Can Fortune Magazine Survive Laura Lang?

September 15, 2012

I’ve been bothered by a late July profile that the New York Times published on Laura Lang, who was appointed a year ago to oversee Time Inc.’s collection of magazines.

Lang’s background is in digital marketing and advertising, and her interview focused heavily on Time Inc. having an unparalleled ability to deliver customized digital products to advertisers.  The article also disclosed that Lang is being mentored by Bain & Company, whose media white paper earlier this year also gives me considerable concern.  I fear the Lang/Bain combination is the proverbial instance of the blind leading the blind.

I understand Lang’s desire to position Time Inc. as a “branded news and entertainment company” and to find ways to further monetize its editorial offerings.  But her proposal to give advertisers a preview of planned editorial content and let them incorporate their messaging into the magazine is a huge red flag, as it could potentially blur the lines between editorial and advertising and, ultimately, diminish the quality and independence of the company’s magazines.  While I’ve never perceived People as being pristine in terms of editorial integrity, my understanding is that Time Inc. is a publisher that historically has honored and valued the separation of church and state.

One of Lang’s biggest challenges is maintaining editorial quality and convincing existing and new readers that Time Inc.’s magazines provide content worth paying for. That’s an incredibly formidable task in the case of financial journalism because it takes considerable talent, knowledge, and experience to turn out insightful and compelling stories and analysis.  Bain’s paper suggests that the company views all content as being pretty much equal, meaning a story written by a fresh-faced kid out of journalism school has no more economic value than one written by a reporter who has been in the business for more than three decades. With that mindset, it makes a lot of economic sense to fire all of Time Inc.’s senior staffers and replace them with a considerably cheaper junior staff.

Time Inc. owns Fortune, one of the few remaining business publications that respects and values experience.  Many of its editors and reporters have been financial journalists for decades, and the upside of their approach is often readily apparent in terms of story selection and editorial quality.  Admittedly, Fortune publishes more than its share of blather – the columns by anchorwomen Erin Burnett and Becky Quick immediately come to mind – and the magazine also has uncritically carried water for some shameless self-promoters deserving of more critical analysis (see here), and occasionally publishes profiles of individuals not deserving of one (see here). 

Fortune also has produced some incredibly insightful and compelling stories worthy of strong accolades, but they were never properly promoted or recognized.  The magazine’s strength is its appreciation that businesses are ultimately run by people and that providing understanding and insight about executives and their personalities can often be as important as knowing their corporate earnings and financials.  In fact, some of the magazine’s stories run contrary to prevailing perception and opinion.

Some examples: Fortune readers know that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg isn’t quite as sweet and loving as rival publications have made her out to be. They have reason to think twice before ever investing in Hewlett-Packard; indeed, they were warned two years ago that then CEO Mark Hurd wasn’t necessarily as great as initially perceived. They know how Nike is harnessing and profiting from social media and how J.P. Morgan hopes to profit from the war in Afghanistan.  These stories took considerable time, effort, and resources to produce and provided perspective and knowledge that most bloggers, tweeters, and teleprompter readers don’t have the bandwidth to impart. (For links and more details about these stories, please see accompanying blog post.)

This should be the golden age of business magazine journalism.  The level of noise, hype, and outright deception is at an unprecedented level, and there is a strong need for a publication that can help make sense of it all.  Perhaps Lang will come to appreciate Fortune’s experienced staff and continue giving them the financial resources to more consistently produce quality journalism. But given her comments, I can’t help but wonder whether her focus will be on promoting Fortune as a “brand” rather than protecting and raising awareness for its substance.