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Wheel of Fortune

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So Fortune magazine is cutting back its issues to 18 from 25. But don't panic. According to the Wall Street Journal, the new Fortune "will become more of a lush-looking premium product." It will have a "sharper focus on the long stories" that have been the magazine's trademark and offer lots of "career advice and business how-tos" on topics like managing your online profile and giving effective presentations. "CEO-as-god" cover photos will be a thing of the past (sorry, Warren), replaced by more "conceptual" cover images, like the current one of President Obama wearing funky Google glasses. And it will add "new columns to help business professionals do their jobs more effectively," which seems to be just a fancy way of saying it will provide "news you can use."

In a world where Bloomberg LP just rescued BusinessWeek, Condé Nast is closing much-beloved magazines and the big newsweeklies change their strategies almost as frequently as their staffers appear on cable TV, it's no surprise Fortune is looking to reinvent itself (although it did just undergo a redesign in December 2007). But into what, exactly?

The last business magazine that boasted of being both lush and dedicated to long-form journalism -- Condé Nast's Portfolio -- did not survive, though its definition of "long-form" seemed to be three to five pages, max. It's hard to imagine that Fortune's would be much longer, especially with all those how-to stories and advice pieces it's promising. How long can such pieces really run? Indeed, Fortune sibling Money, the king of such service journalism, is so filled with bullet points, illustrated lists, bar charts and other graphic doodads that flipping through it feels more akin to sitting through a PowerPoint presentation than reading a magazine.

Perhaps for Fortune and Money publisher Time Inc. that's the point. The Journal story informs that according to Time Inc. editorial kingpin John Huey, consumers "didn't care how often Fortune is published, and ... many of them didn't even know Fortune comes out every other week." That could be because the cover dates are totally misleading; the "current" issue, dated Nov. 9, was in our mailbox on Oct. 26. In any case, Huey's revelation led Time Inc. executives to decide Fortune needed to be more visible on the Web, where it may actually gain some staff, while the print version will lose staff.

Fortune's announcement came a few days after John Micklethwait, the editor-in-chief of The Economist, appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, where Rose grilled him (grilled being a relative term) on his magazine's continued success and on how it holds its own against the Internet bogeyman. Micklethwait responded that he sees The Economist as a filter for all the other information that its readers consume, including what they get online. "The more information there is, I would argue the more you need it," Micklethwait said to Rose.

That seems to be such a fundamentally different view of the world than the one espoused by Fortune as it heads off into its latest redesign. Faced with falling revenue and Internet competition, it is counting on pretty pictures, heavy paper stock, luxurious looks and lots of career advice to appeal to readers who don't even know how often it's published. Meanwhile, there's The Economist, with its word-crammed pages of questionable paper stock delivering information-packed stories each week on esoteric topics like Nigeria's banking cleanup and Indonesia's new Cabinet -- and without a how-to piece in sight.

"People go on and on about dumbing down, about the fact that the bottom's getting bigger," Micklethwait said. "I think there's a much bigger thing at the top," or, as he called it, the "up market."

No doubt the folks at Fortune would agree with that assessment as they look to turn the magazine into a "lush-looking premium product." Maybe that's the problem. Going upmarket for Fortune and other magazines seems to be mostly about glitzing up their looks, providing a slick showcase for luxury advertisers and producing a publication that wouldn't look out of place on a Roche-Bobois coffee table. But for The Economist, up market is about more than an income bracket; it's about an intellectual and cultural bracket. Who knows how many of the magazine's 800,000 subscribers will actually read its 14-page special report on the U.S.-China relationship? But they'll happily display it, secure in the knowledge that they won't necessarily look rich, just well informed.

Now that's news you can use.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.