‘Businessweek’ editor won’t say whether they’re making money, describes the ‘luxury’ of doing long pieces

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Richard Turley and Josh Tyrangiel at work. ()
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Is long-form journalism doomed to being subsidized by traffic-baiting animal slideshows?

That was one of the questions lobbed at a panel of reporters and editors from Bloomberg Businessweek last night at Housing Works Bookstore.

"If you look at magazines, oh, eight years ago, they demanded much longer stories because they were making more editorial pages," said editor-in-chief Josh Tyrangiel, by way of reply. "Most weeklies these days have gone down in pages."

But not Businessweek, whose deep-pocketed parent company didn't flinch when Tyrangiel asked, after landing the editor gig upon Bloomberg's acquisition of the title in 2009, that the magazine be increased from 58 total pages to 66 pages of editorial alone.

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"We just have that luxury of being able to do long stories," he said. "And as it happens, while other magazines are doing shorter stuff, The New Yorker and Businessweek and The Atlantic and others are really thriving as a place where if you're a reader, you can go."

The fact that Tyrangiel works for a company whose reporters are required to fly business class on any flight longer than four hours was not lost on the guy who'd asked for Tyrangiel's thoughts on the future of their trade.

"I work at a money-losing long-form journalism operation," said the audience member. "I mean, I don't know if Businessweek's making money at this point?"

"Well I'm not gonna tell you right now," said Tyrangiel, to laughter from the crowd. "But what I would say is that certainly we're moving in the direction we want to be moving in."

That would be the direction opposite Businessweek's competitors: "I think for years and years people said, 'Fortune, Forbes, Businessweek,' and it was like, 'Well I'll get one of those,'" said Tyrangiel. "Publishing 6,000-word stories that really have something to say has helped differentiate us."

For most of the event, a special tech-themed Internet Week installment of Mark Armstrong's ongoing "Behind the Longreads" series, the assembled Businessweek scribes pulled the curtain back on their methods of executing such stories.

Outfoxing powerful companies that try to control the narrative?

"It's sort of like a reflex," said Silicon Valley veteran Ashlee Vance. "You take the input of the interview and the story they're trying to tell and you mix it up in the grinder with your own filter."

Getting around flailing companies that refuse to cooperate?

"You approach someone from a non-judgmental position," said Felix Gillette, who has chronicled the struggles of MySpace and BlackBerry, "and try and ask what went wrong and all the different ways it went wrong."

And when even the winning companies refuse to talk, it helps to have a boss who's willing to agitate for you.

Tyrangiel cited notoriusly press-averse Apple, which has but five P.R. people for the entire company, he said, a sign that it's not very interested in dealing with the media. Tyrangiel spends a lot of time on the phone with flacks whenever Businessweek has an Apple story in the cooker, he said.

But as any journalist will tell you, the unoffical channels often prove more fruitful.

"In the end," said Tyrangiel, "there are so many smart people out there who want to talk."