Things are awful and getting worse.

That’s my conclusion about b-to-b publishing, as yet another company takes drastic measures after finding it can’t carry an absurd debt load in a recessionary economy.

In an e-mail to employees, Penton CEO John French announced a company-wide salary and hiring freeze. He also requested ideas on cutting costs. John also "asked for a complete reforecast from all of our product managers, including a restated revenue forecast and a projected expense forecast for the remainder of 2008." That process should be completed by the end of the month, at which time John promised to report back to the staff "on our findings." [SEE RELATED: Penton Media Announces Hiring, Salary Freeze, Company-Wide Revenue Reforecasting]

Penton’s announcement comes in the wake of a slew of bad news in our industry. And when I add up these events, I see catastrophe.

I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but I’ve gone from being worried to being worried sick. Much of b-to-b publishing, weighed down by the twin albatrosses of junk bonds and rising print costs, has sunk into a death spiral.

Consider the news of the past few days:

  1. Northstar Travel Media announced yesterday that it’s for sale. Boston Ventures, the private equity company that bought Northstar from Reed Elsevier in 2001, has apparently had enough. The Northstar sale will take place in a particularly tough environment. There’s already a ton of b-to-b properties on the market—including Reed Business Information, the U.S. b-to-b unit of Reed Elsevier.
  2. Among the b-to-b companies languishing on the shelf is Ziff Davis Media. Late last year, Ziff managed to sell its most valuable properties. This week the new owner of those properties, Ziff Davis Enterprises, announced companywide layoffs. It’s also worth noting that both Ziff Davis Media and ZDE have recently gone back on the promise to cease the unethical use of in-edit advertising—a sure sign of desperation and idiocy.
  3. Earlier this week Nielsen Business Media announced another series of layoffs. It’s still unclear just how many jobs were cut in this round. But news reports put the total loss of jobs at the former VNU at around 4,000 in the past year. Over at Penton, there are some exceptions to the hiring freeze.

Penton’s New Media Group will be spared, because, as John noted, "these activities are critical to our revenue growth plans for both the near and long-term future." (Disclosure: I’ve consulted on several projects for the group.)

That shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The giant publishers—and many of the smaller ones too—are in the exact same position. Their revenue is falling while their print expenses are rising. Choking on debt, all they can do is exit the game entirely or cut expenses and double their bets on new media.

There’s simply no other way out. But there is another way out for the editors, salespeople and designers of b-to-b: You can walk away from print.

And it’s way, way, way past the time you did so.