An occasional contributor to World Link, Rudi Dornbusch, died last week.
Rudi was that supposed rarity, a colourful, funny economist. He was also, as many tributes are now testifying, one of the best and most influential economists of our time.
From my narrow perspective Rudi had the wonderful asset of always ruffling feathers, whether it was tearing into the incompetence of monetary authorities in Latin America or east Asia, or rubbishing the prospects for the German economy. The last was a particular sore point in my world, since it led to a temporary diktat not to invite Rudi to Davos, because he had so offended some of the German business and political titans who were a core constituency for the Forum.
The ban was a particular pity because Rudi was such a good Davos performer, whether as an expert on a panel or as a moderator, where he had the rare skill of simultaneously moving a discussion along and provoking disagreements and good humour all around. I particularly remember him decreeing at the beginning of some session that anyone whose mobile phone rang during the session would be required to ask a question — and then enforcing the ruling on some (I hope temporarily) unhappy executive.
I returned from a weekend away to find a message on my answer machine. “Did you hear they’ve closed World Link?”
I’m not privy to the details of the decision, but I know enough about the parties involved to figure it out. Since 1992, World Link has been published in a joint venture between the World Economic Forum and Euromoney Institutional Investor. I ran the JV from its creation until late in 2000. Like all JVs, World Link had its ups and downs as interests and motives of the partners shifted.
Euromoney’s motives were easy to understand. A public company, it was interested in a profitable venture. After small losses in 1992, World Link has been consistently profitable (at times, very profitable). I’m certain, however, that the current advertising recession is hitting World Link hard, so I suspect profits this year would have been pretty scanty at best.
The Forum’s impetus was different. It was happy about the profits (the five years of World Link before the JV posted consistent losses, which were a drain on the Forum and a number of other investors), but that was not why WEF was involved. The Forum wanted a magazine that reflected and promoted its aspirations, notably the simple cause of “improving the state of the world”. It’s easy to mock the Forum’s grand vision, but it is sincerely held and, I believe, the organisation has over the years done far more good than many other grander, better resourced entities.
But how all that translates into a magazine is more problematical. My goal was to create an interesting mix of articles — both journalistic and expert-written essays — that reflected the ethos (as I saw it) of the Forum. The fun part, from an editor’s perspective, was that the wide-ranging interests represented by the Forum meant we could write about a bewildering variety of topics. I sometimes described World Link in shorthand as Harvard Business Review meets Foreign Affairs, but the content roamed further afield than that.
A fair criticism of that approach, and one voiced at times of stress in the relationship by the Forum, was that World Link lacked a clear identity — other than its tie to the Forum. Because the Forum was acutely sensitive to charges that commercial gain was being extracted from its “brand” — the Forum is a not-for-profit foundation — the fact that World Link was trading on the Forum name was always a sore point. From World Link’s perspective, we were “the magazine of the World Economic Forum”, and proud of it. (After all, HBR gains commercially from having Harvard in its title. It’s notable that no other management magazine does a tenth as well commercially. It’s not just because of editorial and publishing skills. The Harvard name is resonant — and I’m saying that as a loyal Princetonian.)
What this added up to now is a magazine struggling for profitability in a recession (like many others), and the Forum feeling irritated at the ties to a publication with which it no longer felt deeply involved. So I’ll hazard a guess that neither JV partner reckoned it was worth expending much energy on nurturing World Link any longer.
I’m saddened by this, but unsurprised. Very few JVs last forever, and the mix of a commercial shareholder and a foundation shareholder was particularly difficult. I feel particularly for the current staff of the magazine, which just brought out a relaunch issue. There are some very talented people there — a number of whom I worked with for many years. I’ll always have some of my heart with World Link, even if that means just memories of shared efforts rather than a publication that I receive every other month.