I’ve killed too many brain cells in the past few days trying to answer Peter Thiel’s interview question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” (See “Peter Thiel’s Contrarian Strategy”) I still haven’t come up with a good answer. Thiel will never hire me.
But that’s okay, because I like my current gig. As the new editor of Fortune, I’ve been entrusted with one of the world’s great media franchises. For 84 years, Fortune has chronicled the story of business. It was conceived at the end of the go-go 1920s, born into the collapse of the 1930s, matured in the postwar triumph of the global corporation, and energized by the rise of Silicon Valley. It is an iconic brand that has followed the business story wherever it goes. And we will continue to do so—even if we end up on Thiel’s seastead.
I’m particularly excited because the businesses we cover—from the Fortune 500 to the companies that aspire to be—face three key challenges in the coming years, each of them potentially existential, and all well worthy of our journalistic efforts.
The first is the challenge from within. Can big global companies, created to meet the organizational needs of the 20th century, remain relevant in the 21st? Nobel-winning economist Ronald Coase told us why we needed these bureaucratic behemoths. The complications of assembling the capital and labor necessary to build railroads, telephone networks, or mass-produced automobiles were simply too great to be negotiated in open markets. Corporate bureaucracy was the necessary antidote.
But in today’s world, where I can sit in my bedroom, assemble a talented team on LinkedIn, put my intellectual property in the cloud, manufacture on 3-D printers, and market across the web, what exactly is the purpose of the large corporation? Can it innovate as well as the crowd? Is it flexible enough to keep up with today’s pace of change? These are questions every Fortune 500 CEO is grappling with. Our goal at Fortune is to shine light on the path to some 21st-century answers.
Then there is the challenge from without. I am a firm believer in the power of free people and free markets. But I’ve been surprised by the degree to which the challenge to those basic principles has taken hold since the 2007 financial crisis. You don’t have to have read all 685 pages of Thomas Piketty’s Capital—and evidence suggests very few people have—to recognize that there is a potent populist stew brewing in the land. Public support for business—particularly big business—is flagging, both on the left and on the right. In my 2007 book, Revolt in the Boardroom, I argued that public corporations depended on the goodwill of the public to survive and thrive. They are losing that goodwill. My former colleagues at the Pew Research Center found that 78% of Americans believe “too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few corporations.” Regaining public support and acknowledgment of the noble purpose of business is a critical challenge for readers of these pages.
Finally, there is the challenge from abroad. Like many Americans, I grew up thinking free people and free markets went hand in hand—that capitalism and democracy were inextricably linked, and together represented the best hope for humanity. But that belief isn’t universally shared. Democracy is being threatened around the world, and Chinese leaders—who have a couple of awesome economic decades to show for their efforts—are on a campaign to convince developing nations that they’ve found a better answer to capitalism. The utter breakdown of Washington’s ability to do, well, almost anything has nourished their argument. This is no small debate. History hangs in the balance.
That’s a lot of ground to cover. And in the meantime, we have some challenges of our own—making sure that Fortune’s great journalism is available to you on multiple platforms so that you get the information, analysis, and insights you need wherever, whenever, and in whatever form you choose.
So stay tuned. Much more to come.
This story is from the September 22, 2014 issue of Fortune.
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