A Look at Magazine Publishing’s CEO Exodus
As losses mount, top executives are looking for (are being shown?) the door.
From magazine shutterings, to fire sales to Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings, the effects of the tumultuous U.S economy continue to spill over into magazine publishing. So much so, in fact, we’ve recently seen top executives leave some of the biggest publishing companies in the country.
While there were others this year, the resignations have added up in recent weeks. First it was Jim Spanfeller, who said in July that he will be leaving Forbes.com as president and CEO sometime this month. Less than two weeks later—on the same day—Rodale president and CEO Steven Pleshette Murphy and Reed Business Information U.S. CEO Tad Smith resigned 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?
In the case of Tad Smith, a pair of fellow b-to-b CEOs speculate he was bound to leave RBI as 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 said. “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.”
Two weeks after resigning from RBI, 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 said. “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.”
At RBI, executive vice president and CFO John Poulin was appointed acting CEO, replacing Smith and reporting to RBI Global CEO Keith Jones—who conducted the company’s portfolio review. According to one b-to-b CEO, the person who replaces Smith full-time will depend on the buyer. “I would venture it will be somebody from outside b-to-b media,” the CEO said.
‘That’s Just Crappy Reporting’
When Forbes announced that Jim Spanfeller was stepping down as president and CEO of Forbes.com, 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: at the time. “Unless Elevation Partners has the ability to stick thoughts in my head, they had nothing to do with my decision to leave.”
Spanfeller— said he plans to launch a media management firm this fall to manage and build up publishers’ online businesses—also dodged reports that he was pushed out due to declining traffic at Forbes.com. “Anyone with any tenure in the online space knows that different sources you go to for traffic numbers are problematic at best,” he said. “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 unique in 2001 to 18 million to 20 million today.”
Getting 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, granddaughter of founder J.I. Rodale was tapped to succeed Murphy as CEO.
Murphy joined Rodale in 2000 and was named CEO two years later. During his tenure as chief executive, the company said it experienced its most profitable period in its history. But today, with advertising spending drying up, ad pages across Rodale’s six magazines tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau were down a collective 17.92 percent through the first half.
“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.”