The Biz: Next-gen biz titles fight to stand out

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Wired, Business 2.0 and Fast Company are the Princes of the media world. Each is a magazine-formerly known-as-New-Economy.

One can't blame them for fleeing that moniker. The notion of a new economy itself is all but forgotten in a post-Sept. 11 world. Erstwhile competitors like Industry Standard and Upside are gone. They were joined last month by Red Herring-which, technically, could be resuscitated by a buyer, but the same was true of the Industry Standard when it abruptly ceased publication in August 2001. It wasn't.

The remaining next-generation business titles now lie in the hands of corporate giants-Time Inc. owns Business 2.0, Conde Nast Publications owns Wired and Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing owns Fast Company. And the severe ad skid of '01 and '02 is over for Fast Company and Wired, which respectively claim ad-page increases of 18% through March and 43% through April. Business 2.0 Publisher Lisa Bentley says pages were slightly down through April.

Unsurprisingly, Wired and Fast Company's performances didn't undo the losses of '02 and '01. Wired's increase through April would give it about 288 ad pages for the period. This will leave that title-at 10 years old, the granddaddy of the group-attracting significantly fewer ad pages in those months than it did in the pre-boom year of 1996.

The free-fall is over. But now what comes next?

Retooling, for one thing. In the past two years, each title has reworked itself editorially, down to the details like jettisoning titles (Business 2.0, nee eCompany Now) and losing logos (Fast Company).

Wired remains defiantly on the far edge of technology, replete with lines like this one from a recent article on cloning labs in China: "Being a stem-cell researcher frequently involves plucking miniature human tissues from the cadavers of mice." Business 2.0 wins kudos even from competitors-"the execution is very good," says one-for its editorial facelift under Josh Quittner. Some Time Inc.-ers expressed surprise it exited '02 still standing, but the backing of Time Inc. heavyweights Editorial Director John Huey and Exec VP Jack Haire doesn't hurt.

"The people who do read [2.0] are intensely avid about it," Huey says. "The mail has a fervor. I wouldn't say `cult-like.' We're not promoting religion,' he jokes, tossing a jibe at Fast Company and the Deadhead-esque "Company of Friends" groups associated with it.

transition

Fast Company itself is currently in transition, since founding editors Alan Webber and William Taylor stepped aside last month to make way for an as-yet-unnamed top editor. That editor, says G&J Exec VP Dan Rubin, will determine whether the magazine's editorial operations will remain based in Boston or, like corporate sibling Inc., moved to New York.

The titles "are working hard to distinguish themselves," says Karen Jacobs, senior VP-director of print investment at Publicis Groupe's Starcom, Chicago. Still, she says, "it remains to be seen how many will be around in five years."

Executives involved with all three titles insisted they'd be the survivors. But all the magazines still need some patience. Business 2.0 remains "in development" at Time Inc., which is to say unprofitable. Wired, the most established title of the lot, has a circulation of 531,000, well below the 650,000 level preferred by Conde Nast. And Fast Company's next move could bring with it a new home base and a largely new staff.

The real question, Rubin says, is not whether there's room in a shrinking subcategory for these three titles. It's whether a broader definition of the business category has room for "three or four" more titles on top of the troika comprised by McGraw Hill's Business Week, Forbes Inc.'s Forbes and Time Inc.'s Fortune.

"We are fully dedicated to making sure we fill our niche as well as, if not better, than anyone," he adds.

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