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Josh Quittner was for many years the new-media guru of quintessentially old-media Time magazine. He ran Time's website, he wrote a column about technology in the magazine, and he ran the ill-fated tech offshoot Time Digital, later known as On. Then, nearly two years ago, Time Inc. packed him up from its Sixth Avenue headquarters and sent him out to San Francisco, where he's now running Business 2.0, the (at least onetime) New Economy business book the company had acquired a year earlier and combined with its own eCompany Now. The magazine has been flourishing under Quittner, and last week, as its annual "101 Dumbest Moments in Business" issue was headed to newsstands—and as a book based on that franchise was coming to bookstores—Quittner spoke to mediabistro.com about his career and his magazine.
Birthdate: February 12, 1957
Hometown: Born in Manhattan, grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania.
First section of the Sunday Times: It used to be the magazine, but now it's the Book Review.
Business 2.0 is of course interested in how tech affects business, but it is still basically a business book not a tech book. But you, before this job, were a tech guy, not a business guy. So how did you end up here?
I came out here really to reposition us post-bubble, during the tech meltdown. We very deliberately set out to broaden our franchise and get away from being entirely dependent upon technology. My sense of our readers is that they all get tech, they all understand technology, and there's no way in the world that I could hope to compete with the vertical technology publications. So as long as we have a certain sophisticated approach to technology, I think our readers are happy. And what we really try and do is write about the technology underlying all kinds of businesses where you wouldn't necessarily expect to find technology.
But why you to do that broadening? You were the technology editor of Time, not the business editor.
But I've done enough different things in my life. I started out for 12 years as a newspaper reporter. I was a crime reporter, I was a general assignment writer, and then I started to write about technology from the consumer side. My interest in technology wasn't technology for technology's sake. I mean, I'm innumerate. I never cared for science or math when I was growing up. I was interested in how it was changing the world we were living in. And I think great business magazines also document that, but they look at it through the world of making money.
So what was your career from being a crime reporter early on to running Business 2.0?
My first journalism job was the weekend night police reporter at the Albuquerque Journal. Eventually I decided to play a Chutes and Ladders game, and I went to Columbia and got my masters degree in journalism. I was hired out of Columbia at Newsday on Long Island, where I went back to being a crime reporter, covering the court for a few years, and then general assignment. And then, around 1990, they had a very forward-thinking assistant managing editor—who's now the editor, his name is Howie Schneider—and Howie saw the whole Internet thing happening. So he created a beat on the national desk called information technology, and I was the first reporter to get that job—I think I was one of only two people who applied for it. And it was this wonderful, utterly open new world. The great, great thing about Newsday is it really believed in letting a beat reporter finding his or her way. So for a year you were able to educate yourself on the job. Go to every conference, read every book—which they would buy you—and experiment. So that's what I did.
I started to write about the Internet in 1992; I wrote a Newsday column called "Life in Cyberspace." And at the same time, my wife and I started to write a book about a group of New York City hackers who got into an online war with hackers in Texas, called The Masters of Deception. And it was like being the first guy in on a Ponzi scheme. All sorts of wonderful things started to happen. I met Kevin Kelley, who was then starting a magazine called Wired, and I would take my outtakes and turn them into big, adult oriented, feature-length magazine stories for Wired. And every time I'd write a Wired cover, I'd get job offers. And one day, literally the day my cover story hit the newsstand, about Penn Gillette, of Penn and Teller, being the most wired man in the world, my phone rings. It's a guy who says, "You don't know me. My name is Walter Isaacson."
Walter was then the editor of new media for Time Inc. He said, "I just read your piece and I'd like to meet you. I don't have any agenda, I'm not offering you a job, I'd just like to meet you." And one of the great things about Walter is he was a real collector of people. So I went in and met him, and I put my ponytail back in a knot, and I bought my first suit since I was married, and we hit it off really well. And he said, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" He was actually looking for an editor of Time.com. And I said, "Boy, if I could do anything it would be write for Time magazine." Long story short, two weeks later, I was working at Time magazine.
I went to work as a writer at Time in 1994, and, soon, I was so excited by the Internet, I got myself whipped up into such a frenzy, that writing magazine stories wasn't doing it enough for me. I really wanted to launch my own website. So I was secretly ovulating a plan with some friends at Wired to start a tech-news site. I was also perfectly miserable in my personal life. Walter got wind of the fact that I was anxious to do this, so he waved his magic wand and the next thing I knew, I was able to start my own website at Pathfinder called The Netly News. So we started to do this website, which was a daily take, a supposedly edgy, irreverent take on some kind of tech story every day. Mostly we just covered culture, and it was amazing fun.
And so I basically bounced around, doing The Netly News and writing for Time. Walter then went on to be editor at Time, and he gave me a column that appeared every couple of weeks called The Netly News, and the idea was to point Time magazine readers to the web, and they made me the editor of Time.com. So I ran that website, taking the things that I learned from Netly and applying them. That was fun. And then they asked me if I wanted to be the editor of Time Digital, which was a surprise, and something I had never considered before. And, ultimately, I said yeah, because it was a great learning experience. And we tried to take that magazine and turn it into a subscription magazine—it had been controlled circ—but that ultimately didn't work. It was one of the ugly many casualties post-9/11.
Jon Friedman recently called Business 2.0 "the best magazine you've never read," which is a bit of a backhanded compliment. If it's so good, why aren't people reading it?
That has something to do with the whole business-magazine environment now. A year ago, the business story was an awful ugly depressing story. Business magazines do well when business is good, and that's a historical fact. And business was lousy. At the height of the game, when all of these new titles were started, I would argue that the people who bought business magazines weren't real business magazine readers. They brought business magazines with reckless abandon because they saw them as being like the Daily Racing Form. They were looking for places to find bets. Who's going to be the new IPO, where should I be putting my investment money?
So you had all of these mom-and-pop day traders, thousands and thousands of them, buying every conceivable business magazine. Not only did you have tons and tons of readers going out and buying these magazines that they really didn't care about, at the same time, you had tons of fly-by-night companies that were looking to spend lots of marketing funds to prove that they were real. So you had inflated advertising and inflated readership. It's not like people suddenly loved reading business magazines. When the bottom fell out of the market, you were left with the traditional business reader, who is a conservative sort, who, in times of depression, is really looking for service stories. They're completely resistant to stories that hype celebrity businesspeople. There are only three or four CEOs who you can put on the cover of a magazine right now that will get people excited. Mostly they believe everyone else is corrupt and clueless. So our formula has been to stick with service, to talk about what's working. Technology is often a key to that. Certainly demystifying technology is important and helpful to a businessperson.
You've been quoted as saying that you want to be the dominant business magazine for the 21st century. Doesn't that conflict with a certain fairly dominating business magazine back at the Time & Life Building?
I think the quote was "the dominant business monthly."
A-ha. That's the trick there?
Yeah, and it is a trick because there's a really big difference between what a monthly does and what a fortnightly does and what a weekly does. I worked at a weekly for eight years, and I can tell you with great confidence that weeklies want to have the last word on stories, not the first word. Time is a brand that is beloved and respected and well-known because it weighs in and turns news into history in some sense. Fortnightlies, like Fortune, tend to be a bit of a hybrid. They do a certain amount of that, because some people like their contextual stories every two weeks. It turns out, for some reason, to be a really interesting frequency for a magazine. And it does a certain amount of forward looking. Forbes and Fortune are fighting it out to be the dominant magazine in that space, and you know who I would pick in that fight. I don't think it's even close.
But both of those magazines are aimed at a very New York-centric worldview of business. It's the view from Wall Street, it's the view from the CEO's desk, and both of those magazines, when you read them, make you feel like your hanging with the big dogs. For a monthly magazine, especially one that's situated in San Francisco, we're trying to provide a very different view of the business world. I'm happy that we're out here because it puts us close to where some of the great, new innovative ideas come from. I think that we're kind of at the headwaters of new and interesting business ideas, so to the extent that we can bring that back to our readers, make our readers feel smarter, we establish ourselves as this dominant must-read business monthly. But I cannot compete on news. I sit out on newsstands for four weeks, so even if I could get in on Amazon announcing its first fully profitable year, in two weeks that story looks ridiculously out of step. So I have to predict things, I have to look at broad patterns and trends and be believable.
Speaking of the difference between New York and San Francisco, what's it like moving to the other coast, especially in terms of the media culture?
On the personal front, it was a major upgrade. Living out here is unbelievably wonderful. I used to spend four hours a day on the Long Island Railroad; now I spend half an hour riding over the insanely gorgeous Golden Gate Bridge into the most beautiful city in the world. So on a personal front, there is absolutely no comparison.
On the media front, it's funny because I lived in a world where everything was media. All my friends were media people. Here, none of my friends are journalists. My wife writes a column for The New York Times, and that doesn't raise an eyebrow with our friends in Mill Valley. They could care less. Where in New York, that's good for cocktail party bonus points, here, it's not nearly that big a deal. I find it refreshing, because it reminds you that you are writing for people who are very different from your friends than when you're in New York. In New York, you tend to think more about how it's going to play with your buddies. And here, the people I socialize with actually read my magazine. It's fun, it makes me feel like I'm more in touch with our readers.
You're coming into a big week next week with the 101 Dumb Moments annual issue, and you also have the book coming out. Do you have a favorite all-time dumb moment?
No. I think of all those dumb moments as my little darlings. I hate to pick one. I don't like to show favorites when it comes to dumb things.
Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. You can subscribe to Business 2.0 here. You can buy Business 2.0's new book, The Dumbest Moments in Business History, at Amazon.com.