Today is a day when all of us in b-to-b journalism should pause, look at the news in our industry, and ponder what it means for each of us, because it doesn't get any bigger than this: Bloomberg LP is restructuring.Bloomberg is arguably the smartest and most profitable news operation in history. It is certainly the biggest money-making operation in the history of b-to-b. (Now that Reuters and Thomson have merged, Bloomberg may or may not be the biggest player in business journalismâ€”depends on how you measure things.)So what does it mean when the best of the best in our industry decides to restructure? Why would it do so? Can other companies extract a lesson?First, let's look at what is happening.In essence, Bloomberg News is separating its multimedia operation (which includes the Web, television and radio units) from its text operation (the news and data service that is delivered to Wall Street via dedicated terminals. This same unit will continue to rewrite terminal news for publication in client newspapers. The company's print magazine will also reside in the new text division.)In addition, the parent company, Bloomberg LP, is splitting into three unitsâ€”news, data and financial products. (This part of the revamp is even more complicated than it would first appear. The financial products unit will include "data" products such as the trading systems and analytics tools. Whereas the data unit will house the company's databases and its law unit.)It's also worth noting that the restructuring is not related to any financial difficulties at the company. No layoffs are planned. The company continues to be a cash-producing machine.Second, let's look at the why.Rafat at PaidContent says the restructuring sounds like Bloomberg is planning a spinoff or sale of the multimedia unit.I agree. Particularly since the restructuring comes amid rumors on Wall Street that Merrill Lynch, reeling from the credit crisis, is looking to sell its 20% stake in Bloomberg. (The most likely buyer is the trust of New York mayor and company founder Mike Bloomberg. Value of the stake is somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion.)It's also worth noting that although Bloomberg continues to print money, the company's core audience of Wall Street bigwigs and traders is hurting. Sales are likely to have declined in recent months. And it would take a very optimistic person indeed to suggest sales will rise in the near term.Third, let's look at other details.Under the new structure, Matt Winkler, who has run Bloomberg's news operations since the beginning, will lose control of the multimedia operation. Winkler will maintain control of the text unit.Bloomberg is also launching an incubator unit, dubbed Bloomberg Ventures, which will presumably look for new opportunities and acquisitions. It will be run by Lex Fenwick, the company's former CEO.Portfolio suggests that the reorg may mean that Bloomberg's "famously bizarre corporate culture (is) being slowly dismantled." Certainly I hope that is true. Bloomberg is, by far, the least pleasant place I have ever worked. More importantly, it was a place where truly bizarre personalities tended to thrive. The Portfolio piece says that Bloomberg's new president, Dan Doctoroff, had come to realize that, in the words of a company insider, "Matt Winkler's reign of terror and crazy little rules" were hurting the organization.But here's the part that intrigues me:The restructuring will create two, distinct groups of journalists in the company. One team will be dedicated to print and the terminals. It will report to Winkler. The second team will be dedicated to multimedia and the Web. The company is searching for someone to run that team.But I have to ask: why the split? and why now?
Bloomberg's move comes as the rest of the industryâ€”both b-to-b and b-to-câ€”struggles to merge print, Web and television operations. Everyone from the Washington Post to Hanley-Wood is looking to create some form of Web-first publishing in which journalists are able to produce news for any medium.But Bloomberg seems to be moving in a different direction. Perhaps this is nothing more than a convoluted way to dilute Winkler's power without hurting the core productâ€”terminal sales. Or, perhaps, it is nothing more than a way to create two, state-of-the-art news organizations in anticipation of selling one of them. Or, perhaps, Bloomberg has a very different idea of what it will take to run a news company and make money in the future.
I've been writing for a long time about the new competitors that traditional b-to-b publishers are finding on the Web.Whether we're talking about Web-only publishers, editors who strike out on their own, sources who become publishers, or marketers who become journalists, the days in which the only competition that a typical, monthly b-to-b magazine faced was another monthly magazine are long gone.And now we can add one more to the list of Web-based competitorsâ€”newspaper beat reporters.Take a look at Pharmalot, a Newark Star-Ledger reporter's blog about the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. Or even better, take a look at this article about Pharmalot on the Beat Blogging site, where you'll find that Pharmalot is successful "when measured by any metricâ€”Web traffic, content and financially," according to the blogger's boss.The reporter behind Pharmalot is Ed Silverman, who has covered pharmaceuticals for 12 years for the local newspaper (northern New Jersey is filled with pharmaceutical firms). The basic concept behind Pharmalot is that in the course of working his beat, Ed was already accumulating enough news to compete with any national publication in the space. So by moving to a blog platform, he was able to expand both his coverage and reach nationally.Now Pharmalot isn't a business threat to existing b-to-b publishers. At least not yet. A quick look through the site indicates that the ad staff at the newspaper hasn't learned to sell high-cost ads targeting readers from the pharmaceutical industry. Rather the ads are the same low-cost run-of-site nonsense that you'll find anywhere else on a newspaper site. But it probably won't be long before someone there finds out that targeted b-to-b ads are worth more than branding buttons from Ford and WaMu.More importantly, it won't be long before other newspapers realize there's potential (and some easy money) in duplicating the Pharmalot model. There are thousands of business reporters covering hundreds of beats at newspapers across the country. And odds are there's at least one who would pose a competitive threat to any b-to-b publication you could name.So if you're an editor or executive at a traditional, print-based publishing company, it's time to ask yourself three questions:
1. Who are the best newspaper reporters covering the beat that my magazine/Web site covers? (If you have the budget, it may be time to hire away anyone who poses a serious threat.)2. Are any of those newspaper reporters capable of launching a Web-based, national version of what they already do locally? (Ignore the print-based legacy reporters. But keep your eye on anyone who appears Web-savvy.)3. How is it possible for a daily newspaper reporter to create an all-new product based on what he learns from working his beat when the staff at my monthly magazine says they're too busy to write daily stories for the Web? (It's probably well past the time to dump some staffers and move to a Web-first workflow.)
For more b-to-b publishing insights, check out Paul Conley's blog here ...
The latest numbers from the Business Information Network show that things ain't looking good for print publications in b-to-b. Ad revenue and ad pages are down. And no doubt there's not a soul anywhere in the industry who is surprised by this latest bit of bad news.As I said a little more than a month ago, much of the b-to-b publishing world, weighed down by heavy debt loads and soaring print costs, "has sunk into a death spiral." Heck, things are getting so bad on the print side that I'm even nervous about publishers that don't have debt. Certainly I'm not the only person to be worried. Two of my new favorite sitesâ€”Business Media Blog and Private Frazer's Doomed Magazinesâ€”are dedicated primarily to documenting the troubles in our industry (both sites, however, focus on U.K.-based publishing.)I love this industry, and I hate to see it suffer. So I do what I can to make things better. But lately I've begun to worry that I haven't done enough.No SaleA man should know his weaknesses. I certainly know mineâ€”and over the years my business has been hurt by one weaknesses in particular: I'm not much of a salesman.I've been lucky that this hasn't kept me from working for myself. Every single client that Paul Conley Consulting has ever had has come to me through referrals, personal relationships or this blog. I haven't had to make cold calls, etc.But I've decided to change that. I've decided to learn to sell. Because a man should try to conquer his weaknesses. And because I want do more to help this industry and because I'm just arrogant enough to believe that I can solve much of what ails us if I can get people to buy into my ideas.So I've begun trying to pick up some sales skills. I've been chatting with buddies who make their living in sales. I've been reading books and checking out blogs that focus on making sales to businesses.No ProblemIn order to sell something to a business, you have to be solving a problem.In one fashion or another, that seems to be what all the experts suggest about selling to a business. Understand a business' problems, and then sell your product or service as a solution. In the world of business sales, it would seem that if you don't offer solutions, you won't make the sale. (That, I suppose, is why so many salespeople have the annoying habit of calling whatever they sell a "solution." Hence a person who sells software to trucking companies isn't a software salesman, he's a logistics software solutions provider.)So as I first read all this sales material, I was encouraged. It seemed that I was in the perfect position to "sell" my consulting services.It seemed clear to me that nearly everyone in b-to-b publishing had some combination of the same three problems. And I offered servicesâ€”either directly or through other clientsâ€”that could help solve any of them.So I wrote out some notes for sales calls and listed the problems and solutions.1. Poor editorial: Publishers are expecting more and better work online from their editorial teams. But in b-to-b, much of our online content is still awful. It's produced by people who don't understand Web journalism and resist change. Solution: In-house training and/or outsourcing some products.2. Soaring costs: At the rate that costs are rising, print publishing may soon be limited to the higher ends of the B2C market. But even if things never get quite that bad, there's no doubt that publishers are choking on the costs of print. Solution: Move to Web-first publishing and prepare to go Web-only and/or outsource print-only jobs in design and layout.3. Demands for revenue growth: Online revenue has soared in recent years. But publishers continue to struggle to find online revenue sources that are robust enough to replace declining print revenue. Complicating matters is that much of our existing online revenue will certainly disappear as our customers grow more sophisticated. We've been selling a lot of crap in b-to-b for a long timeâ€”filling our coffers with money from ineffective buttons, widely ignored banners, opt-out newsletters and page view numbers that aren't filtered for 'bots. Solution: In-house training of ad sales staff and/or move to a lead-generation model.No Thank YouSo last week I tried to use my new understanding of how to make sales. I started talking to people about the problems I see in b-to-b publishing. I wasn't actually making sales calls. Rather I was practicing my pitch with people in the industry.What I foundâ€”much to my surpriseâ€”is that a lot of people in b-to-b don't believe in the problems. Rather, they seem to think that things are going badly for them solely because of factors that are out of their control.I've spoken to editors of sites that are simply awful by any measure. But those people think their content is just nifty, and that the sales team just sucks.I've spoken to print-centric sales folks who are now selling for the Web, but don't understand the difference between opt-out and opt-in. These folks think what they are selling is valuable, and that the editorial team just sucks.I've spoken to folks who are being crushed by print costsâ€”pouring the vast majority of their budgets into a product that is produced only once a month. But those people think that print (and print-only workers) must be saved, and that the Web/the boss/this point in history just sucks.Every once in awhile I spoke with someone who agreed that there was actually a problem in his/her own department. But those people inevitably portrayed those problems as inevitableâ€”there weren't enough resources, there wasn't enough time and it wasn't worth asking the boss for help.The Next StepIf there are any expert salespeople reading this post, then they aren't surprised by what I found. Such experts would note that I've been testing my sales approach on people who aren't "decision makers." Rather I've been talking to the people I usually talk toâ€”the reporters, editors, sales staffers, designers and the rest of the people who do the work of b-to-b.
And any sales expert would say that I'm going to have to move up the food chain if I'm going to find people who can both see the problems and buy the solutions.
So in about two weeks or so, after I return from a business trip, I'm going to start calling some of the CEOs in b-to-b publishing and make some sales.
It's my hope that even if the powers-that-be in b-to-b disagree with me about how to solve our problems, they will at least be able to see our problems.
Otherwise, we're all doomed.
Harry McCracken is leaving PC World to start his own technology Web site. That's big news for the world of b-to-b journalism for several reasons.Harry
may be the biggest name in b-to-b editorial circles. Anyone who follows
this industry will remember Harry's clash with management last year. Harry's
ethical stance in that dispute won him the most important award in B2B
publishingâ€”American Business Media's Timothy White Award for
editorial integrity. And certainly Harry's departure is a tremendous blow to PC World and parent company IDG.
what I find most interesting about this development is that Harry is
now the best-known business-media journalist to enter the world of
More than three years ago I began predicting a rise in the number of
established b-to-b journalists who would abandon traditional publishing
companies and strike out on their own. And history has shown me right time and time again. But in the past few weeks this trend seems to be accelerating.
First, there was the news that the majority of the staff of Cygnus' Aircraft Maintenance Technology magazine had resigned en masse, reportedly to start a competing product.
They join another group of Cygnus employees who quit a few months ago and launched RV Industry News, a competitor to Cygnus' RV Trade Digest. And
in the past few weeks I've begun consulting with and/or offering advice
and support to four different b-to-b editors who are building new products
as they make plans to quit their day jobs before the end of the year.But
most interesting to me is that I'm in talks now with an entity that is
interested in offering tools, a platform, ad-sales services and a
revenue share to b-to-b editors who opt to take the standalone route. (When
and if I reach a deal with that group, I'll publish the details here.)
In the meantime, congratulations to Harry and everyone else who has taken the plunge.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Read more analysis from Paul Conley on his blog ...]
Longtime readers of my blog, as well as the folks who have seen one of my speaking engagements, know that I often point to b-to-b publisher IDG as a guide to the future. No publisher I know has done a better job of understanding the Web and making the transition away from print.
I've had a pretty good view of the struggles the company has faced as it moved to a Web-first model. And just like everywhere else in journalism, most of those struggles involved stubborn and close-minded people.
Truth be told, IDG has fewer stubborn and close-minded people than any publisher I know. That has given the company a tremendous advantage. But as in most publishing companies, the slow-witted characters tend to be more vocal than the smart people.
I still remember, vividly, appearing before a group of reporters and editors at IDG several years ago, shortly after I launched my consulting business. My goal in that appearance was to talk about some of the things that excited me in the world that we would later call Web 2.0. My hope was that some of the editors would share my excitement.
I was able to reach some of those folks. Heck, many of them were already excited about the same things that interested me. All things considered, I think things went pretty well. IDG invited me back several times in the next few years. But what I'll remember most about that first appearance was the number of times a very small part of the audience cursed at me, rolled their eyes, interrupted, whined, insulted, complained and generally behaved like children.
As time has passed, much has changed.
I very, very seldom run into the level of hostility that first greeted me when I began writing this blog and consulting about online publishing.
Almost everyone in b-to-b publishing today "gets it" to one degree or another.
And no place has changed as quickly or as successfully as IDG.
And, much to my delight, nearly everyone in publishing now understands that IDG is blazing the trail that the rest of the industry will follow.
Today's New York Times has a lengthy feature piece on IDG's transition to Web-first publishing. Anyone who works in journalism should take a look. Pay particular attention to the words of Patrick J. McGovern, the founder and chairman of IDG, who says "the excellent thing, and good news, for publishers is that there is life after printâ€”in fact, a better life after print."
For an earlier post of mine about my early experiences at IDG, take a look at my reaction to the end of InfoWorld's print publication.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here for more from Paul Conley's blog.]
ASBPE has not yet issued an official ruling on the controversy that began two days ago when I wrote about my concerns over CIO magazine's use of in-text links. That's understandable. Unlike the
ad-in-links controversy that I've written about repeatedly, the CIO issue is more complex.If you're not familiar with the issue, please take a look at the earlier post (and make sure you read the comments, which contain a number of interesting insights.)But ASBPE has done the next best thing.Steve Roll, president of the organization, has written a thoughtful piece in which he sums up the problem for journalism ethicists quite nicely, saying that "publishing on Internetâ€”with all of its emerging functionalitiesâ€”is likely to keep providing us with a steady supply of ethical conundrums. Failing to condemn unethical practices would destroy our profession. Being too quick to condemn new practices would likely have a chilling effect on innovation."Meanwhile, Martha Spizziri, vice president of ASBPE, has weighed in as well.Stuff To Think AboutWhile ASBPE crafts its official response, I'd urge everyone in b-to-b journalism to think long and hard about the issues raised by the CIO links.To aid in that process, here's what I see as the two crucial questions, based on my understanding of ASBPE's ethics guidelines, my conversations with CIO staffers, the comments posted to this blog, and the emails I've received.1. What constitutes editorial approval?I first heard about the CIO links when I was contacted by CIO editors who were upset that they had not been consulted. They didn't approve of the links. They didn't insert them. And they didn't know they would be there. What the editors told me was that the links simply appeared in their stories.ASBPE's guidelines say that "Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors." To me, the use of the plural is crucial. It seems to me that linksâ€”whether they are an ad or something elseâ€”should only be inserted by the individuals responsible for each story. In other words, each editor at a publication must decide when, and when not, to add a link.However, there is another school of thought. Abbie Lundberg, who runs the editorial department at CIO, posted a comment to my earlier post saying "As Editor in Chief at CIO, I approve the use of these links. " Abbie also notes that another senior staffer who has since left the company also approved of the links.In other words, Abbie is saying that because the senior editorial staff approved the deal to place the links on the site, then discretion has been exercised and the links have received the "approval of editors."Certainly many people would agree with Abbie on this. The senior editorial staff is ultimately responsible for editorial decisions.I, however, disagree.I think the ASBPE guidelines do and should require that individual editors be able to exercise choice in inserting a link into a story. If an editor thinks the link has value, the link goes in. If he doesn't think so, the link stays out. Or, to put the question another wayâ€”would ASBPE say that the ads-in-text used by Vibrant Media don't violate the ethics guidelines as long as the senior editorial staffer signs off on the deal? Of course not.2. Must a link have a commercial/advertising component for it to violate ethics guidelines?This is perhaps the most complex part of the equation.In a comment to my earlier post, Rex Hammock notes that "nearly every financial news site on the web has such automatic links to information about publicly traded companies. Those are in-line links that an editor does not explicitly approve every instance of their inclusionâ€”they are baked into the CMS."To see an example of what Rex is talking about, take a look at this story on the CNNMoney site and scroll down to the third paragraph. What you'll find is that inserted after the word "IBM" are links to IBM's stock price (and other material) and a Fortune magazine profile of the company.It's unlikely that anyone would argue that these links do not have value to the reader. It's equally unlikely that anyone would argue that the links are any more or less commercial than anything else on the CNNMoney site.In other words, such links are, by any reasonable measure, editorial links and not advertising links. And Rex is saying, correctly, that such links are widely accepted among professional journalists.Furthermore, as a general rule in 2008, such links are "baked into" the content-management systems of many of the financial-news giants. The journalists who produce stories at most of those sites don't insert the links. The links simply appear.However, back when I worked at CNNfn, the predecessor of CNNMoney, editors did have to "explicitly approve every instance" of such links. If I remember correctly, all that was required was that you highlight the company name and click a button in the CMS. But if we didn't do that, the links didn't appear.Now in truth, that requirement for approval was a function of the CMS. None of us thought to insert editorial choice into the process. It just sort of happened that way. I have no idea if such "approval" is still part of the CMS at CNN. But I believe that it should be part of the process for B2B publishers. Because, as the ASBPE guidelines say, "Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors."Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Perhaps I'm being too rigid. But I believe with all my heart that b-to-b journalism functions best when it allows individual editors to determine what does and does not go into a story.I hope that ASBPE agrees with me.
The b-to-b publisher that has perhaps the best reputation in the industry for ethical behavior is behaving unethically. And I'm sick about it. CIO magazine, which is owned by CXO Media, a unit of IDG, is adding links to editorial copy without the approval of editors.
Longtime readers of my blog will understand why that has broken my heart. But if you're new to my work, allow me to explain.
I've been fighting against in-text ads such as those sold by Vibrant Media for a very long time now. And the reason I do so is because such links areâ€”clearlyâ€”a violation of the ethical guidelines of b-to-b journalism. (If there was ever any doubt that such links were unethical, such doubt was removed when ASBPE updated its ethics policy nearly a year ago." ABM has also made its position clear on the issue.)
The reason such links are unethical should be obvious to anyone who works in this industry. These links violate the basic premise of professional journalismâ€”news is kept as separate from commercial interests as is possible. If someone other than editors controls any part of editorial, then all of editorial is tainted.
Let me say that again: If someone other than editors controls any part of editorial, then all of editorial is tainted.
To make matters worse, these new links are from a site I love (LinkedIn), are based on a concept I love (opening an API to developers) and appear on a magazine site I love (CIO) that is owned by a company where editors have won the Timothy White Award for editorial integrity for two years in a row!
And to add insult to injuryâ€”IDG is a client of mine. Hell, just a few months ago I spoke at an all-day conference of CIO/CXO editors and warned them, as I warn all b-to-b editors, to fight against the unethical use of links in copy.
But to tell you the truth, I never thought that particular group of editors would have to fight this fight. I just never expected this behavior from IDG.
The links are appearing in stories across the CIO site. Take a look here. What you'll find is that throughout the story company names have been turned into links with a little symbol next to them. Click on those and you'll get a pop-up that tells you how you're connected to people at the company.
Now in truth, that's a pretty fun piece of functionality. And in truth, such links may be of value to readers. But by automating the links rather than giving control to editors, CIO has violated industry ethics. And what is most annoying about that is that there's a far more appropriate way to do this.
For example, take a look at this article in BusinessWeek about Starbucks. In the center column you'll see a series of "Story Tools," including one that says "linkedin connections." And if you're a Linked In member, you'll find that when you click on that tool you'll get a pop-up that tells you how you're connected to people at Starbucks.
That's the exact same functionality as what's used at CIO. But the folks at BusinessWeek recognized that those links should not be appearing inside the news story. (Note: It appears that BusinessWeek may have once considered a plan to place the links inside stories.)
Disrespecting Your Peers
According to what I hear from IDG staffers, the links made their appearance on the CIO site in exactly the same way such things have happened elsewhere.Suddenly, out of nowhere, they were there.
Rank-and-file editors and reporters hadn't been consulted. And questions about the links were deflected with meaningless corporate-speak like "it's an experiment." And, as has happened elsewhere, the people responsible for the links were confused and surprised by the editors' reaction.
But that is absurd.
Imagine the reverse situation. Imagine that some senior editors decided to change the ads on a site. Imagine that they altered the HTML so that readers who clicked on an ad didn't visit the advertiser's site, but went instead to someplace that editors thought they should goâ€”perhaps to a competitor's site.
Would anyone be surprised that the advertising staff was upset?
And if a salesperson ran into the newsroom screaming in protest, would anyone think it was an appropriate response to say "it's just an experiment."
Read 'Em and Weep
You can see more of these new, offensive links here. Take a look. Then read the following excerpt from ASBPE's ethics guidelines:
"Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors. Also, advertising and sponsored links should be clearly distinguishable from editorial, and labeled as such, as should clickthrough pages, which may also contain the publication's editorial content, with appropriate disclosures provided. Such disclosure may include a "use with permission" statement or similar language. Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold. If an editor allows a link, it generally should not link to a vendor's Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader. [Paragraph D. revised, May 7, 2007, by vote of the Ethics Committee.]
As always, I welcome readers input. What do you think of these links? Can CIO remedy this situation by moving the links outside the story in the same way BusinessWeek has done?
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Read more at Paul Conley's blog, and leave your thoughts in the comments section below.]
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:
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 publishersâ€”and many of the smaller ones tooâ€”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.
Bad news in the world of b-to-b journalism. Nielsen Business Media, formerly known as VNU, has laid off a number of editorial staffers. FOLIO: magazine says it's "not immediately clear how many employees have been let go." FishbowlNY says between 40 and 50 jobs have been eliminated and cites an anonymous tipster who claims "most cuts (are) coming from the company's digital and conference arms."It's been a tough year and a half at Nielsen. In that time the company has gone through a reorganization and name change, an ethics scandal and an earlier round of layoffs. And my heart goes out to the folks who lost their jobs today. I know what that's like. I've been laid off in the past. It's a truly awful feeling.But the truth is that all of us in b-to-b are vulnerable now. And all of us need to be prepared for the possibility of job loss.Several months I wrote on this blog that I was worried that 2008 would prove to be an awful year for our industry. And every week seems to bring news that indicates I'm right to be nervous.Many of the major players in b-to-b publishing are leveraged to the hilt. And they seem to have bet the house on being able to find extraordinary amounts of new revenue in the online world. But since so many b-to-b editors still don't get Web journalism, many b-to-b Web sites remain laughably bad. And as the economy slows down, I just can't imagine that people will line up to spend money on crappy Web sites.Even the very best Web sites in b-to-b are in trouble this year. Over and over again I hear from people who are struggling with demands from senior management for levels of growth that simply cannot happen. The ugly truth is that when the economy slows, you can't expect an every-growing number of people to to line up to spend an ever-increasing amount of money on any Web siteâ€”no matter how gorgeous, well-written, and filled with multimedia it may be.I hope I turn out to be wrong about this. But I don't think today's layoffs will be the last we'll see in 2008. I'm worried that things are bad. I'm worried that they're getting worse. And as I said just last week, because so many B2B publishers are "privately held, we just don't know how ugly the balance sheets may be."Note: Although Nielsen Co., the parent of Nielsen Business Media, is privately held, much of its finances are reported publicly. And things ain't pretty at Nielsen. Several days ago the company announced it would buy IAG Research for $225 million. To finance that purchase, Nielsen said it would sell $220 million in bonds. Or, in layman's terms, the company will borrow $220 million. But that new debt comes on top of some $8.47 billion in existing debtâ€”and that has the credit agencies shaking their heads.Even prior to word that Nielsen would return to the bond market to borrow again, Moody's had rated Nielsen's last round of debt Caa1â€”some seven levels below investment grade! That's about as junk-like as a junk bond can be.
Just days ago I urged journalism teachers to force students to learn about business and finance. In particular, I want students to understand debt financing, which has put a stranglehold on many publications.My hope is that by understanding the murderously difficult environment in which many publishers operate, students will made better decisions about their career path.To that end, I offer a reading assignment.Reuters has published a lengthy and well-reasoned article showing that it will be damn near impossible for Sam Zell to avoid a default at the Tribune Co., which is groaning beneath $4 billion of debt and some tough-to-meet debt covenants. You can check out the article here. Students who take the CliffNotes approach to study can get everything they need from PaidContent's take.Those of us in b-to-b should avoid the urge to feel smug about the nightmare that is newspaper finance. In our end of the industry, things are likely just as bad. But since so many of our major players are privately held, we just don't know how ugly the balance sheets may be.And as I've said before, I'm worried.Read more here ...
I recently had the opportunity to
visit a number of universities and to attend two conventions for
college journalists. This is the conclusion of a four-part series on my
experiences. You can see part one here. You can read part two here. Check out part three here.
For a long time I was hopeful that journalism teachers would learn to embrace the future. I had this idea that the ability of the Web to reach people around the globe would enchant teachers. I believed that interactivity, feedback functions, user-generated content and all the other forms of conversational and democratic storytelling would appeal to people who dedicated their lives to telling stories and spreading information.But I was wrong.New media has brought out the worst in many teachers, turning them defensive, bitter, cowardly and curmudgeonly. The rise of new media, in other words, has had the same effect on many teachers that it has had on many legacy editors.But there is a difference between editors and teachers. And it's silly for us not to acknowledge it: We can fire editors.Many journalism programs are burdened with teachers who are poorly suited to teach a subject that changes as rapidly as does the media world.But we're stuck with them. The rules of tenure and the traditions of academia mean that these folks ain't going anywhere.So it's time for a "work around."
Read the entire post here ...Â
Late last month came news that b-to-b publisher Questex was buying FierceMarkets, the online-only publisher best known for its niche, email newsletters. I said then that I thought the deal had some major implications for our industry. Today I'd like to elaborate.
First, I want to make it clear that the FierceMarkets deal doesn't change my opinion of email newsletters. As a general rule, I can't stand the things. I much prefer to get my news and information via RSS feeds. As I wrote on this blog slightly more than two years ago: "With RSS I don't have to worry about annoying "unsubscribe" functions that don't work properly. With RSS I'm not subjected to a never-ending stream of spam and other marketing nonsense from publishers. For a content consumer, RSS is a vastly superior delivery mechanism. And I expect that, eventually, every consumer will demand it."
I still believe that.
But I also believe that this is not the time for b-to-b publishers to walk away from email newsletters. There's still money to made with themâ€”lots of money. That's why publishers love them. But someday soon it will become clear that publishers' love of newsletters will not be able to compete with users' love of convenience and control.
But my dislike of email newsletters doesn't change the fact that I like the Questex/FierceMarkets deal. And here's why: I have a feeling (and it's really just a feeling, I don't have much hard information), that the deal isn't really about newsletters. Nor, for that matter, did Questex buy the company because FierceMarkets also distributes news via RSS. Nor is the deal about FierceMarkets' cash flow or profits.
I think Questex bought FierceMarkets' staff. This is a deal about people ... a sort of large-scale version of what Rex Hammock calls an "acqhire". I think Questex decided to buy a staff that understands the Web.
To understand what I mean, take a look at FierceWireless.
Drill down a bit. Read some pieces. Make note of the Web-friendly writing, short stories, agnostic links and reader-friendly design. Then head over to Questex. Make your way to the page about the company's telecom products.Then try, as I have several times today, to visit Wireless Asia.
What I found was a dead link. You can also try searching for "Wireless Asia" on Google. What you'll find is that the top link goes to Telecomasia.netâ€”the same dead link. In fact, the only live link I can find to Wireless Asia is to a three-year old media kit from when the product was owned by Advanstar.
And as I made my way around the Questex site today what I found over and over and over again was a series of dead links.
Now I don't want to judge Questex based on what appears to be a bunch of technical glitches. These things happen. But it seems to me that the dead links are indicative of a larger cultural problem at Questex.
I did eventually find some links that worked. Take a look at the site for Response Magazine or American Salon. See if it's as clear to you as it is to me that the sites are afterthoughts ... an endless series of in-house ads aimed at getting people to subscribe to the print products.
I believe that Questexâ€”like many other B2B publishers and newspaper companiesâ€”has recognized that it needs a staff that thinks of the Web first. And Questex, like many other publishing companies, has come to believe that its existing staff was never going to get there. So Questex did the right thing: it bought some folks who could help lead the company into the future.
FierceMarkets had been in play for awhile. And I know that some potential buyers thought the asking price was too high. But those folks were looking to add to already sophisticated Web teams. They didn't need to "acqhire" anyone. They just wanted to buy some cash flow and growth potential.
But Questex saw something else in FierceMarkets, something it neededâ€”an editorial staff that could help shape the company's future.
We're going to see more of this. We may see a lot more of this. And as a general rule, I'm likely to applaud such "acqhires" of a Web-savvy staff. But I'd urge caution. FierceMarkets is a fairly rare bird. Not every online-only company is staffed by very bright people. And even the smartest number crunchers won't necessarily recognize brilliance in an online editorial staff.So make sure that whoever does your "acqhiring" or hiring understands Web culture.