Washington Business Forward magazine launched in May 1999 at the height of the boom, with hopes of being a version of Forbes or Money for the local economy. Glossy and well-designed, by turns polished and slapdash, the magazine's first major advertiser was McLean telecommunications upstart Teligent Inc.
It is an apt metaphor for the magazine -- and the Washington technology community that was one of its target audiences -- that the publication's inaugural sponsor collapsed, filing for bankruptcy protection last year. On Friday, Business Forward itself knelt to the downturn and laid off its six remaining staffers as they put the finishing touches on what may be the last issue, due out around Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, energetic founder and chief executive Jeremy M. Brosowsky works the phones to find a buyer, keeping his dream alive just a while longer, faced with the prospect of both rolling out and shutting down a magazine before his 30th birthday.
"We're not dead yet," said Brosowsky, gazing out of the Palladian window of his magazine's fourth-floor office on Connecticut Avenue on Friday afternoon and nodding toward the angry gray clouds gathering over the city. "But it's gray skies out there. It's tough in the big city."
Washington Business Forward may end up being the latest victim of a business community that has refused to show long-term hospitality to local glossy business magazines, reacting with indifference or outright hostility toward such efforts. In a city where businesses typically advertise on radio, in daily newspapers such as The Washington Post or in weeklies, such as the Washington Business Journal, spending additional ad dollars on a monthly magazine seems at best a luxury indulged only in prosperous times.
Bill Regardie wallowed in one such fat time, running his first and most acclaimed Washington business magazine, Regardie's, during the go-go real estate boom of the 1980s. It lasted 13 years. But Regardie's second and third efforts -- a redux Regardie's magazine and then Regardie's Power -- each lived less than two years. When Regardie decided to kill Power in March 2001, he returned 20 percent of his investors' money. He had seen bad times before and knew one was coming.
"I knew I couldn't beat it," said Regardie, whose magazine Brosowsky regarded as a template. "Jeremy didn't know what it was like to run into a buzz saw. He had no idea of how powerful momentum is when it goes the other way."
Brosowsky, 29, was a research analyst for New York's Goldman Sachs & Co. in 1998, covering the tobacco and beer industries..
"If it was bad for you I covered it," he joked. A deal that a friend brought him to buy a Philadelphia business publication reignited his college love of journalism. That deal fell through, but Brosowsky was "smitten with the idea of building a local business publication."
Time to Hustle
At the time, the West Coast had Red Herring magazine. The Washington-Baltimore area, then ascendant as a tech center, had no equivalent. The Post's business glossy, TechCapital, focused on the money side of the technology sector as opposed to the broader Washington business world that Brosowsky sought.
The "new economy" in Northern Virginia was booming, and the area was affluent. It seemed like the perfect place for a glossy local business magazine, Brosowsky thought. Further, his wife -- an expert in Middle Eastern affairs -- could ply her trade in the area. The couple moved from New York to Washington.
Brosowsky sublet a one-room office from a nonprofit for $350 a month. He began researching the local business and media markets. He cobbled together all the money he could.
"I went through every penny I had," he said. "I had gone through the money from my wedding, from my bar mitzvah. I hit up my parents for a loan, then my in-laws for a loan." In return, family members got common stock.
Brosowsky wrangled an interview with newly elected Mayor Anthony A. Williams and assembled an eight-page prototype of his magazine. Now, it was time to hustle for ads.
He went to every business conference and lunch he could and, in January 1999, worked a lunchtime meeting with a representative from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which committed to the magazine's first flight of ads for more than $40,000.
"That sounded like a lot of money to me," Brosowsky said.
He hired a staff, which one weekend bought white shelves from Ikea and assembled them in the small Connecticut Avenue office, creating their cubicles. It felt risky but exhilarating. There were pizza-powered all-night production sessions. The place had the feel of a college newspaper, but with real money.
The first issue featured a freshened interview with Williams and had the mayor's picture on the cover. The magazine was earnest and ambitious but unpolished: In the first line of Brosowsky's first "letter from the publisher," he misspelled "premiere."
'A Sound Business Plan'
Business Forward charged $6,000 a page for advertising and developed a circulation strategy of giving itself away for free to local CEOs and others in the top-tier, $1 million-a-year-plus club. It landed in the Mayflower Hotel and on US Airways and Delta Air Lines shuttles. Its monthly circulation remains about 40,000, only about 7 percent of which is paid ($30 per year). The magazine signed a distribution contract to appear on newsstands, which proved costly and ineffective.
Bolstered by advertising, which Brosowsky wanted to keep at no more than 45 percent of the entire space in the magazine -- low, by industry standards -- Business Forward grew to 72 pages, then more, peaking at 96 pages.
In October 2000, the magazine made the expensive but real-magazine move of switching from a stapled binding to a perfect bind, like Wired and Vanity Fair. The magazine held forums and parties, and bigwig Washington business types showed up.
"His idea was absolutely right: Start in tech, make yourself the champion of that community, then, at the proper time, add the rest of the business community," Regardie said. "It was a sound business plan."
By spring of 2001, however, Brosowsky started noticing signs of an economic downturn. But still he chased his dream of expanding nationally. Bolstered by $1 million in venture capital raised the previous fall, he launched Boston Business Forward, hiring four staff members. Added to the nine in Washington, the staff level was at its peak.
In retrospect, it was a killing mistake.
"Anyone with half a brain can point to that and say 'duh,' " Brosowsky said. "People pointed it out at the time. In July 2001? There couldn't have been a much worse time to launch a magazine."
The Boston magazine was a money sink. Further, Brosowsky underestimated the effect of splitting time between the two magazines. "I forgot that I had worked night and day for eight months before I started this one," he said.
'Caught in the Undertow'
That year's advertising crash -- the worst since World War II -- and attendant media contraction after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 caused the fortunes of all media companies, from AOL Time Warner Inc. to Business Forward, to tumble. It finished off the nascent Boston Business Forward. "Four issues and out," Brosowsky said, sighing.
On Sept. 11, Brosowsky was flying from Washington to Boston on a shuttle and saw the smoking World Trade Center tower from his window, passing over it just before the second plane hit the second tower. Now, he thinks of it as an omen.
"We were caught in the undertow of a brutal market," said Eamon Javers, Business Forward's editor in chief, who was a senior editor at the Hill newspaper. "Even if we'd made no mistakes, we would've still been in mortal danger."
The magazine combined its July and August issues into one, to save money. It will do the same for its November and December issues. What hurts most, probably, is the staff's belief that the magazine is better now -- better written, edited and designed -- than it's ever been.
After a few months of Brosowsky, Javers and Publisher Kirsten T. Russell running the magazine with just two other staffers, it turned a profit. But that was short-lived. Now, some months are break-even at best; in others, the magazine "loses more than I care to admit," Brosowsky said.
In retrospect, the magazine found itself in the trap many small businesses do: It grew just large enough to fail. Too big to survive, not big enough to achieve economy of scale.
In the past year, the Washington staff has shrunk by attrition. Starting today, the last six staffers can apply for unemployment. Brosowsky won't reveal the names of two potential buyers, saying only that one is a small Baltimore publisher and the other is a large, publicly traded company. Either way, he is not optimistic about a deal. On the upside, he said, the magazine carries no debt.
'There's Just No Money'
Russell, at 31, the oldest staffer, has watched the ad dollars slow to a trickle, then stop.
"You hear, 'I'd love to be in the next issue, but they've frozen my budget,' " she said. "Or 'There's just no money,' or 'What if I were in the next issue but you billed me next year?' "
In Brosowsky's view, if his magazine dies, it will be partly because of the 2001 ad crash and partly because of his Boston Waterloo. But it also will have been killed by the vicissitudes of the Washington business environment, he believes.
"We haven't proven as a business community that we can sustain a broad-based business publication. There's no track record of it," he said. "If this business community doesn't step up, there's not going to be a magazine."
Regardie, however, does not think there is anything peculiar to Washington that makes it a tar pit for business magazines, other than the transient nature of the town, which makes it difficult for publishers to forge lasting relationships with chief executives. Working in a magazine's favor, he said, is that Washington "has good sources available to leak to you."
As for the "What's next?" question on everyone's mind, Javers, 30, turns on the sort of gallows wit one likes in an editor. Asked what he's going to do if the magazine shutters, he smiled and said, "Over the past four years, I've become adept at business jargon, so I'd say that, at the end of the day, on a going-forward basis, I don't have a lot of clarity on that."