For Sale

By Thomas R. Temin
Media and Government Consulting

So, Reed Business Information is for sale. Its Dutch parent is divesting itself of a division which, at one time, was the chief profit contributor to its then-parent, Reed International. Now some financial entity will buy it, and who knows what will happen.

This is an ignominious end for a company that at one time set the standard for business-to-business publishing. It feels like Jaguar and Land Rover being bought by Ford, which is unloading them on the Tata Group of India. So much for the British Empire. Maybe Tata, an impressive conglomerate, would buy RBI.

It could happen. Content generation, copy editing and production can and is being done in India for lots of publishers. Tata has a partnership with McGraw Hill to reprint technical books.

I spent 17 years, or nearly a third of my life, at RBI, which was then called by its proper and historical name: Cahners Publishing Company. I loved it there. I worked on Purchasing Magazine when I started on June 30, 1980. The place wasn’t perfect—you won’t catch me getting all misty maudlin. But it had lots of quirky, colorful people. In those days Boston was headquarters, and the company inhabited an antique brick former factory—now condos—at the edge of the good part of town. That gave Cahners a feeling of genteel poverty when in fact it made a lot of money.

Cahners referred to Norman Cahners (1914-1986), the legendary founder. A shrewd, tough kid from Maine, he’d married well and done well. I respect his memory the most for something even fewer remember: He qualified for the 1936 U.S. Olympic track team out of Harvard but, along with Milton Green, boycotted the tryouts and thus the Olympics out of disgust with Nazi Germany.

Although it didn’t seem so at the time, publishing was a simpler business then. No web, for one thing. Cahners lived by what were affectionately known as Norman’s Niches. Each magazine was governed by a document of six or seven paragraphs describing its market served, audience, circulation, and editorial approach. Norman and his equally formidable partner, Saul Goldweitz (1920-1998) expected publishers and chief editors to have their magazine’s niche memorized. They in turn expected staff members to do the same. I was once called on to recite the niche at a sales luncheon—a moment I remember more than 25 years later.

The point is, Cahners had a non-nonsense, eminently practical approach. Build an audience of people who buy in a given industry, mail them information they need, and sell a lot of ads. The magazines were solid, predictable—and eagerly read and fat with ads.

But things eventually unravel. A series of Reed acquisitions added to the Cahners stable had made the place unwieldy. There were failed gambits in CD-ROMs, the Reed merger with Elsevier, the latter having a totally different business model and culture. Starting in the late ‘90s, the company was plagued by revolving door leadership and befuddlement over digital strategy.

Like other publishing companies with visionary founders—Ziff and CMP come to mind—Cahners/Reed has become just another financial entity to be bought and sold, traded among MBA types.

Thomas R. Temin is a consultant with 30 years of publishing experience in media and information technology products and services. He is co-host of “The Federal Drive” with Tom Temin and Jane Norris, a weekday morning news and talk program on Federal News Radio AM 1050 in Washington D.C. You can see his weekly column on the op-ed page at www.federalnewsradio.com and contact him at tom.temin@gmail.com.

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3 thoughts on “For Sale

  1. Hello Mr Ternin,I read your post with interest, particularly the comment:“the Reed merger with Elsevier, the <>latter having a totally different business model and culture<>. Starting in the late ‘90s, the company was plagued by revolving door leadership and befuddlement over digital strategy.”I am writing a blog about the RBI divestment (http://divestmentwatch.blogspot.com/) and one of the topics I want to cover is about culture and mergers.It would be useful to contrast your experiences of the impact on the “Cahner’s Culture” by the merger with Elsevier with what current RBI employees (such as myself) might expect when we merge with our new owners. For example, how would you have described the Elsevier culture, how did it differ from your own, what were the points of friction and what do you think management could have done in advance to “grease the gears” so that things merged together better? Any more thoughts on the divestment in general or the befuddlement also highly appreciated too!yours sincerely,Steve

  2. As one of the “quirky and colorful” crew from the old days, I share your sense of wonder at how an organization that was once the gold standard of its kind could fall so far. I think the answer is pretty simple: Beginning in the late ’80s, the company was owned by people who saw it–rightly–as a money machine. But they forgot–or never knew–that simply taking profits without reinvesting was a dead end. I wasn’t around for the really bad stuff, but I heard stories: They’d ask questions like “Why do you have a copy editor?” Not in the sense of what the job entailed, but why the job was still there at all. They didn’t understand that readers might actually pick up the magazines to read something other than the advertising. I’d like to say things have improved, but as far as I can tell the situation in the business press is worse than ever.

  3. The Divestment Watch blog that Steve started was unfortunately shut down.< HREF="http://www.foliomag.com/2008/publisher-employee-stop-blogging" REL="nofollow">See story.<> Martha SpizziriASBPE Web EditorVP, Boston/New England chapter

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