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Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweethearts

By Joab Jackson | Posted 5/9/2001

Somewhere tonight in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch--or wherever it is that 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 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: Fast Company, Upside, 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 slimming prospects. Fast Company 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 profit-heavy 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. or Forbes, nor were they singularly devoted to covering the cutting edge of technology itself, beats dominated by the likes of Wired and MIT's Technology Review. These were what social critic Thomas Frank, in his New Economy critique One Market Under God, aptly labeled "extreme management magazines." These inspirational biweeklies and monthlies 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, of course, nobody--at least, nobody in these rags' audiences--is stacking much of anything away.

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, "Most men still fixated on vaginas."

What's interesting here is that, however passé 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, and smarter. 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 like. 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 so suggest; it's that the market for magazines about a digital economy may be. Whatever interest there was in "extreme management" certainly must have been shaken out by the realities of a more pragmatic market.

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? Elsewhere in that issue is a glowingly appreciative column on the efficiency of Federal Express. Put down the swimsuit issues for that one, fellas. Similarly, Fast Company tries its darnedest to make Groove, new 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, giving you the feeling that you're going down the on-ramp to the hype highway.

I suspect these mags, even in their heyday, thrived mostly in airports, where they were scooped up by info-junkie managers hoping to maximize those spare moments during takeoffs and landings when they can't use their cell phones or laptops. 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 returns through the use of some computer gizmo, and pick up Outside or Vanity Fair instead, bringing the whole silly genre to an end.

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