Another Slaughter at BusinessWeek?

Sep.16.09 | About: S&P Global (SPGI)

I've chronicled in this blog how my alma mater BusinessWeek has been decimated in recent years, with layoffs that have ousted its most experienced writers and editors. That, combined with an ill-conceived redesign and other missteps, has hurt the magazine editorially and been a commercial flop.

Word emerged yesterday that McGraw-Hill (MHP), apparently to spiff up BW to make it more appealing to buyers, has a plan to decimate the staff even further. Following up on her article from Monday, Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times lays out plans on a Times blog to fire one-fifth of the staff.

So it now appears that Clifford might not have made a rather serious error after all. She said on Monday that the layoffs were just proposed for a potential buyer and may not happen. Now she says that "these layoffs are being pitched to investors as something of a done deal."

The language in the memo sure as hell sounds pretty definite:

BusinessWeek is in the process of implementing a restructuring,” the memorandum reads, “based on new processes that were recommended in Q1 2009. The plan, including a reduction in headcount of 20 percent, will result in significant cost savings without comparable risks to the quality of the products and revenue.

This, apparently, is coming as a major shock to the staff, judging from Jon Fine's blog item from Monday. Attaboy, McGraw Hill! Just the way to keep staff morale nice and low.

This makes it seem as if the layoff will occur sooner rather than later, before the sale and before the traditional December layoff season. But that's pure speculation on my part, mind you. If BW carries out this head-chopping itself, before the sale, it would save money for buyers and make the terms more appealing I suppose.

The head-chopping memo is pretty specific:

According to the table, in editorial, 55 of 217 positions are supposed to be eliminated. Of sales, 9 of 69. Of marketing, 6 of 26. Of technology, 8 of 33. Of circulation, just one of 19. And in the “other” category, 6 of 57. That’s a total of 85 eliminations among 421 jobs - about 20 percent - leaving 336 BusinessWeek employees.

McGraw-Hill says

BusinessWeek will establish a leaner, entrepreneurial staff without affecting the brand, positioning of the franchise or revenue outlook. The eliminations of editorial staff are primarily in editorial support operations (makeup and copy desk), but also include a reduction in the number of journalists to reflect the smaller folio size of the publication.

"Leaner, entrepreneurial" or perhaps "sloppier and more poorly edited"? I can't tell you how many times my bacon was saved by the copy desk, functioning as copy desks should. Fifty-five is a big reduction if confined just to copy editing and makeup, and implies that these departments, which ensure that BW is accurate and well-designed, are being cut to ribbons.

Looks as if BW may not have to wait for a Gekko-style private equity type to turn the screws. Seems that the current owner can do that very nicely itself.

Terry McGraw later told the Wall Street Journal that all options are open, including "caffeinating" the magazine and making BW online-only. Blogs reported during the day that Warburg Pincus and Bruce Wasserstein have dropped out, and also quibbled over whether the memo meant what it said that the company was "implementing" a restructuring.

Maybe it doesn't mean that, some say. Maybe they're just planning one for future buyers. So why doesn't the memo say so?

I have to give Terry credit. He chose a fantastic time to sell a business magazine, and he's made the entire process so excruciating for the staff that I'm surprised anybody still works there.