Reedtown Massacre Reveals the Future of the Trade Media Business
Shut downs creates opportunity for more than a few dedicated market experts.
The trade media business, such as it was, has been ripped apart and largely destroyed by Google. The musical chairs game that private equity players have been playing is finally out of seats and many household names have been left holding the bag, trying to hardball the banks into restructuring or just going bankrupt. The âstrategicâ multi-market players are shedding print assets like pounds in a sauna wearing a rubber suit.
And so, last weekâs shocking closure of 23 titles by Reed merely underscores the evolution of our industry back into what it once was, and I will paraphrase Bill Ziff, who said, âIt used to be that our business was run by enthusiastic eccentricsâpeople who worked and lived day in and day out in their markets and hardly even realized that they were running a âbusiness,â in the classical sense, at all.â
The key observation above is that most trade publishers in the Old Days were single market companiesâsmaller nimble companies dedicated to their niche industries. The trade conglomerates that grew in the 1980âs and 1990âs benefitted handsomely from ganging printing, fulfillment and the usual assortment of backroom operations to runÂ properties at a much lower cost, as well as the trend toward professionally managed trade shows which coined money for them back inÂ the day.
Over time, the best managers in their market were given additional responsibilities managing other markets or being switched to other divisions a-la Jack Welchâs GE. The best salespeople became publishers. Then group publishers and VPs. They were promoted away from their markets, from their customers, from their street-level expertise.
This happened again and again at Reed, Advanstar, Penton, VNU, Cygnus, Miller Freeman and at their various successor companies. Eventually, the âprofessional managersâ of various market segments became less and less embedded in their industries, spending their days in budget and forecast meetings and battling other execs in different markets for investment and acquisition dollars.
I know the feeling. A lifelong computer and electronics industry publisher, for a time I found myself managing all sorts of alien market groups. I remember the acute embarrassment I felt at being paraded around as a high level executive at the key trade shows for these different markets when I barely had a clue what was going on in these customersâ businesses.
Of course, this alienation and lack of understanding of markets didnât kill the businessâGoogle and paid search killed it as identified by IDGâs Pat Kenealy six years ago. But now that b-to-b publishing is in tatters, a post-apocalyptic vision comes into view: small, nimble, single-market-focused companies, run by people who have labored in their markets for years, getting to know the vendors, the readers, the nuances and intricacies that can allow them to be successful, despite Google.
By shuttering 23 publications, Reed has left the door open for more than a few groups of dedicated market experts to re-colonize and emerge as the trade media companies of the future.
-- Ted Bahr founded BZ Media, a technology-focused media company, with Alan Zeichick in 1999. Before that, Ted held numerous positions at Miller Freeman, finally as a Group President and member of the Board of Directors. At Miller Freeman, Ted launched 8 magazines, plus many conferences and ancillary products. He has managed magazines in many markets including computers, electronics, music, video, travel, real estate, interior design and manufacturing.
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