Tech business mags: Our beloved revolutionary sweethearts


Author: JT Smith

By Joab Jackson


Somewhere tonight in San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch — and wherever
else New Economy magazines are still being published — some poor art director
is wracking his or her brain trying to figure out a way to make a
concept like “supply chains” sexy.Even if you don’t know the term, you know what a supply chain is:
that long series of coordinated events that, step by step, business by
business, turn iron and rubber and sand into automobiles or dishwashers or
whatever. From the factory to the showroom! It’s the sort of subject that folks
at New Economy magazines must make super tantalizing if they want to keep
their space on the periodical racks of the world. Good luck to ’em.

I recently found myself stuck at Dulles International in Virginia
without reading material, so I wandered over to a newsstand. There, much to my
surprise, I found a whole rack of Internet-age business mags peeking
out at me: Business
, Fast Company,
Red Herring,eCompany.
I honestly couldn’t believe all these titles were still being
published. Like revelers too drunk to suss that the party is over and the booze
has been returned to the cabinet, these mags stick around, diligently
ignoring their dimming prospects in a more sane economic time. Fast
alive in 2001? FC is surely the Reefer Madness of the
dot-com era — something that in 50 years will be valued for the unintentional
hilarity of its dogma-riddled attempts at edutainment.

These monstrosities started appearing about five years ago, carving
out an entirely new niche in the business press — and a remarkably
lucrative one, as ads from visibility-starved computer and software companies
sent the mags’ page counts and revenues soaring. These weren’t the usual
button-down management or investment glossies, like Inc. orForbes, nor were
they singularly devoted to covering the cutting edge of technology itself,
beats dominated by the likes of Wired, MIT’s Technology
, and the most excellent IEEE Spectrum. These were what social critic Thomas Frank, in his New Economy critique One Market Under God, aptly labeled “extreme management magazines.” They were inspirationals mostly, these
biweeklies and monthlies that waxed rhapsodic about Internet speed and
frictionless economies, made IPO riches seem not just possible but likely. If you
worked hard enough and fast enough and hewed to your vision of how things
would and should be done in the future, their articles seemed to promise, you
too could be stacking it away like Bill Gates.

Now that the dot-com bubble has burst, I had a morbid curiosity to
see how these magazines were coping. The answer, judging from their latest,
and considerably slimmer, issues is: defensively and desperately
seeking some justification for their existence. Fast Company‘s May cover
story is the gloomy-sounding “5 Reasons to Feel Good About the Future.”
“Rise From the Ashes,” exalts Business 2.0‘s cover, hawking a
story about the value of “creative destruction.” “These Companies Still
Matter” is how Red Herring apologetically announces its list of the top
100 info-tech firms.

Amazing. It’s as if Hustler emblazoned on its cover, “Men
still fixated on vaginas!”

What’s interesting here is that, however pass&eacute anything with
a “.com” behind it is these days, the real promise of a digitally
driven economy remains. Great profits can yet be wrung from all sorts of
industries simply by automating tasks digitally, making them run slightly cheaper,
faster, smarter, in more places, and in synch with one another. If
anything, the real work is only getting started. But it is detail work, this
streamlining of file management, customer-service relations, supply chains, and the

And who wants to read about that? The real problem these mags face
isn’t that a digital economy is coming to the end, as their covers
subliminally suggest; it’s that the market for magazines about a digital economy may

Still, these plucky publications are trying to adapt. The May
eCompany, for instance, has a feature article offering “what you need to know
about supply-chain technology.” Huh? Does anyone not already directly
involved in such things need to know about this stuff? Must be, Red
also ran a column on that very topic. Elsewhere in eCompany‘s
issue is a glowingly appreciative column on the efficiency of Federal
Express. Put down the swimsuit issues for that one, fellas. Similarly, Fast
tries its darnedest to make Groove,
Ray Ozzie’s peer-to-peer software that allows far-flung users to work
on a single document simultaneously, seem revolutionary. “Looking back,
you can see how software programs have changed business — and the culture of
business — forever,” the article begins, practically warning you to hold
onto your hat for that ride down the hype highway.

Just like the ole’ days.

I suspect these mags, even in their heyday, thrived mostly in
airports, where they were scooped up by self-regarded “extreme” managers hoping
to maximize those spare moments during takeoffs and landings when they
can’t use their cell phones, laptops, or Blackberries.
But now that the newness of the New Economy has worn off, I bet it’s
only a matter of time before these bottom-line browbeaten chief whatever
officers will scan the newsstand racks, grimace at yet another story on
achieving better ROIs through the use of some computer gizmo, and pick up
Outside or Vanity Fair instead, bringing this whole overwrought genre to
an end.