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So What Do You Do, John Byrne?
The Fast Company editor-in-chief on running his still-living New Economy title—and why an occasional autopsy can help.- July 27, 2004
When John A. Byrne was named editor-in-chief of Fast Company in April 2003, his first task was to tell his new staff that the magazine was moving from Boston to New York. Which meant most of them would lose their jobs. And things only got tougher from there: The magazine's corporate parent, Gruner + Jahr USA, revealed in its ugly lawsuit with Rosie O'Donnell that it had inflated circulation figures for magazines including Fast Company, and CEO Dan Brewster, who'd long championed the title, was fired.
To some observers, Fast Company—a business book focused on an economy impacted by technology and globalization—was seen as the poster child for G+J's follies under Brewster, who oversaw the purchase of the magazine in 2000, reportedly for more than $300 million, just before the dotcom crash caused its ad pages to plummet. But while Brewster has since left the building, Byrne is still at the helm of the magazine, apparently with G+J's full support: The company recently combined the magazine's business side with sister publication Inc.'s, in an effort to make both more competitive.
Byrne's ability to weather the storm is even more impressive considering he had almost no experience as an editor before joining Fast Company. A senior writer at BusinessWeek since 1985, he co-wrote GE CEO Jack Welch's best-selling autobiography, Jack: Straight from the Gut, and he wrote or co-authored seven other business books. He recently spoke to mediabistro.com about learning to be a leader after a career spent writing about them.
Birthdate: January 17, 1953
Hometown: Paterson, New Jersey
First section of the Sunday Times: "The first section that everyone reads; the first section that Jack Welch reads: the Style section."
Did you always want to write about business?
I actually started out as a rock critic. My hair was down to my shoulders, and I was a rock critic for my college newspaper. I wrote all these reviews; I went to three rock concerts a week. It was a lot of fun, but you really don't influence people, you don't change their behavior. When I started writing other stories that upset people—I did a profile on a student who was raped; I wrote editorials about inadequate security and lighting on campus—I realized the power that journalists really could have.
What attracted you to business journalism?
I felt, back in the '70s, when I was getting into this, that the people in our society who are the most influential, who have the most say over how we live and work, are actually businesspeople. And there is great drama there: In many of the stories that I like the most, there are characters you can relate to—either you love them or you hate them—and they inspire something in you that touches your emotions.
That's been especially true recently: Look at how people have reacted to the Martha Stewart verdict. Do you think these big stories have made the layperson more interested in business?
There is, in general, more interest in business—all you have to do is look at the success of a show like The Apprentice. Unfortunately, the worst possible role model anyone could have would be Donald Trump. He represents everything that's wrong about business. It's an old style of leadership. It's all about, "I'm your boss and you're my underling," and, "You're fired." That's what business was about in the 1950s, not today. Nonetheless, the popularity of that show, I think, is indicative that the layperson is far more interested and connected to business than he or she has ever been before. Part of that is not only the democratization of the stock market, but frankly, people are understanding that their personal fate is intertwined with the business world. We're all part of this huge global economy, and it's both exciting and scary. So whether you're paying $3 for a gallon of gas or worrying about getting laid off because someone in India may be taking your job or thinking, "I have an idea for a company—should I get venture capital for it?" there's a lot more focus on business today.
It must be strange to go from being a journalist chasing a killer story to being an editor-in-chief thinking about nurturing a brand.
I think in the early days I thought much more like a journalist. I thought, I'm gonna put my kick-ass provocative story—the story that's going to create conversation and get attention—on the cover. I think ultimately that that's not what magazines are about. That doesn't mean you don't run those stories—you still run them, but you run them inside. It's why Vanity Fair or Esquire will have George Clooney and his pecs on the cover, but another coverline will have Seymour Hersh writing about public policy. Those really good pieces of journalism have a home, but the cover is your most precious real estate, and you need to continually remind people what your position in the marketplace is.
Tell me about the "autopsy" process you instituted for each issue.
I'll invite someone in—it could be a colleague from another magazine or newspaper, a journalism professor, an advertiser, a CEO who was once covered in the magazine, even a longtime reader—and they'll critique the magazine page by page in front of my entire staff. There are two reasons for that. One is I want to create a place where everyone is learning, no matter where they are on the masthead. The other thing I want is for everyone to see how open I am to criticism, because that's how you improve. I take the blame for everyone, and I should. Because otherwise these sessions wouldn't work. I don't want outsiders coming in and beating up on my people.
Do you get the feeling that your staff dreads the autopsies?
No, they look forward to them. Everyone is hungry for feedback. When you're in this closed world where you're putting out a magazine, and most of the people in here don't have a lot of contact with our readers, you want to see what some people who you respect have to say. In our next session, we're having the economics correspondent for The New York Times, David Leonhardt, come in to critique us, which will be fascinating.
Fast Company has been pointed out as an example of G+J's missteps.
G+J paid a large sum for the magazine. Obviously that was a very different time. Fast Company was a five-time finalist in the ASME awards and a two-time winner. It went from a circulation of nothing to a circulation of 725,000 in seven years, which is pretty unusual. Then, of course, when the bust occurred, a lot of people who both advertised and read the magazine went away. I think because of the amount of money paid for the magazine, there was a lot more attention paid to it than most.
And Fast Company was also caught up in the newsstand inflation scandal.
What happened is, you know the difference between the pink sheets and the white sheets? One of those sets of numbers is unaudited, and they're estimates of what newsstand might be, because you don't know. You don't get any good hard numbers for probably six months after your magazine goes off-sale. The reason is simple: It takes a long time for the returns to come back, and for all that to filter through the system. So the estimates of what you expected in newsstand sales can vary wildly with the audited results six months later. That's what happened with Fast Company. Frankly, the reason the estimates were so far off was because the distribution was significantly reduced. They're putting out fewer magazines and therefore selling a lot less, thinking, what would it matter as long as we meet our rate base? They weren't thinking about anyone looking at the difference between the pink sheets and the white sheets.
Fast Company is so symbolic of things that had happened under Dan Brewster. Is there a sense of, "As goes Fast Company, so goes G+J"?
No. Because the real moneymakers at G+J are Parents and Family Circle. Inc. and Fast Company have terrific potential, and I think that they're both uniquely positioned in the business-magazine category. But they're also like all the other business magazines: highly cyclical. When things are good, these magazines make huge sums of money for everyone. When things are bad, they don't make a lot of money. Whereas Parents, Child, Family Circle, Fitness, and YM are not as dependent on the economy going up and down. I don't think the way Fast Company goes is the way G+J is going to go. It was one of the big bets that Dan Brewster made, along with the decision to convert McCall's to Rosie. And because it was such a big bet, it really sticks out.
So, no pressure?
I don't feel there's pressure. I think I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I love this job. I absolutely love it. I haven't had this much fun since I was the editor of my college paper. Even the frustrations and challenges are wonderful, because through each of them I'm learning something new. The beauty of being the editor of a magazine is that you always have another shot. Your product is never static. It's always changing, it's always evolving, and if there's something that you regret you can fix it in the next issue.
Fast Company cofounder Alan Webber has said he invited you to join the magazine when it started, and that it took 10 years to get you on board. What took so long?
When [Webber and co-founder William Taylor] first came to me, I thought they were exceptionally smart, passionate—and I thought the idea was terrific. BusinessWeek was just really hard for me to leave. It was my professional home for nearly 18 years. I loved the people there, I loved the product. I could basically go out and write about almost anything in long form. I did 57 covers. I was having too much fun and learning too much to leave. It's different when you're offered the top job to run a magazine, and then I thought, "That is truly the offer I can't refuse." I'd never done it, and they were willing to take a risk on me. So of course I jumped at the chance, and it's one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.
Emily Fromm, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, is a contributing writer to mediabistro.com.
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