per the Media Industry Newsletter. It may be profitable -- although people close to the title have expressed skepticism on that point -- but at its parent, Time Inc., even profitability isn't worth what it once was. Now the company wants all its resources invested in the highest-growth areas.
And it's not just the new Portfolio that established business titles must contend with, by the way, but also legions of young digital outlets drilling into all kinds of business subjects. One of them, DealBreaker, recently savaged Portfolio in a review and proved its own worth by breaking news on aspects of Rupert Murdoch's bid for Dow Jones. Business books are actually facing increased editorial competition from all sides (don't forget the ad dollars Fox News plans to vacuum up with its planned business channel), while advertisers are gunning hard for complex multimedia deals that encourage concentration of dollars with fewer outlets. Does that mean we're due for a category shakeout?
"It's happened before," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research, Horizon Media, citing last year's annihilation of teen magazines. "But Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek have been around since the '20s and '30s, so I'd be surprised if one of them went anywhere."
The numbers show a bumpy ride for everyone -- just bumpier for some than others.
Three of the titles clock in with annual pages above 2,000: Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek. Their most recent ad-page totals for 2007 show declines of 2.1%, 13.3% and 11.8%, respectively, according to Media Industry Newsletter.
In the smaller tier, only Mansueto Ventures' Inc. and Fast Company showed gains, of 10.5% and 9.4%, respectively. In addition to the declines at Fortune and Business 2.0, Time Inc. has seen ad pages at Money fall 25.6% so far and Fortune Small Business lose 7.2%. The Hearst and Dow Jones joint venture SmartMoney slid 7.92%.
Andrew Swinand, president-chief client officer, Starcom Worldwide, said consolidation among technology and financial-services firms is reducing the number of advertisers in the business category. Those that remain can't do business with everybody.
"Unless you are a 360 player, you aren't competitive," Mr. Swinand said. "Unless you have the package of events and digital to complement the print publication, we're not really interested. Smaller publications who don't have as mature and developed 360 properties are going to continue to lose in the marketplace."
Forbes is one of the winners, relatively speaking, in that game. "There are more one- and two-book buys going on than I've ever seen," said Jim Berrien, president-publisher, Forbes. "Now everybody wants these bespoke complex, measurable, real, live marketing programs. And you know what? Thank God. Otherwise it's dull. The pressure comes on the companies that either don't have the resources in terms of channels or assets that are germane, or that can't execute for one reason or another."
To be fair, there are plenty of challenges facing the establishment business books as well, not least the rapid changes among consumers and the business world at large. Many people would disagree with Mr. Berrien's opinion that the unwavering Forbes "flagpole point of view" is an asset amid all the upheaval.
Robert Safian, who left Fortune in January to become editor in chief and managing director at Fast Company, figures his kind of title is better positioned for changing times. "The patterns are set up by big magazines because of where they've been," he said. "The questions about where business is heading, and where the motivations and emphasis will be in the future, creates challenges for magazines that are aligned with the way things are now. That's the opportunity that Fast Company has -- to define itself a little differently than the other business magazines."
"That's not to say that the way that traditional business magazines have defined themselves is not still credible and important," he added. "It is, it's real; I'm still going to read them looking for those things. But there is a new sensibility that's emerging that they try to address but is harder for them to own."
We have an Exhibit A to suggest: the cover story about 20-somethings in the new issue of Fortune, where Andy Serwer was named managing editor last October with a bit of a change-agent mission.
Cover line: "'Manage' Us? Puh-leeze ... " Twenty-somethings have already noted, to start, that "puh-leeze" isn't quite their vernacular. Media blog Gawker also tore up the article's list of identifiers for the 20-somethings in question, such as iPods, digital cameras and designer coffee. "Look around you," Gawker's take-down said. "Is someone wearing big headphones? They may be a Gen Yer! Proceed with caution: They're likely to take your picture and put it on their blog!"
The one sure thing is that demand for business information, from stock prices to lengthy exposés, will always mean a robust category -- however it is composed. "A lot of people go online for financial information," said Mr. Adgate. "There are thousands of initiatives that the magazines are doing now online. There's a sense that perhaps they've created a brand by having a magazine, but the future may be online."