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 firstname.lastname@example.org.