Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Naughts: a decade to forget for the trade press

Where were you on New Year's Eve 1999? Were you on break from school? Busy in the newsroom? Selling ad space? Drunk on the coach?

If I were to say that the media world looked a lot different in 1999 than it does today . . . well, there would be no way to measure how much of an understatement that would be. But which medium has suffered more in this decade: newspapers or the trade press? Both have been slammed. But I would lean towards saying that no media segment has been hit worse than B2B.

I have in front of me as I write this post a December 1999 P&L statement from a magazine in which I held the position of publisher. It shows a net profit that was over 100% higher than the previous year. Revenue was up substantially and expenses were fairly flat. Yet I remember sitting in meetings arguing with the president of the company because good was never good enough, and why did I treat the staff like human beings anyway?

Within a few months I left that company and went to Reed Business Information (then known as Cahners, though the spirit of Norm Cahners had already been gone a long time). Suffice it to say that corporate Reed was a case of the inmates running the asylum, and an example of how the Internet boom was all the excuse some executives needed to justify making truly silly acquisition of profitless Internet companies. Divestitures would soon follow.

But in 1999, the trade press was riding high. Books were stuffed with ads (the February issue of Roads & Bridges, my book at the time, had 64 ad pages in a 114 page folio and still barely could be perfect bound because of the rice paper we printed the magazine on). Our web sites were still pretty new, but the war over who would manage them was already old. Profits and revenue were up, but so was the level of conflict as publishers and editors fought with owners and executives over who would control the new medium.

Eventually it was decided (in general) that the web would be the toy of management and new folks were brought in to teach the youngins how to do it.  Eventually editors simply passed copy on to some person who hadn't a clue what the industry was about, and made sure each site looked just like the next one (easier to maintain one template than try and customize a couple dozens sites or more, right?).

In 1999 the big story was Y2K -- would the world end at midnight as nations and corporations dependent on Microsoft software folded like a deck of cards as the clock struck 12 and the calendar read 2000?

I was in Los Angeles visiting friends with my family as we watched the world enter a new millennium (technically the new millennium didn't begin until 2001, but no one wanted to ruin the moment).  The fireworks burst over the the Sydney Opera House and reports came in that the electric grid was still working, the trains were running, and alien landings had not been sighted. (Time for a drink to celebrate!) As each hour passed the drama decreased (but not the celebrating) until the New Year finally reached the west coast. By then we were way too tired to ring in the New Year with any enthusiasm. The Y2K crisis was no crisis at all, and it would be back to work on the 3rd. A few months later the Internet bubble began to burst as stocks took a nasty hit. (On March 10, 2000 the NASDAQ stood at 5050, it fell 500 points within a week. Today it stands at around 2285.)

As people look back at the naughts (2000-2009), a dispute Presidential election, the horror of 9/11, two endless wars, bitter political divisions, a financial meltdown, home foreclosures, and finally the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

For those in the trade press world the decade brought in the private equity firms, reengineering (what I prefer to call scorched earth management), travel restrictions, and eventually closings and layoffs.

What this decade did not bring was real innovation online for the trade press (there are exceptions, of course). Many industry web sites are still run by departments or individuals outside of the circle of editors and publishers who actually produce them. Industry sites are still missing social networking elements that might drive traffic (and therefore advertising) like open forums, peer-to-peer communication, and online marketplaces.

But what's worse for the trade press are the new web sites and forums that are springing up completely replacing the traditional B2B trade publications in their function as the center of the industry's community. Trade associations have noticed the trend and have their own media vendors now, companies like SmartBrief and Multiview who are creating electronic newsletters and directories for industries who no longer feel they are being properly served by their trade publications.

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☚  The Industry Standard web site in August 2000, courtesy of the Wayback Machine. The web site was no great shakes, but in its time, The Standard was a magazine giant, bringing in over $140 million in revenue in 2000. But revenue fell to $40 million in 2001 and the magazine closed down following the August issue -- the fastest rise and fall in magazine history.

Yes, the newspaper world is crumbling around us. But few would argue with the fact that journalists working for the newspaper industry are still providing their readers with valuable information. The battle in the newspaper world is how to profitably redirect that content for an online or mobile audience. Do we construct paywalls? or do we create networks?

In the B2B world there is a fundamental question about whether the trade press is even providing useful content (in many case the answer is definitely yes, but in others it is doubtful). Are the repurposed press releases that are running on many sites really serving their industries? or simply hiding the fact that the magazine producing the site is truly isolated from their industry?

According to a poll by The Pew Reasearch Center for the People & the Press, the just past decade rates as the worst in memory.

I'm personally glad to see the naughts go away. Raise a glass to the ghost of the naughts! And here is to 2010! Let's drink a toast to the potential of the trade press in the new decade!

What the next decade will look like and how publishers will make money using New Media is what this site is about. Tablets . . . readers . . . web sites . . . and, yes, print -- those will be the tools used by B2B publishers and sales people to drive revenue and profit, and help businesses communicate their messages to other businesses. Whether those mediums are used by the Reeds and Pentons of the world is today questionable. But I know that there will still be somebody out there talking about agriculture, manufacturing, food and drink, construction and all the industries of the economy when the clock strikes midnight and the calendar turns over to read 2020.