Starting a discussion about the future of B2B Media
Since as long as I can remember, the business press has been spoken of as the poor relation of the media sector. Dull, boring, worthy. For the same amount of time we have been pretending that we are on the cusp of being cool. I remember in the mid to late eighties giving an interview to Media Week , which was then very new and very interested in business media, where I argued excatly that. Business media was coming of age (I think we called it business publishing then, thinking that was more sophisticated than trade and tech!). I can hear myself saying it behind a rather preposterous moustache. (what was I thinking?)
I think now that debate is moribund and perverse. Business media journalism has always been highly valued by the newspapers, largely because, for all its faults, the resource applied to a sector ensured that what the trade title wrote was pretty damn good, and proabably more knowledgable than anything the national press could write. Back in 1996 when I left Reed, Caterer and Hotelkeeper had a total edit team of about 25 people. Wow!
Today the world is rather strange. All trade mags are living on considerably smaller edit resources than was the case ten years ago. A business journalist today must not only walk his beat and write his story, but probably sub it, lay it out and before very long (if paid circ numbers on business mags are anything to go by), read it too. Newspapers are facing the same pressures. If you haven’t already do read Flat Earth News to understand the impact of editorial resource constraint in news.
Once upon a time the national newspapers would scour the trades for leads or stories they could repeat. They probably still do. The problem is the trades are scouring the nationals for their business stories too! Its a unvirtuous circle which inevitably means standards are falling both in national newspaper coverage and in business media coverage.
On top of the dangers of budget restraint, the growth of the Internet has had two pernicious effects on the future editorial viability of business magazines. First the news, the lifeblood of a weekly mag, is available 24/7 and immediately. I haven’t picked up a copy of Media Week or Press Gazette since we sold them four years ago. This hasn’t been deliberate, its just that I don’t need them any longer when I can find the news on the web. I bet your reading habits have changed. And so have all the readers of business magazines habits changed.
The second effect has been the result of the phenomonen you are reading now. The lone or collaborating blogger. It is almost a cliche that now everyone is a journalist. As journalists get laid off, there will be more and more lone writers. They are often pretty good too. Try this for an experiment. Read the Press Gazette web site and then read Jon Slattery (a former PG long term staffer). Which is better? In addition the business world is full of what we might call “expert witnesses”, not journos but just well informed folk who for the first time have a mouthpiece they can access. Some of them are pretty good too.
This has had dramatic impact on business magazine brands. Far from being the “bible of the industry” they are reduced to being one of many sources of information in a world where reader loyalty is as fickle as a click on a Google search result.
It has been said by many in our business (including me from time to time) that it is the business media sector that has led the way in exploiting the Internet. The good folk at Outsell will give you numerous examples of how business media companies have built workflow and paid information solutions and so on. Quite right too. But what about the future of business to business journalism? How can we make money and provide a credible information service to business decsion makers that will help them make a better decision?
The horrible truth is that right now, we are long way from knowing the answer to that problem but we can begin to ask ourselves the right questions. It is an undeniable fact that profitability of business magazines is in decline. It almost certainly true that this decline is, if not terminal, then chronically debilitating. The migration to web based business solutions has for the most part been a shambles. Inferior web offerings have been subsidised by weakening off line prioducts. For those without a substantial online recruitment offering, revenues are sparse- at least when compared to the good old days of successful business magazine publishing.
With the state of the world being as it is, there is no more time in my view, to put off dealing with the issue. In future papers I want to talk about some of the ways we can tackle the problem I have outlined in this paper. There are many. The topics can include pricing strategy, the role of offline magazines in an online world, building a new advertiser paradigm, how to afford editorial, where are the new online opportunities, what is stopping the business media companies from being businesses with high growth potential, what needs to be done now to survive the downturn, what skills are needed to get this done, how should we contruct our organisations to get this done, what’s wrong with b2b sales people and why it’s not their fault, what is the role of paid information, what do advertisers really want and why they won’t buy online ads from you?
If you can, join the conversation or by all means contact me privately if you prefer at email@example.com
In the meantime though let me leave you with this observation. Where traditional media companies have done well in building on line business models it has almost always been a result of buying wisely (think of Emap and WGN), or nurturing new models away from the traditional business (think Total Jobs at Reed). Why then have we found it so hard to face up to this in migrating our news and information model from the tree to the web?
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