The New BW: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed …

The new BusinessWeek, rechristened Bloomberg Businessweek, surged into mailboxes and onto newsstands in the last few days. Months in the making, the newest version of the magazine reflects the strengths of both the pub’s 80-year history and its new 1,700-journalist supporting staff. It also boasts a knockout layout, in some ways a return to the substance and elegance of the mag’s heyday of the 1990s with a contemporary gloss.

Indeed, the book overall is a refreshing mix of what made BW a winner in the past and some nice new touches. The Back to the Future treatment includes savvy analysis, depth and graceful writing, combined with a renewed focus on corporations, the finance world and politics. It’s a must-read once again! After too many years of thin books with too little to dine on, this new offering is a full-course meal again – complete with dessert (read on for that).

The new BW isn’t perfect. The Global Economics pages are a confusing jumble, the small-biz section needs work and at least one columnist is off the mark. But the mag overall is sleek and smart and gives readers some insights they won’t get elsewhere – which in the end has always been BW’s drawing card. After all, if the fish isn’t fresh, the wrapper hardly matters, no?

For a page-turning look, check here.

Overall, give this effort a B+, with expectations that As are on the way in future issues. Here are some specifics from a close review by an admittedly biased veteran:

COVER – Clean, dramatic, inviting. Love the powerful photo of Blankfein looking at once like he has only contempt for his critics even as he sorely needs a shot of Pepto-Bismol. “Hard Target” is a great Cover Line. All the white in the boxes and flag at the top seems a bit busy, though. Giving “Bloomberg” equal play with “Businessweek” in the flag is understandable politically, but it makes for a lot of crowded type in the top half of the cover. Grade: B+

CONTENTS PAGE – Knockout presentation. Well-arted and conveys substance.Grade: A

MASTHEAD – Nice to see it back after too long of an absence. The editor’s letter should appear regularly to draw attention to stories behind the stories. It lets readers connect with the writers and editors. Sadly, the staff is a shadow of the force it once was, but the Bloomberg global correspondent system is already bringing some depth not apparent from the masthead. Grade: B

INDEX – what is the point of the Robot Bully? Cartoon is a great idea. This execution is pointless. Find something original. Grade: C

OPENING REMARKS – Well done. This Economist takeoff, an editorial commentary on a story developed later in the book, brings to bear one of the key strengths of magazines: a clear point of view. The pieces here take readers beyond the daily paper – further beyond even than the stories — giving them a reason to read yet another piece about the big news of the day. Props, too, on the future spin in the Weil piece. Love both the Weil and Lewis treatments. Grade: A

GLOBAL ECONOMICS – Disappointing. It seems like a catch-all, a section in newspapers we used to call the “slop page.” Yes, variety can be intriguing. But the Iraq piece is flat and the timeline ridiculously thin and pointless, though nicely colorful. Loved the volcano and Greek crisis pieces, which had the virtue of timeliness. Seems like a more coherent focus on the economically oriented news of the week would work. But it’s hard to see any focus in the section – certainly economics is not what it’s about. And just why is a tractor cruising at the top of page 19? Seems to invite you to look ahead if you are bored with this page. Grade: D

COMPANIES & INDUSTRIES – Heart of the book. BW’s core franchise has been corporate coverage, though it got short shrift in recent years. It’s what employees, managers, shareholders and business partners of companies care about; a natural reader base. You’ve given the section its due here. Intriguing pieces about brand-name companies, with lots of variety, makes this a winning area. BW’s dismantled bureau network – a sad loss — would have been a key asset in putting this section together, and the job now falls to Bloomberg folks and skilled editors in NYC. Grade: A

POLITICS & POLICY – Smart and lively. Again, a core strength of the old BW given its due anew. Love the Emanuel Q&A and the Reshuffle in Obama Land. Why, though, is Zynga overlooking page 38? And James Warren’s column seems to come out of nowhere. Grade: A

TECHNOLOGY – A core franchise of the old BW, reborn. Yes, yes, yes, give us more, since this is the engine of the American economy. Traditionally, BW led the pack in tech and it would be nice to see it do so again. Grade: A

MARKETS & FINANCE – Another franchise area. Top-flight coverage of this crucial sector of the economy is central. Should be mandatory every week, along with Tech and Corp. Smart takes on Goldman here. Would have been nice to have a takeout on the new regulatory bill, however, since it looms large and scary on the horizon. Maybe next week. Grade: A-

ENTERPRISE – Winning idea. But the focus on the lede story is problematic. Is this about B&J or principles or payouts or what? Seems to stray. Whole section does, in fact. Small-biz is often a mixed-bag. Seems like a good idea, but it will be tough to execute well. Don’t get the point of Wadhwa’s column at all: does it just celebrate Boulder or offer a skimpy roadmap on how to duplicate it? Topic deserves a whole section, not just the once-over-lightly here. Grade: B-

FEATURE WELL – Whitman piece is interesting but could have been twice as good at half the length. Apple piece by Burrows, a pro, is superb and takes us well beyond the news – a classic BW treatment. And The City That Got Swapped is excellent, top-drawer psychedelic, as we once said. Love the Cooking with Gas piece, too. Grade: A

ETC – Wonderful, fresh stories, well-executed, well-arted. Not so sure about the Office Sneaker, but the rest hits the target. Nice break from the seriousness that went before. The Mulcahy piece is uneven, with a bit too much cliché for my taste. Hard to avoid pabulum in such pieces, even while you like hearing the voice of the subject. Every good meal needs dessert and this section is savory indeed. Grade: A

Can’t wait to see next week’s book.

Quick Study — Charms of Kazakhstan

Well, it won’t be Kyrgyzstan after all.

The State Department took the difficult decision out of our hands and slapped a travel warning on the country. University of Nebraska policy dictates that we don’t go somewhere with a warning label on it. So Bruce Thorson and I will take our eight journalism students next door to Kazakhstan.

We’ve got two weeks to figure out an itinerary, a list of story ideas to pursue, and all the logistics that go with it. Plus, we’ve got to educate ourselves on the place, coming up to speed fast. We’ve got to learn about things like Navruz, a spring equinox celebration depicted in the wonderful Reuters photo above.

You’d think we were in the news business!

This is, of course, a good thing in many respects. Something happens and your editor says, “get on a plane and get the story.” You rarely have time to do more than a quick Google search, make a few calls and pack your luggage. That’s the way it can be in the biz.

So our students are getting a taste of the chaos that is life in journalism. News happens and you have to be there, ready or not. And, of course, you’ve got to produce well-informed, lively and – most of all – accurate work.

On the other hand, rarely do journalists have to worry about shipping over teams of 10. Everything from accommodations to parceling out story assignments gets far more complicated this way.

Where will we go? Who will go where? Who will Bruce take? Who do I take? While we’ll be hashing out a lot of this in coming days, before our May 9 departure, I suspect we’ll be still hashing on the long plane flight.

Happily, we’re getting some sophisticated help. We’ve been in touch with news folks from organizations as diverse as Reuters, the New York Times and AP about Kyrgyzstan, and folks there have a sense of what’s newsworthy about Kazakhstan, too. So they’ll help.

Sheri Prasso, a former colleague at BUSINESS WEEK, also may know just about everything about most of the world’s interesting places. One of the more well-traveled journalists I know, Sheri kindly talked over some story ideas with me a few days ago. She also gave me the lay of the land about what sounds like a fascinating place.

Yes, we won’t have a post-revolution tale to tell, as we would have with the Kyrgyz. But we still have a post-Soviet “stan” tale to tell.

This will be complete with the remnants of gulags, a dried-up Aral Sea that features stranded boats and an oil-rich country that must steer a tough course between China’s economic prowess and Russia’s ingrained cultural and political influence. The place also produces uranium for the world but – given an awful legacy as the site of Cold War Soviet bomb tests – abhors nuclear weapons. It’s been a favorite of the non-proliferating Obama Administration lately as a result.

We’re told, too, that the cities there are fascinating. Almaty, the business center, is as pricey as NYC and perhaps even more cosmopolitan. Astana, the centrally located capital, is Central Asia’s Brasilia, a town designed by top global architects and built in the middle of nowhere to serve beautifully as the seat of government.

Indeed, in many respects Kazakhstan sounds like the Singapore of the region, a place that shuns some western-style freedoms but where prosperity makes people comfortable. It’s a place, too, that carries its Islamic history lightly though Saudi-funded mosques may make for fascinating visits. And it’s a place where one of the tastiest national dishes includes horsemeat as its main ingredient – this will be a different experience.

We’ll be learning a lot in coming days about the place. The crash course will be fascinating and the trip even more so.

Kyrgyzstan — here we come?

Who would have thought a revolution was in the offing? But the unexpected upheaval and government ouster in distant Kyrgyzstan is making us sit up and take notice in Nebraska.

A colleague and I have been preparing for several months to take eight students there for a reporting trip. The 20-day stay has been designed to produce a book and Web site entries, giving our kids a chance to photograph and write about the country.

At this point, we’re scheduled to depart for Bishkek May 9 and return at the end of the month. Tickets have been lined up, lodging arrangements made, contacts put in place. The kids have been reading about the place, reaching out to Kyrghese and even developing stories on immigrants from there in Lincoln.

So, do we go?

If it were just me and Bruce, our main photography professor, we’d go – like planeloads of other journalists who have rushed there. We’d be apprehensive, of course. But as newsmen, who could resist such a story? The chance to document the post-revolutionary rebuilding, to tell the story of what drove people to toss out the regime, to look into what this means for the U.S. (which counts on the country as a major transit point for troops to Afghanistan) – all that would be too enticing to avoid.

But we’ve got eight students to care about. These kids, some still in their teens, say they want to go – even if some do cast aside the machismo of their age and confess to apprehensions. They, like us, are newshounds after all. But, unlike us, they are also kids – youngsters with parents who couldn’t care a fig about a big story, but care a lot about safety. We, too, care about the kids’ safety – above all else.

If we had to make the call today, it would be problematic. The U.S. State Department on April 9 issued a travel alert urging Americans to defer visits to the place. The military contacts I have made at Manas air transit center say to hold off. The president hasn’t abdicated and it’s not clear whether he’ll try to regain power.

So why is this problematic? Isn’t it a no-brainer to not go? Well, an alert is a step down from a warning – with a warning by State, we don’t go. That’s university policy. Oddly enough, a group from our J School can’t now go to Cozumel for a planned visit because State has a warning in place about Mexico – though the drug killings are a continent away from the beaches. With a mere alert from State, however, we would have the option of still going.

What’s more, the U.S. State Department officials say things are getting better in the country. Asst. Secretary Phillip J. Crowley, meeting with reporters in the daily briefing on April 9 said “the situation appears to be improving in Bishkek. We note today that police have been deployed. There is still some violence, but order is gradually being restored.” Specifically on the local press there, he added, “We also welcome relaxation of recent restrictions on media coverage there.”

Still more confusing is the timing. By the time we got there, in early May, the Kyrghese could be singing kumbaya in the streets. The alert could be history. In three weeks time, the government could be picking up the pieces and planning the election it says it wants in six months. The stores, damaged by looting, could be rebuilding. And the Russian and U.S. leaders could be adapting to the new regime. We’d be fine, indeed embraced as we’d document the changes. Reporters there now have had wonderful access and that’s likely to grow.

(The geopolitics are fascinating, making this a rich story. There’s some suspicion that the Russians urged on this upheaval, for instance. Certainly, they’ve welcomed the new leadership enthusiastically, with a call between Putin and the new acting leader, Roza Otunbayeva. The Russians don’t like our transit base, since they have a base of their own there – making Kyrgyzstan reportedly the only country where both the U.S. and Russians have military bases. Moscow ran the country until the early 1990s and nostalgia for those days may be fueling the current popular sentiment. The U.S., by contrast, is grudgingly accepting the new order and is a bit late to the party.)

(The country is not unfamiliar with revolutions. The ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, took power in 2005 in the Tulip Revolution. He tossed out the prior president, Askar Akayev, who has some interesting things to say about his successor and the country’s future.)

For us, the go/no-go decision won’t be made by Bruce or me. Our academic sequence head, our dean and university policy will dictate our course. It would surprise me if those folks prove willing to subject our kids to the risks involved, even if they are radically diminished. I’m not keen on subjecting them to such risks, no matter how big the story. Being responsible for myself is one thing; caring for eight kids is another.

We’re considering a Plan B, and we need to make a call in the coming week. This could include visiting nearby Kazakhstan and, if conditions permit, popping in on Kyrgyzstan. For now, though, the situation has us on tenterhooks and has the kids paying attention to a distant spot and complex political maneuvering. Already, they’ve learned something, regardless of how our travel plans turn out.