Pricey buy of 'Fast Company' may bring G&J a big payday

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When you consider the sale of Fast Company in a slowing economy for the warp-speed price of $350 million, it's tempting to see it as a fitting symbol of this loony New Year. But if you let history be your guide, you might see Gruner & Jahr's acquisition as one of those necessary bet-the-company wagers that may indeed pay off big.

Yes, if true, the reported price is some four times the amount disbursed by the, um, "inscrutable" Si Newhouse for Wired a few years back. To those who haven't been paying attention, that may seem like four times the futility-paying Internet money for an Internet magazine, just as the Internet economy is turning to dust and dishrags.

While most new magazines about the new economy are destined to fail, the past sheds kindly light on the potential of the true revolutionaries. Fortune was founded in 1930 as the disequilibrium of the global manufacturing economy was plunging the world into the Depression. In 1901, as Iowa State University technology historian Alan Marcus reminds me, a magazine called System arose to make sense of the wild new management theories (e.g., Taylorism) cropping up in response to the era's crazy new technologies (e.g., assembly lines, telephony). System is still with us, albeit under the new name-Business Week-it adopted in 1926.

Alan Webber, Fast Company's founding editor, likes these analogies. In 1993, he and co-founder Bill Taylor left Harvard Business Review to start what they hoped would be the Fortune and Business Week of this new economy. Although I cannot begin to predict whether Gruner & Jahr's outrageous gamble will pay off, contextually, at least, Messrs. Webber and Taylor have succeeded.

Over Fast Company's five years, I've described it as: Harvard Business Review wrapped in the skin of Dale Carnegie; the business magazine for the "Friends" generation; and the lifestyle title for people who work in cubicles. Mr. Webber, with whom I spoke at length last week, laughed at these descriptions and tried several of his own. The best: "We said Fast Company was neither about celebrity nor about news. It was about great ideas and best practices, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, the `you and me' of business who, by virtue of our vitality, initiative and creativity, are taking large companies and transforming them; or taking young start-ups and toppling old companies; or inventing new directions for the conversation about what business needs to do next."

OK. The fact is, more than other business publications, Fast Company managed to capture the transcendental features of the zeitgeist that's been a-borning for 40 years. Yep, that's how old the new economy is-much older, at any rate, than the Internet. I date it to 1962, when the fledgling Students for a Democratic Society issued the Port Huron Statement, proclaiming the values of decentralization and personal empowerment in the face of the command-and-control bureaucracies then running government, business and life. In the workplace, it affirmed, people "have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity."

It took a few decades to bring this new economy to life, but here it is and it's a "both-and" kind of place-about the importance of the team and significance of the individual; the power of technology and the force of human creativity; winning (the essence of business) and not losing (the stuff of baby-boom fantasies).

That latter component of Fast Company has always made me a trifle uneasy. Though Mr. Web-ber disagrees ("It's not about `think good thoughts or Tinker Bell will die,"' he told me), his magazine's world is relentlessly sunny. On Fast Company's shelf, where everyone can be (to quote a famous early cover line) "The brand called you," there are no Ipanas, no Laker Airways, no Pets.com. This flies in the face of the dominant journalistic culture, which loves conflict and catharsis. That may help explain its success. But I wonder how Fast Company will deal with downsizing, Chapter 11 belly-upping and broken promises.

Then again, Fortune weathered the De-pression. And Business Week outlived Taylor-ism. Fast Company, I'd wager, will survive our bursting bubble.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at rothenberg_randall@strategy-business.com.

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