Dear Joanne, a few things before getting down to business

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Joanne Lipman, Editor

Unnamed Business Media Empire

Conde Nast Building

New York, N.Y.

Dear Joanne,

Congratulations on your latest creative challenge. I cannot imagine anyone better to lead the development of an integrated business-media unit at Conde Nast. As The Wall Street Journal's advertising columnist, you were a formidable competitor; I still seethe that you scooped me on the discovery that Interpublic had offered to play Ogilvy's white knight during the WPP takeover battle. As an editor, you birthed one of the best out-of-the-box new newspaper sections in decades, "Weekend Journal." And as a leader, you couldn't ask for anyone better to complement you than outgoing New Yorker president David Carey, a publishing executive whose drive, intelligence and inventiveness match yours.

But you're entering a dangerous arena. Even as business has grown in both economic and cultural significance, business media seem to have lost their way.

Whence the demand-supply imbalance? After six years as a suit, I believe it's because business journalists know journalism better than they know business. Oh sure, they can report the hell out of a scandal and uncover the reasons for an earnings shortfall. But they don't really understand the quotidian concerns of the executives they cover. So here's my Top Five List of what journalists need to know about business:

1. Most senior executives are consumed by the day-to-day. Journalists love narrative, because it makes for good reading, hence their obsession with grand strategies, thrilling victories and agonizing defeats. But executive time is focused on the small stuff-from compensating for a staff member's family crisis to shortfalls in weekly same-store sales.

2. Executives don't want to know what sucks; they want to know what works. Let's face it: the media thrive on outrage. Even before the current era of business scandals, broken companies were a staple of the genre. But what business leaders really crave is practical advice. Granted, the pendulum can swing too far, as all the unexamined adulation for Enron underscored. But that doesn't negate the importance of news you can use.

3. People matter more than anything else. Journalists are ornery, independent cusses who hew to the "great man theory of business" because they believe that, if their editors would only leave them alone, they'd produce great literature. Executives know that nothing gets accomplished without the support of a team.

4. The hardest thing to create is not a blockbuster product, but alignment. The question CEOs ask more than any other is, "Why does everyone agree yet nothing changes?" As my colleagues Gary Neilson and Bruce Pasternack show in their new book, "Results," fixing a non-resilient company and delivering real returns requires hard attention to structure, decision rights, information flows and incentives-issues that almost never make it into business stories.

5. Executives are journalists' mirror image. Successful business leaders and journalists share many traits-unquenchable curiosity and a hunger for fact chief among them. They also are romantics who crave perfection. But journalists, tempered by their profession's culture, channel that into dark cynicism. Executives can't lose optimism. If they don't believe tomorrow will be better than today, they can't honestly serve their shareholders.



Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton

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