THE RISE OF THE JOURNO-GURUS

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Businessmen used to get their big ideas from management gurus; now they turn to journalists like Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman. Adrian Wooldridge examines their rise ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2008

These are the locust years for the journalistic profession. American newspapers are sacking staff by the hundred. The surviving hacks are having to do ever more for their stagnant salaries--to produce blogs and podcasts as well as reporting. Sales are slumping and advertising (which traditionally made up 80% of revenues) is in a death spiral. The refrain in the newsrooms goes: "I wish I'd gone to law school."

But amid all this gloom a few hacks are doing better than ever. These are the first-class passengers of the journalistic world--sitting on upholstered thrones, surrounded by adoring hostesses, while the rest of the profession is crowded into cattle class or getting hurled off the plane. These are the journo-gurus. They focus on business rather than the usual staple of high-profile journalism, politics. And they specialise in big, bold, brave ideas about world-changing trends.

Hacks stars

The king of the journo-gurus is Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist. His big idea is globalisation, a phenomenon he did not discover but one he has chronicled as artfully as anyone. He saw that the big foreign-affairs story of our time is economic rather than diplomatic: cheaper communication is levelling the playing field, so clever people in Bangalore can go head-to-head with their peers in Boston. Friedman broke the New York Times mould by spending as much time interviewing business leaders as heads of state.

He laid out his arguments in "The World is Flat", chronicling the rise of an inter-connected world, in which American companies can outsource brain-work, as well as manufacturing, to the developing world, and Indian companies such as Infosys can become software giants. Friedman has been widely criticised for oversimplication, but his argument is much more nuanced than it sometimes appears, even under his own byline. As a former Middle East correspondent, he is well aware of the importance of political events and tribal loyalties. In his first bestseller, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree", he not only celebrated globalisation but looked at its discontents, especially people who felt that their identities were under threat.

The crown prince of the journo-gurus is Malcolm Gladwell, a British-born Canadian who writes for the New Yorker, whose latest book, "Outliers", has just come out this week. He has produced a string of big ideas and illustrated them with myriad examples from every walk of life--business and pop culture, sport and the military, academic literature and the detritus of daily newspapers. In "The Tipping Point" he argued that small trends can spark big social epidemics; in "Blink" he made the case for the power of first impressions, arguing that snap judgments are not always blind ones, because we are hard-wired to make complicated deductions about people we meet, by reading their facial expressions, or to react in an instant to accidents and emergencies by relying on pure instinct.

The Gladwell of the new economy is Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine. (For the record: Anderson used to work at The Economist and shared an office with this author.) In "The Long Tail" he argued that the internet is shifting the focus of the economy from producing a small number of big hits to satisfying a legion of niche markets. Amazon and iTunes can stock virtually everything. And the falling cost of distribution means that every niche consumer can get their hands on what they want. Anderson insists that the demand for products not available in bricks-and-mortar stores is potentially as big as for those that are, and suggests that a relatively homogeneous culture is giving way to a fragmented world in which a thousand flowers bloom.

These journo-gurus are not just sharp observers of business, but sharp practitioners too. They have mastered the dark arts of synergy and global branding. They churn articles into books and books into lectures. (Top business writers now command $50,000 a speech.) Friedman dreams up Madison Avenue phrases that stick in the mind, such as the "golden straitjacket" for foreign investment. Gladwell turns complex business ideas into engaging narrative. Anderson has broken with convention by inviting readers of his blog to debate his arguments before they reach the presses.

They are also relentless in their pursuit of the next big thing. Friedman has now gone green. His new book, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded", looks at the implications of environmental change for business. Gladwell's new book "Outliers" is about the best-and-the-brightest. Why do some people achieve the American ideal, mega-success? (He emphasises their environment rather than genes--their culture, families, generational backgrounds and idiosyncratic experiences.) Anderson's new book continues to explore the theme of the "economics of abundance" by examining "the most radical price of all--zero". How can companies thrive when so many things, particularly on the internet, are available for nothing?

 

These journo-gurus have overturned two established hierarchies. The first is the billion-dollar management theory industry, hitherto ruled by business professors and management consultants who produced books and then turned those books into business fads. Alas, the books were often dismally written, the fads a recipe for disaster. This created an opportunity for those with sharper pens and more dispassionate attitudes. A recent Wall Street Journal ranking of management gurus, based on Google hits, newspaper mentions and academic citations,
included two journalists in the top five (Friedman at two, Gladwell at four) and only one traditional management guru, Gary Hamel. The New Yorker is now a bigger generator of management fads than the Harvard Business Review.

The second overturned hierarchy is that of journalism. This used to be dominated by political journalists who hogged the front pages and secured the best book deals. But the most successful of those--Bob Woodward, George Will--are all getting long in the tooth. And younger political writers are finding it almost impossible to talk their way into the first-class cabin. The big money goes to TV journalists whose grinning faces launch a dozen worthless bestsellers. Political partisanship is tempting political writers to turn themselves into ideological water carriers rather than serious reporters. And the internet is multiplying the number of voices while diminishing the impact of any of them.

These superstar hacks have inevitably provoked criticism, not least from the people stuck in cattle class. Some of it is sour grapes--Friedman, jealous hacks whisper, lives in a palatial mansion in Bethesda; Gladwell collected a $1m advance for his first book. But some of it has merit. There are legitimate worries that the journo-gurus see too little of the downside of a system that is treating them so conspicuously well. There are also concerns about substance. All these writers follow the old axiom about simplifying and exaggerating: they take one idea and illustrate it with endless examples rather than address complications. The idea at the heart of each book is as much a brand as an analytical tool. "Blink" has been the subject of an amusing send-up, "Blank: The Power of Not Actually Thinking at All". Richard Posner, one of America's public intellectuals, dismissed it as "written like a book intended for people who do not read books."

But it would be churlish not to admire these hacks for thriving in hard times. They produce big ideas that throw light on profound changes. And their books are manna from heaven for a global business class grappling with dizzying challenges. Once the height of journalistic ambition was to shape political events. Now the cleverest journalists are shaping the business world as well. Not bad for a profession in terminal decline. 

 

Picture credit: Pop!Tech/flickr, Kathryn Rathke (illustration)

(Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist's bureau chief in Washington. His last article for Intelligent Life was "Great Bores of Yore" in the summer issue.)