The popular thinking often is that hiring an executive outside the
industry can jump-start a stagnant publishing operation and give it the
inside track to developing an online business.

“just hiring the Web guy” hasn’t worked out that often. The tenures of
former TV exec Tom Rogers at Primedia and online vet Marc Teren at
Cahners were rocky, checkered periods. More recently, the efforts of
former business-intelligence executives Carr Davis and Anthony O’Brien
at Cygnus Business Media seem more geared to cost-cutting than growth.
“It’s hard to judge what [Davis and O’Brien] have accomplished so far,
but we know they were brought in to accelerate Cygnus’ development of
its media assets,” says one source in the financial community. “So far,
we’ve seen them moving people around and eliminating a number of
longtime Cygnus employees.”

It seems that many former publishing executives making the jump to
digital and non-traditional media are thriving, while executives coming
from non-traditional markets haven’t fared as well running publishing
companies. Much of that has to do with market conditions—advertising
continues to erode for print while digital remains red hot—but it’s not
that simple. There are many traditional CEOs flourishing with start-ups
that follow the same basic model—Cam Bishop at Ascend Media, Charlie
McCurdy with Canon Communications, Richard Reiff and George Fox with
Advantage Business Media, just to name a few.

And while they may be perceived as carrying the stigma of “old media,”
traditional publishing CEOs often can bring a more well-rounded
skillset than specialists in online or other non-traditional media.
“Broadly speaking, those executives were raised at multimedia firms,”
says David Nussbaum, who led Penton Media through a digital
transformation to a $544 million sale last year. “Even before digital,
when it was events and conferences, they had experience in leveraging
content, databases, community and relationships that are inherent to
classic b-to-b media. Whether that’s digital, events, custom media,
those executives were raised in the environment to understand how to
leverage those various assets to find new growth opportunities.”

Publishing executives are required to be generalists. “In traditional
b-to-b media companies, there is a multitude of markets and products
that takes a different skillset than running a single market or
product,” adds Nussbaum. “It’s kind of in the DNA of those individuals
who’ve been raised in these types of companies. And they are
complicated companies to run, there’s no doubt about it. Every market
is different, every product set is different. I’d been involved in
digital since the mid-nineties with Miller Freeman. We lost a lot of
money and learned lots of lessons. When I came to Penton, I had e-media
experience and that was relatively rare at the time.”

Bankers also look for executives who are well-rounded. “They have to
understand the process and systems and the importance of managing cash,
especially in a resource-constrained environment,” says Walter
Florence, managing director at private equity firm Frontenac.

A Question of Style
Former Reed Business Information head Jim Casella, now CEO of digital
media company Case Interactive, says that the difficulties
non-traditional CEOs have when they come to publishing often comes down
to a style issue. “You need to take the print brand digital but how do
you do it?” he says. “People come in and say, ‘You’re dinosaurs, you
have to change. That ends up with dislocations and hard feelings. It’s
not just in publishing—look at Larry Tisch at CBS and Tom Murphy and
Dan Burke at MSNBC. Burke and Murphy were very aggressive in making the
talent know they were part of the solution. Tisch was more contentious,
taking an attitude of ‘The cost base has to change, can’t you see