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Changing of the Guard

As magazine losses mount, CEOs are looking for (or are being shown?) the door.



By Jason Fell
08/28/2009

The resignations of top publishing executives is adding up. In July, Jim Spanfeller said he will be leaving Forbes.com as president and CEO before the end of August. Less than two weeks later, Rodale president and CEO Steven Pleshette Murphy and Reed Business Information U.S. CEO Tad Smith resigned (on the same day) from their chief executive posts.

Do these departures represent a natural changing of the guard among top management, or were these longtime chief executives pushed out amid declining ad pages and dwindling revenues?

Quick Turnaround

In the case of Tad Smith, a pair of fellow b-to-b CEOs speculate he was planning his exit from RBI well before London-based parent Reed Elsevier put most of its U.S. properties back on the block.

“He couldn’t have relished the thought of going through another sales process on the heels of the earlier failed attempt,” one CEO says. “I don’t think his leaving will have much effect on the sales process, its outcome or what happens next. Management knows what it wants, which is out of the b-to-b publishing business.”

RBI’s executive vice president and CFO John Poulin was appointed acting CEO. According to one b-to-b CEO, the person who replaces Smith full-time will obviously depend on the buyer. “I would venture it will be somebody from outside b-to-b media,” one CEO says.

“Tad’s leaving means RBI gets to trim its corporate overhead, which is huge, and that he gets a payout on his contract,” another chief executive says of Smith’s departure. “No doubt, he was paid.”

Two weeks after resigning, Smith landed at Cablevision Systems Corp. as president of its newly-created local media group. “Tad was never a b-to-b guy,” another CEO says. “The fact that Tad landed this as soon as he did likely means he has been looking for a while.  I would expect that this is an interim position until Tad gets his own deal running a media company.”

The source speculated that Smith might eventually wind up working with Strauss Zelnick, chairman of video game developer Take-Two Interactive. “They’re good friends,” he says.

‘That’s Just Crappy Reporting’

When Forbes announced that Jim Spanfeller was stepping down, news reports immediately speculated that the longtime online chief was pressured to leave by Forbes investor Elevation Partners. “That’s just crappy reporting,” Spanfeller told Folio:. “Unless Elevation Partners has the ability to stick thoughts in my head, they had nothing to do with my decision.”

Spanfeller—who plans to launch a media management firm this fall to manage and build up publishers’ online businesses—also discredited reports of being pushed out due to declining traffic at Forbes.com. “Even if one says we’re down slightly over a couple of months, the truth is that Forbes.com is up from half a million uniques in 2001 to 18 to 20 million today,” says Spanfeller. At presstime, the search for his replacement was still underway.

Getting Out While the Getting Is Good?

In announcing his resignation as Rodale CEO, Steven Pleshette Murphy said he decided not to renew his contract “to take time off to pursue my own creative interests.” Chairman Maria Rodale was tapped to succeed Murphy as CEO.

During his nine-year tenure as chief executive, Rodale says it experienced the most profitable period in its history. But ad pages across its six titles tracked by PIB were down a collective 17.92 percent in the first half of 2009.

“That so many CEOs are leaving or are being asked to leave isn’t surprising—it’s a time of turmoil and very limited success,” said one publishing CEO who wished to remain anonymous. “Almost every company is on a losing streak and, just as in sports, owners fire managers and coaches, not the players.”

By Jason Fell
08/28/2009







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