Monday, December 14, 2009

The Trade Press Problem: it's not the editor's fault

If I could summarize the reason this blog exists I would do so as follows: this site is designed for the business side of the new publishing world, those executives, publishers and ad execs who struggle every day to find solutions to the problems of modern publishing.

In others words, we love you journalists, but there are plenty of other sites catering to reporters, editors, freelancers and others on the writing side of the business.

While trying to decide what to write about this morning I found this finely written column by Alan Webber on the Folio: web site. I read it . . . twice . . . and could find very little to disagree with.  But it was targeted to the wrong audience.

Here's a short excerpt of what Mr. Webber has to say about the state of today's B2B publishing world: 
The exciting truth is we are at the threshold of a new era in business. All over the world we’re witnessing massive discontinuities in how work gets done, who does it, how value is created, where it gets created—one epoch is ending, another is just being born. What business magazines need to do is to embrace the changes and challenges that are rocking the world of business—get in front of the evolving story line; engage readers in a conversation; challenge the status quo instead of offering bland reassurances that the status quo will prevail; generate useful, provocative debate; discover new voices who champion new ideas and unconventional practices.
I find very little to disagree with here. But I wonder, do editors really need to be told this?

There is an almost obsessive quality to the conversation on blogs. The talk is about what is wrong with modern publishing from the perspective of journalism -- be it newspapers or the trade press (we'll leave consumer magazines out of this for now -- I feel that the majority of what ails them today is economic and once the economy turns around a good part of the recent losses may be recovered).  Editors: It's all our fault, you see. It's all about how we editors don't get it, or just don't care anymore.

I couldn't disagree more.

That is not to say that Mr. Webber is wrong in his views . . .
Every business magazine has the same opportunity—a chance to grab on to the fascinating and dramatic “story line” that is shaping up in the new, emerging world of business. If the surviving business magazines each finds its own distinctive voice to educate readers to the huge changes under way in the economy and in the world of work, and they commit to a publishing world where the job of the magazine is to start a useful, colorful, dynamic conversation with a community of readers who need help making new and valuable connections, then 2010 can be a great year of re-invention and re-commitment to the real purpose of business magazines.
 . . . it's just that I know many editors that are trying to find the "story line" every day, but it is not adding pages to their books, or adding readers to their circulation.  Why? Because most books continue to down-size their management and sales staffs, to cut circulation not expand it, to limit travel, and when all these changes have occurred they go "digital only" or cut their frequency.

The real target to Mr. Webber's column should be owners and executives. My message would be "if a magazine does not deserve to have it's own publisher are you really committed to the magazine? If sales have been outsourced or downsized, what direction do you expect sales to go?"

A sidebar: When I joined Reed in 2000 I took over two struggling magazines: Industrial Paint & Powder and Pollution Engineering.

PE had once been a $9 million book. It had nine sales reps, each doing $1 million a piece. And its own publisher. Now the book was down to two reps, no dedicated inside sales -- but at least we had a dedicated editor. At hire I was told that if we could turn these books turned around I would probably be moved elsewhere and PE would once again get its own publisher. (In other words, I was hired to be the "turnaround" guy".)

Events beyond my control prevented the job from being completed (the sale of a number of books to BNP in 2001). But the course of action was obvious: get another rep, give the book the attention it needed, get closer to the industry and its trade associations, etc.  In conclusion: the solution was to expand the business, not continue to contract it.

How many B2B magazines today are managed by a publisher that is responsible for at least one other magazine? How many reps sell advertising for more than one book? What is the ratio of inside sales people to magazines?

Maybe the battle should not be between "Staying in Business vs. Having a Purpose for Being in Business", but between Staying in Business vs. Succeeding in Business.

Because, in general, as callous as it may sound, the purpose of B2B magazines has never been to "serve the readers", but to make a profit. Good journalism is a must for a magazine to succeed -- but a magazine is not successful to ownership until it returns a profit. (If you don't agree with that line this is not the site for you.)

Editors continue to struggle every day to serve their readers, face cuts to their freelance budgets, reduced head count (what happened to "associate editors"?), and fewer pages to fill. Yet, they continue to relentlessly churn out issues, and most readers continue to renew their often (free) subscriptions -- while occasionally voicing their concerns about increasingly thin magazines. (I received the "November/December" issue of a trade magazine on Saturday that was 24 pages in size and had 6 pages of advertising -- will the editor lose their job because of the editorial quality? or because this magazine, which is grouped with another title, gets so little attention from the advertising "staff"? -- if it is fair to call two people selling multiple magazines a "staff".)

Editors need to be supported by ownership, management, sales. It is great that editors continue to talk about their mission, to discuss how to succeed in today's publishing environment.  But there will be no real progress made until the business side of publishing gets it together -- realizes that today's publishing philosophy of downsizing, outsourcing and consolidating is a dead-end.

It's time to decide between "Staying in Business vs. Succeeding in Business".