How to build a business magazine in China

January 11, 2012: 12:08 PM ET

A lot has changed in China in the 15 years since Fortune's China edition launched.

Interview by Stephanie Mehta, executive editor

FORTUNE -- Fortune China, a licensed edition of Fortune magazine that publishes in Chinese, recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. Tom Gorman, the magazine's chairman and editor-in-chief and the driving force behind it since its inception, answered some of our questions about the changes he has observed during this time. (See also 15 business people who've changed China from the editors of Fortune China)

What made you think, 15 years ago, that China needed a business magazine?

In 1993, we did a market entry feasibility study for Time Inc. magazines in China. My company had been publishing Chinese language b2b magazines and doing market research in China since 1975 , so we had a ground floor seat from which to witness the dramatic changes before, during, and after the Open Door policy was announced  in 1979.

One of our recommendations to Time Inc. in 1993 was a Chinese edition of Fortune. There were two big trends just emerging on the horizon: A huge demand for management information as China transitioned from Soviet style central planning to a hybrid form of market economics; and the emergence of a relatively affluent middle class in major Chinese cities. Both were positive underlying drivers for a magazine like Fortune.

Ironically, in making that recommendation I never imagined we would be the publishers of Fortune's Chinese edition because Time Inc. had not traditionally been a believer in growth through licensing. In the end, some years later, we were offered the first license and enthusiastically accepted.

What has changed most about Chinese business in the 15 years you've been editing and publishing Fortune China?

The changes are so diverse and dramatic it's hard to single out just a few. One favorite data point is that in 1996 there were three Chinese companies on the Fortune Global 500 list, versus 61 on this year's list.

As you look back over the last 15 years, what stories are you proudest of telling?

The common denominator for me is stories which have helped Chinese business leaders do a better job of managing their businesses as well as their personal and family lives, against a backdrop of phenomenal, turbulent change.

One example was an early cover story we ran, translated from Fortune, called : "Why Companies Fail." Haier CEO Zhang Ruimin has said publicly that this article had such an impact on him that he framed that issue of our magazine, and it has remained on his desk ever since.

Another story which I think had good resonance is the cover story we did based in 2010 based on my 4-hour interview with management guru Jim Collins, which we ran in the magazine as well as in video clips on Collins' books are big-time best-sellers in China , and the response we got to this series was very gratifying.

How have non-Chinese executives' attitudes about China changed during your 15-year run?

When we launched in 1996, there were some large Western companies whose top management had identified China as an  important growth market, but many more were still struggling to understand it. There has been a sea change in the interim, with a majority of larger international companies now considering China to be a market where they must prevail in order to have sustainable success on a global basis.

What is hardest about publishing a business magazine, website and app in China today?

The business magazine segment has become hypercompetitive. When we launched in 1996, there were only three business magazines in China. Now there are hundreds, many  with multiple delivery channels in print, online, apps and events. It's crowded and cluttered out there, so it's essential to have a strong brand and remain relentlessly focused on your mission, identity and values, while delivering through a multi-channel network. I remain very optimistic, despite the static.

Do Chinese executives court media attention the way some western executives do? 

Most prefer a low profile, although there are a few exceptions to this.

Looking ahead 15 years, what will the Chinese business landscape look like? Will there be more global brands? Will there be more IP protections?

The landscape will be dramatically different. The affluence and modern infrastructure is already moving quickly out to 3rd, 4th, and 5th tier cities in the interior and western parts of China. China's outbound investment will be a bigger story than inbound foreign direct investment into China. China will develop more and better global brands, as she graduates from reliance on low-end exports.

IP protection is already making good progress in high-tech sectors, and it will continue to do so not because of foreign pressure but home-grown needs. The win rate for multinational patent litigation in China is comparable to that of Chinese companies, and higher than the averages in Europe and the U.S.  The movie and entertainment sectors' IP environment will take much longer, but improvements will also be driven by domestic demands.

Fifteen years from now how will your customers read Fortune China?

I am convinced that print will still exist and remain a very viable delivery medium, but it will be among a growing range of platforms suiting the needs and tastes of a wide spectrum of consumers.

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