The Business of Magazines: Vanity Fair and Fortune Reverse Roles

January 7, 2014

Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, respectively the COO and CEO of Facebook and Yahoo!, certainly get a lot of media attention. While I admire their professional success, PR savvy, and ability to mesmerize experienced reporters to a near- hypnotic state, their neatly packaged narratives are a tad overly manufactured to me. Articles about Sandberg inevitably speak to her sensitive, compassionate side –“look, she even cries at meetings!” – while Mayer is repeatedly portrayed as a nose-to-the-grindstone executive whose departure from Google was a major loss for that company. I’ve never met, much less worked, with either executive so I don’t have any first-hand insights on their business acumen or leadership talent. That said, I’ve been around long enough to be more than a little skeptical about the constant editorial fawning.

Almost without exception, whenever the media uniformly lionizes executives and uncritically portrays them as messianic trailblazers with near-superpower competencies, their subject matters invariably fall short of their effusive billings.  A quick review of earlier coverage of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and Rebecca Mark, WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski, H-P’s Carly Fiorina, Avon’s Andrea Jung, Rainwater’s Darla Moore, Lehman Brothers’ Erin Callan, or JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon will bear that out. When it comes to evaluating superior executive performance and talent, the media is, more often than not, too eager to drink the Kool-Aid offered up by executives seemingly focused more on their images than the companies they lead.

Fortunately, there are still a few experienced business reporters around who aren’t so quick to imbibe.  One of them is respected journalist Bethany McLean who broke from the pack in her reporting on Mayer in the January issue of Vanity FairIn a remarkably balanced story that betrays no hidden agenda or bias, McLean makes clear that while Mayer is indeed as brilliant as billed, it is far from certain that she will prove to be Yahoo!’s savior. McLean is best known for being the first reporter to question Enron’s finances when the media was still enamored with that company, so her contrarian reporting merits attention.

I can’t do justice summarizing McLean’s prodigious reporting in this space, but suffice to say that McLean shatters many myths, including that Mayer’s departure was a major loss for Google. McLean reveals that many of the accomplishments that have been attributed solely to Mayer during her time at Google were more a team effort.  Indeed, her star had been losing its luster there when she left for Yahoo! (a point underscored by McLean’s reporting that there was no shortage of people who actually cheered Mayer’s departure). It’s noteworthy that code-writing Google engineers didn’t follow her out the door despite the fact that Mayer is an engineer; the only Google recruit was a PR person, who, quite tellingly, was Mayer’s first Yahoo! hire. McLean also suggests that if Mayer hadn’t given Dan Loeb a sweetheart deal to go away, the savvy investor quite possibly might have fired her.

Reporting excellence aside, McLean’s article is also notable for where it appears. Vanity Fair, a glossy monthly better known for its stories on the lives and scandals of the glitterati among Hollywood, Washington, Wall Street and the like, has emerged as a bastion for more thoughtful and insightful explanatory business journalism.  The magazine has published a slew of impressively provocative business features, including Sarah Ellison’s reporting on Rupert Murdoch’s empire (here, here, and here, among others) and her profile on CNN host Piers Morgan, Michael Lewis’ story about Goldman Sachs’ seemingly undue influence with federal prosecutors, and William Cohan’s less-than-flattering profile of investor Dan Loeb.

McLean wrote for Fortune magazine a few years back. At the time, standard-setting expository and investigative journalism was the magazine’s raison d’être. As I predicted, however, the magazine didn’t fare well under the stewardship of Laura Lang, who was forced out last year, and is no longer the leader of the pack, partially due to a top talent exodus. In addition to the departure of Hank Gilman, a highly respected managing editor known to favor hard-hitting stories, the magazine also lost James Bandler, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter who was responsible for some of Fortune’s most noteworthy features (see here).

To understand where Fortune may be headed now that its editors report to the business side, one need look no further than its October cover story, which features none other than Sheryl Sandberg.  The story portrays Sandberg as a “superhuman” executive who works with “ruthless” efficiency.  While the story doesn’t really explain what she actually does at the company, it suggests rather strongly she is singlehandedly responsible for a lot of its success.  The feature conveniently ignores some critical reporting from an earlier profile (see here), which also portrayed Sandberg as being ruthless – but in the more traditional, much less flattering definition of the word.

Given that Vanity Fair has staked a claim on Fortune’s turf, maybe Fortune should return the story by taking a run at Vanity Fair‘s claim of celebrity profiles. Then again, the role reversal may already be underway.  Who’s gracing the latest cover of Fortune? That would be actor Robert Downey, Jr.