With Gourmet Gone, You Know There’s a Recession

By Thomas Temin

If General Motors and Lehman Brothers can bite the dust, why not Gourmet magazine, for so many decades the Bible of chefs and foodies alike? A Wall Street Journal story on Oct. 6 noted that being reviewed in Gourmet could make a chef’s reputation.

Also out the door is Modern Bride, for a while some years ago part of the Cahners stable. The late Cele Lalli was the editor then, and at the editors’ meetings – back when they still had chief editors gatherings in nice resorts or conference centers – she was always a joy to hang out with. Maybe it was the fact she had earlier been editor of Amazing Stories that made Cele so cool and unpretentious.

In those days, Modern Bride might have been chasing Brides – which Conde Nast will continue publishing – but there was advertising enough that they could both have 600-page issues. Those of us in the electronics and engineering magazines would be gaga at the amount of advertising carried in such a seemingly frivolous topic as wedding planning. Cele used to say that readers would continue their subscriptions for six months or a year after getting married.

But even the bosses at Conde Nast must have been dreaming to think that they could publish both Brides and Modern Bride (and Elegant Bride to boot) and sell some differentiating story to advertisers. The acquisition of competitors under a single roof – has there ever been a successful stunt like that where both survive long term? Certainly not in a market where, as in so many markets, ad pages are dropping 25 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent.

Conde, like other publishers, is focusing ever more resources on digital products. In a market like bridal fashion, planning and accessories, the digital possibilities are rich, for sure. Brides.com has all sorts of online toys, such as the fun, if somewhat useless, Create a Cake to full-scale financial and party planning tools for the Big Day. Where else but in a bridal blog might you find out about a new necktie for “hubby” from Thomas Pink that incorporates an i-Pod pocket?

But I suspect this is a market where there will always be at least one dominant print product. Print is still the best way to display the gorgeous wedding gowns and resort destinations, and where a reader can fantasize about her wedding day while lying across the bed instead of sitting at a desk.

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.

Where Is B2B as U.S. Gets Reinvented?

By Thomas R. Temin
Media and Government Consulting

If you read the daily, traditional media, you might believe these “facts”:

  • 50 million Americans have no access to health care.
  • The cap-and-trade system being debated in Congress will help the U.S. reduce carbon dioxide emissions and thereby help reduce global warming.
  • The stimulus bill, formally known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, is pumping $787 billion into the economy and creating several million jobs.
  • General Motors had a hidebound, political culture and that is why it failed. The new CEO has set out to change all that.
  • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says windmills off the Eastern shore of the U.S. could generate 1,000 gigawatts of electricity.

The last statement is true, but it is patently absurd. The others represent the Obama administration party line, but contain demonstrable half-truths, falsehood and highly debatable points.

Yet this is what people read day in and day out in the newspapers, and what they hear on television. One fact that is true: politicians and political activists of all stripes are using statistics and highly interpreted “facts” to try and remake the American economy in an extremely expensive and risky set of schemes.

And so there is a perfect opportunity for the trade, business-to-business press to cut through the nonsense with its deep knowledge of narrow markets and the economics that drive them. Engineering publications can sort myth from reality about wind power. Management and finance-focused publications should be able to write in more deeply informed ways about companies like General Motors or Bank of America.

Yet the trade press is filled with optimistic headlines about how programs like the stimulus bill is helping our industry, whatever it might be. It is mainly the bloggers who are analyzing and finding the holes in popular shibboleths. There are exceptions. A story this month in Medical Economics blew holes in the growing disaster for physicians that is Massachusetts mandatory health coverage. But for the most part, you could hardly tell from the B2B media that the federal government is on the verge of upending perhaps 50 percent of the U.S. economy. Of all times, this is when the perception and discernment of people who know what they are talking about needs to come to the fore and join the debate.

Listen to Temin weekday mornings 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. at Federal News Radio 1500 AM in Washington D.C. and read his federal market analysis fortnightly at FedInsider.com and follow his IT and media blog posts at Meritalk.com.

How Is Your Business?

By Thomas R. Temin

How do you balance the experience of web site visitors with the need to drive revenue?

Judging from visits to a number of B2B sites lately, it seems as if in at least half the cases, revenue is winning out over a clean user experience.

Like, “window shade” ads that drop right down over the story you are trying to access. Or worse, that come up before the home page itself. Sometimes these ads are accompanied by a coy link: “Skip this introductory screen.” Introductory screen? Talk about a euphemism.

Equally maddening are the survey boxes that pop up while you are reading. Especially egregious are those that stay in the middle of the screen even while you try to scroll past them. Sometimes they are advertising-driven, sometimes put there by a bozo in the digital media department is trying to gauge reader interest, nevermind that a good program to mine the log files can give you reams of information about reader habits.

How about animated ads that sometimes seem designed to invoke seizures? One site had a basketball team ad, with a spinning basketball that was so annoying, the publication must have gotten reader complaints, because the ad suddenly started appearing with the animation turned off.

Watched any videos online lately? What was a 15-second standard for ads has crept to 30 seconds in some cases. That will prompt a lot of visitors to say, “Fhuggetaboutit.”

I get steamed by mouse-over, or roll-over, ads that serve up even when you haven’t clicked on them. Sure, there’s a tiny little message on the link area, but that is easily overlooked. And, some sites today are so slow to load, that fidgety visitors who are mousing around, trying to read something before the 110 elements that comprise the page finally loaded, inadvertently mouse-over an ad.

Given the dire straits in which the publishing industry finds itself, it’s no wonder that advertisers have the upper hand. They are clever at devising ways to get their ads served up, and few publishers are in a position to turn down revenue.

So the best that editors can do is make sure, once readers clear the clutter of ads, that sites are as cleanly presented and fast-loading as possible. (Problems created by editors and site designers themselves will be the topic for another day.)

Perhaps there is even a deeper strategy: use of editorial thinking to suggest classier ways advertisers can get their messages across without gumming up the site. Sponsored video sections with good production values, white papers presented in a straightforward fashion and other paid-for content – as long as it is clearly labeled so as not to fool readers – might appeal to advertisers and get them to skip the gimmicks. Everyone would be better off.

Thomas R. Temin is a consultant with 30 years of publishing experience in media and information technology products and services. He is also co-host of “The Federal Drive” with Tom Temin and Jane Norris, a weekday morning news and talk program on Federal News Radio AM 1500 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.

Sure, ’09 Will Be Tough. You Can Tell the Grownups, Though: They Think Rationally

By Thomas R. Temin

It must have been about three years ago that I was having coffee with a former assistant managing editor at the Washington Post. We met just after the first of what would be several waves of layoffs and buyouts at the paper. Her staff had been cut by about 10 percent. She was realistic about the situation, and had told her staff, “Let’s face it. The blanket doesn’t quite cover the bed anymore.”

The blanket doesn’t cover the bed.

That’s become the condition throughout the publishing world — maybe the entire economy — in the last few months. The resources to do what we used to do, they just aren’t there. So now is the time to think realistically, rationally. Not scared and hair-trigger.

My friend’s response was simple but rational: Narrow the focus a bit and concentrate on doing what remained as well as possible. Eliminate some nonessential nice-to-haves, but keep the meat on the bones.

If only that was the strategy of all publishers. To be sure, not many monthly business-to-business, controlled circulation magazines can afford eight or nine full-time editors and writers, plus copy editor, art director and makeup person. It’s not, say, 1989 in the computer industry any more.

The problem is too many publishers are not merely trimming the blanket, they are slashing it down to a Barbie-doll size. They are not thinking rationally. In a growing number of titles, you can see the effects of overstretched editorial staffs. Both print and digital products suffer.

Matching resources to the business you really have makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is cutting so much that the product suffers and then wondering why the market seems to be disappearing. No, that’s the way leveraged roll-up outfits operate, but not committed, passionate publishers. Don’t be like the airlines and declare war on your customers by diminishing your product.

Remember how expensive color was once upon a time when each shade required the art department to cut a Rubylith and entailed stripping and plate charges at the printer? During one recession, I promised a crusty publisher I would slash color — and color costs — right away. He steamed: “Don’t just cut color! You’ll have a dull book!” Better, he told a then-young EIC, spend on color where you’ll get the most impact, trying to reduce overall costs. Do it rationally, in other words.

Here are a few pieces of advice for 2009:

  • Be a little ruthless in your appraisal of what you can afford to print and what you need for a good web site. Both can’t be all things to all readers. But print is not dead, and in some highly visual markets it never will be. Approach the print-digital challenge for the constantly shifting balance it is. Talk of “dead tree” editions is irrational. Using print as efficiently as possible in terms of frequency, format and content — that’s rational.
  • Take care of your franchise players. If the staff must be smaller, don’t expect a top-notch publication from a bunch of cheap kids. For a recognized and high-performing chief editor or senior editor, what, in the end, is the real cost of having them leave as opposed to giving them a $5,000 bonus? Remember, we’re still in the journalism business, and expecting great editorial on the cheap is daydreaming. It’s like sales. Nobody ever went broke paying sales commissions.
  • Look for cheap n’ easy digital solutions to your need for interactivity and social networking on your site. I know one title that grafted its logo onto a Google group and created a nearly free reader-interaction site. At least it buys time.
  • Don’t be squeamish about third-party content. It’s a long way from judiciously augmenting your staff and freelance work with third-party content, and turning your site into a mindless, RSS-driven link-fest. Again, think rationally.

Thomas R. Temin is a consultant with 30 years of publishing experience in media and information technology products and services. He is also co-host of “The Federal Drive” with Tom Temin and Jane Norris, a weekday morning news and talk program on Federal News Radio AM 1500 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.

The Basics Apply Online, Maybe Even More So

By Thomas R. Temin
Media and Government Consulting

In judging for the ASBPE awards, consulting and just noodling around on the internet, I find some things that are just plain annoying.

Here are some of my pet peeves, and I’ll bet they are your readers’ pet peeves, too:

Pricing shell game: What does this research cost to download? How much do you charge for a subscription? Is there even a charge in the first place? Too often, we make visitors click deep into a chain of steps before revealing the price for a product or service offered online. If you are worried that putting a price tag up front will scare people away, then do a bang-up job of writing your sell language.

Take a page from the web site of Business Travel News. At the bottom of its home page the two classes of research available — free and premium or paid — are clearly marked.

Lack of news archive: A reader is thinking, “I know they had a story about XYZ in the last couple of weeks.” But we dish up disappointment, because our online archive of daily web postings only goes back a few days. Readers want a deeper archive, preferably with a robust search function. Heck, our own staff wants it. So why don’t more publications provide it?

Check out this example of a great archive from Government Executive.

Arcade game home page: Rotating lede stories, each with its own compelling illustration, has become popular. Yet some sites lack a way for the visitor to turn the carousel back a notch to a piece that went by before they could click on the link. If you’ve got five or six stories spinning by, each one taking seven or eight seconds, I guarantee you’ll have an impatient reader — presuming he or she sticks around to wait for the story to come around.

The Wall Street Journal figured out this one. Note the clear PREV and NEXT buttons under the rotating feature container.

Who pulled down that window shade? Without doubt, visitors hate what I call window shade ads. You click on a story and – whoops – an ad drapes down over the entire site. There’s a “skip this ad” or similar link, but what a way to frustrate readers! I know the ad climate is difficult, and often publishers lack the leverage they need to refuse this kind of visit-spoiling practice. But has anyone asked an advertiser, maybe they’ll get more clicks with a well positioned, well-written ad that doesn’t frustrate site visitors?

No point in linking to a site that does not have such ads, so root around the Washington Post site and sooner or later you’ll bump your nose into a window shade.

Help, get my sunglasses! As sites grow, they sometimes get cluttered. After a while, it’s time for a little pruning. Not because you are a neat freak, but because your identity and strong branding can get spoiled if the site’s appearance gets out of control.

The famous million dollar home page is the epitome of clutter. That’s what makes it unique and fun. But you don’t want your site to look like that. The trick is finding a balance between dull or generic, and too busy.

From the recent ASBPE contest, I found ALM’s law.com to strike that balance quite well. It’s loaded with information, yet manages to look organized, even dignified while conveying the excitement of new news.

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.

Time to Reassess With Whom You Compete and Cooperate

By Thomas R. Temin
Media and Government Consulting

After nearly three decades in print B2B journalism, I find it hard to get the classic model out of my head. There’s an audience; there’s a set of advertisers; and there is a publishing company that hires the people necessary to sell, produce and market a magazine. It has printing contracts and people who understand the postal service.

As the editor, you have a fleet of reporters, two or three if a small magazine, more if a big one. You get the idea.

But two developments in my own career in the business-to-government market have changed my world view of the centricity of traditional magazines.

The first development is my joining the world of radio broadcasting. I host a show on a station that focuses on the federal government—makes sense in Washington, D.C. A kind of B2B magazine of the air, it covers many of the same topics as the magazines I used to edit and compete with. But on the air, we borrow heavily from the B2B magazines and web sites that compete with us in the market. Nobody minds. We take care to attribute the stories we quote, but the real benefit to the magazines is, their stories get amplified and redistributed in a value-added way, the added value being our commentary, and the immediacy and liveliness of radio. We get material that augments our small reporting staff and roster of live guests each morning.

Everyone seems okay with the arrangement. Sometimes, the publications attribute a story to our radio station.

The second development is a new web site developed by a large, local advertising and PR agency. I work on a retainer basis as the editor of its large list of contributors, some quite prominent, all of whom are in the same field, government, both federal managers and contract workers. This site has a place for any visitor to post information — white papers, videos, press releases, you name it. The agency has an industry e-mail list of more than 40,000 to which to market this site, and it is operated independently of the agency and its clients.

So you see? What many editors thought was competition can actually be complementary media, at least editorially. And what you might have thought was irrelevant can become a competitor. Although our radio station is on both the Internet and the AM band, many new stations are Internet-only. So neither publishers nor broadcasters have the expensive barriers to entry they faced yesteryear.

New competitors are hitting traditional publications from a variety of sources, all digital. With stealthy marketing, these online offerings can capture readers and advertisers before your publishing staff is even aware of them.

This means editors have to be less parochial about sources of material than they used to be — not so much repurposing what other people publish, but willing to form cooperative arrangements for content. And it means something you’ve known forever. That is, you’ve got to stay really close to the audience and the market so you don’t get taken by surprise.

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.

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.

How WWW Changed the World of Publishing

By Thomas R. Temin
Media and Government Consulting

After 30 years in business-to-business publishing, I decided to hang my shingle as a consultant. One reason resulted from a question I was asked at an industry conference. The organizers had convened a panel of magazine editors covering their industry — in this case, government programs and information technology. Someone asked, “What are the three biggest changes that have happened in your world of publishing?”

The answer was obvious: WWW.

The first time I saw the World Wide Web was on a Sun workstation in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. An appointee in President Clinton’s public affairs team was a really, really early adopter. One Saturday he was giving me a tour of the West Wing and we stopped in his office and he showed me how a browser works and loaded some web page from Japan. It’s hard to remember now, but people at first had to get used to the idea of the web and of graphical pages being served via the Internet.

My first magazine web site went up in early 1996. It was primitive. We had no way of knowing who was reading it, or if anyone was.

A dozen years later, I find my clients in the B2B publishing world still struggling with the right digital strategy.

They are struggling for a number of reasons. Chief among these:

  • Digital departments that are disconnected from the publishers responsible for the title.
  • Editors who confuse web technology with content development. Editors never operated printing presses, so why should they fiddle with web plumbing?
  • Editors who can’t grasp that they are in the daily journalism business now. Or that the ad inventory challenges are completely different from those in print.
  • Editors and publishers who can’t figure out how to tailor their online strategies to their particular markets. Often they fixate on a model because they like it in some other market, regardless of whether it works for them. Take a look at the Google and Yahoo home pages to get an idea of the range of possible home page approaches alone.
  • Sloppy resource allocation or a failure to take into account the real costs of producing web content.
  • Failure to recognize that what works now may need revision in six months, but there are no processes in place to provide sufficient flexibility.

I’ll discuss each of these in more detail in future postings.

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.