Does business journalism really have value?

Harvard Business Review

In short answer, yes: Fast Company was sold for $35 million back in 2005, for example. Inherently, there’s value in the field of reporting on business, leadership, management, etc.

Here’s what got me thinking about all this, though. 

I read this article recently in The New Yorker entitled “When G.M. was Google.” I liked the article for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it underscored a theory I have as well. In the article, they mention a 1982 book called “In Search of Excellence.” The idea is that the book actually references a number of aspects of Google’s renowned culture, although, as I said, the book was written in 1982, and Google wasn’t taking shape as a company for another 15-18 years.

I’m a total idiot, so I figured this “In Search of Excellence” book was some early-1980s below-the-radar thing. In fact, it was not. It’s considered a top management book of all-time, and has been deemed essential reading. From 1989 to 2006, it was apparently the most widely-held library book in the United States. In sum, it’s popular.

The book is organized around eight themes:

  • Active decision-making
  • Learn from your customers
  • Foster autonomy and entrepreneurship among your people
  • Productivity through people
  • Management needs to show its commitment
  • Stay with the business that you know
  • Simple form and lean staff
  • Simultaneous loose-tight properties (autonomy in shop-floor activities + centralized values)

I paraphrased a little above, but that’s supposed to be the crux of what makes a company excellent. (Here’s another take on what makes a company excellent.)

There was a bit of controversy in 2001 when Tom Peters, one of the authors of “In Search of Excellence,” supposedly claimed he made up the data. Weeks later, that kerfuffle was resolved. The data is real, and here’s what we know.

If you take the companies profiled in the book and measure their financial returns against the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500, the “In Search of Excellence” companies outperform both indices across 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years.

Clearly, then, we know a couple of things:

  • A ton of people bought this book.
  • The book speaks to ideas that ultimately help the companies outperform most core metrics.

This is where I started thinking —

Does business writing/journalism have value? 

Here’s what I mean: people see this type of content, and they see that it has the ability to work — and work not in the fluffy, people-are-happier sense, but work in the ‘We will make more money’ sense. But tons of companies don’t do it. Why is that?

There are a couple of simple reasons you could list off the top of your head:

  • Let’s say 5 million people in the U.S. have read this book. It’s probably more, but let’s use that as a baseline number. That’s only 1.5 percent of the population of the U.S., all told.
  • Change in organizations is hard. We’ve discussed that.

This second point is really the key here.

I think a lot of people read a business journalism article — say, something they saw on Harvard Business Review or in Fast Company — and elements of it resonate with them, as the reader / employee of Company X. This is logical, because those writers for HBR and Fast Company are paid to tell stories that resonate with people, just like all writers are.

But let’s say you read a story about a new way to organize your Operations team. You read it, and you like it, and it resonates with you, and you could even see bringing elements of it into Company X.

But there’s a huge gap between “I read this article and liked it / tweeted it” and “This article will lead me to change my ways or my organization’s structure.”

These are some of the same issues with content marketing: people can read your content or consume your content, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to buy your wares.

You see the same thing with climate change — there’s tons of journalism about how things aren’t going in a great direction, but there’s limited action.

In business, I think this is sometimes even more drastic — because every organization is so different, and their leadership structure is so contextual to that group of people, that writing about the best practices at Company-D in terms of marketing and social media has no impact on the best practices of Company-E.

I think business journalism is good for generation of ideas, then, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s good for legitimate business action being taken. 

The other, final thought I’d offer is that, oftentimes, business journalism can be fluffy — the idea is to tell a story, because stories resonate with our brains, and things that resonate with our brains tend to sell magazines. Consider this, from 2002: “Make Your Values Mean Something.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, but I’m the type of person that has time to write a blog at work periodically. I’m not some hard-charger, super-busy dude. If I was, and I saw a headline like that as I ran between meetings, I’d guffaw at it. Being busy and making money are the true currencies of the modern business age. “Values” and “culture?” Less so. But a lot of business journalism does focus on that.

What do you think? Do you find that business journalism has value? 

Ted Bauer


  1. I would argue that effective communication is the single most effective part of business. Effective communication can resolve differences, convey trust and empathy, relay information, etc. All of these things are inherent in the human experience. Business journalism is a subset of effective communication, which provides insight and information that may not otherwise be known or understood. Its existence and importance is justified.

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