Like the university it springs from, Harvard Business Review has been all about sober tradition. Modernity? Pah! Harvard Business Review has remained fairly constant over its almost 90-year history, with long articles that gave frameworks for managing and understanding businesses. Like an academic journal, it listed its contents on its cover, and only in 1990 did it allow the first cover illustration.
Now — gird yourselves, Harvard deans! — the Review is getting a little more lively, beginning with the January/February issue.
That cover list of articles is gone; instead, the cover shows a photograph of a sculpture made from office chairs and a redesigned logo. Inside, the Review breaks up stories with sidebars and graphics, and is adding columnists and some lighter features. Iconic elements, like professors’ articles and the case studies, will remain, with a fresher approach — the case study, for instance, now includes advice from online readers.
“The magazine in the past was sort of one 10-page story after another,” said Adi Ignatius, who became editor in chief of Harvard Business Review Group early this year. “I think we’ve kind of insulted our readers’ intelligence with the assumption that everything has to be serious, everything has to be long form.”
He came from Time magazine, where he was deputy managing editor, and he is sprinkling a little of that magazine’s culture into the Review.
The first part of that is making Harvard Business Review more current.
When the Review was founded in 1922, it dispensed Harvard Business School research to the public. Its scope widened over the years, but articles tended to be scholarly, rather than news driven. By January 2009, for example, “HBR had barely written a thing, even indirectly, about the economic crisis,” Ignatius said. “There was a sense, in the past, that HBR should not be timely,” he said. “It was the idea that research is ready when research is ready.”
Mr. Ignatius changed the publication schedule so the magazine could close just three weeks before publication, rather than more than six weeks before. He is adding articles that reflect the times. For example, the January/February issue includes an argument from a top professor that shareholder-focused capitalism is ending.
The second part is adding standard magazine rubrics. The list of articles has been knocked off the cover (Ignatius actually removed it this year). “The problem was that people look at the table of contents, scan it, and say, no, I’m not interested in it.”
He is adding columns by the strategy professor C.K. Prahalad and the economist Dan Ariely, a page on someone outside the business world called “Life’s Work” (Condoleezza Rice is the first subject), and a recurring feature called “Defend Your Research,” where academics are quizzed about their studies. And he is arranging a few articles in issues around themes like reinvention and strategy during a weak recovery.
None of this is revolutionary in the magazine world. “It’s relatively late in the cycle of how to produce a magazine that we are introducing some of these elements,” Mr. Ignatius acknowledged, but it is a shakeup for the staid Review. Of course, a redesign can lose what is classic and essential about a magazine.
Audrey Siegel, executive vice-president and director of client services at the media agency TargetCast TCM, cautioned that that was a particular risk for the Harvard Business Review.
“They need to be really careful about keeping their edge and keeping their value proposition both visually as well as editorially, because that’s what people are paying for,” she said.
Costanza Tedesco, the vice-president for global advertising and branding at SAP, who saw a preview of the redesigned magazine, said she was happy with it.
“I like it quite a bit, because I think it’s added a level of dynamism that it didn’t have before, and it’s able to serve up what’s critical and compelling about their content, but that got lost a bit in their academic and professional demeanour,” she said.
No change in pricing
The Harvard Business Review has not altered its pricing and does not intend to do so. It is among the most expensive American magazines as subscribers pay about $9 a copy, versus, say, $0.83 a copy for Fortune, according to the most recent filings with the Audit Bureau of Circulations. With the redesign, the Review will reduce frequency to 10 issues a year with two double issues from 12 issues.
The Review has a different model from the Fortunes of the world, though, depending much more on subscription revenue than advertising. About three-quarters of the company’s revenue comes from consumers — people paying for the magazine, or for books or Web versions of articles, said Joshua Macht, the group’s publisher.
Online, where almost every publisher has been weighing charging for content, the Review has been firm about requiring consumers to pay for many of its articles. Only blogs and a handful of articles are available free. Mr. Macht said he was not worried about the usual objections to charging. One is that it prevents publishers from making money on surprisingly popular articles because they would be hidden behind a pay wall.
“There’s a bit of a fallacy about that,” he said. “A lot of times something explodes, and they have more traffic than they ever had before, but they didn’t anticipate it and they didn’t sell the advertising.” Besides, he said, if an article seems to be popular, the Review can and will pull it from behind the pay wall, allowing more consumers to see it, and then, potentially, showing more ads on it.
By mid-2010, HBR.com will allow readers to see a few pages free, then it will require registration to see a few more pages, then it will require payment.
“The registration is really key,” Mr. Macht said. “We can see who the person is and where they’re going on the site, and over time you can target them with the best content, the best books, we have to offer.”
With the changes, Mr. Ignatius expects a few readers to be outraged.
“A lot of loyal readers will say, ‘What did you do with my HBR?’ If you think a 10-page article on the age of consumer capitalism is dumbing down, O.K.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service