Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The direction of directories

I try to stay out of the print-is-dead debate. To me, there is no debate.
Some of print is dead. Some of it isn't...yet. And some of it will live forever.
For example, there will always be a place for the long-form narrative. That style of writing simply cannot work well on the Web, but it is too beloved by writers and readers to disappear. The narrative will fade further from magazines and newspapers and drift deeper into books. But it will stay a print product.
On the other hand, some forms of print are clearly already dead. When was the last time you checked a stock quote in a newspaper? How can such a print product compete with real-time quotes that link to research reports and fundamental analysis?
Other forms of print are wounded, perhaps mortally. Newspaper classifieds are ancient now, and largely useless. Craigslist has changed everything. Smart papers are looking for online ways to compete. Print classifieds may have a longer life in B2B magazines, I suppose. But classifieds must be searchable to compete. So smart B2B publishers will also move such products online.
On the other hand, I may be the only person on earth who thinks the future of print directories is secure. (Even the king of directory publishing -- the Thomas Register -- disagrees with me.)
Every B2B company I have ever worked with has some form of textbook-sized directory of the industries they serve. At Vance, we published the Red Book Credit Service guide to produce and shipping companies. It was impossible to work in the produce industry without having the book on your desk. At Traffic World and the Journal of Commerce we published guides to logistics companies, railroad executives and ports. At Primedia, there were separate companies such as Bacon's that published directories. Many of the magazines at Primedia published directories of their own. And later today, when I work on some newsletters for OPIS, I'll likely consult one of the Stalsby directories of petroleum executives.
Certainly there are compelling arguments to be made that these products cannot continue in print. Their primary purpose is as a reference tool, yet they aren't searchable. More importantly, the distribution and printing costs of such oversized products is troubling.
But I think they will survive.
Up until two years ago, I was municipal finance editor for Bloomberg News. Bloomberg had taken a look at the insular world of municipal-bond trading and decided it could do a better job of covering the industry than the trade pubs did. In particular, Bloomberg thought it could beat "The Bond Buyer," the daily tabloid newspaper that served the industry.
I'd argue that Bloomberg succeeded. Muni bonds are an insider's game. Connections -- both personal and political -- determine success. Bloomberg assumed that the muni market was in need of more new and openness. Most importantly, Bloomberg assumed that the muni market would quickly dump the day-old data that filled the back of "The Bond Buyer" in favor of real-time data on the Bloomberg terminals.
To a degree, Bloomberg was right on all counts. "The Bond Buyer" now has a far more extensive online offering than it did just a few years ago. I suspect that even the old timers at that paper recognize that print is not the medium for people who trade real money in real time.
But what hasn't changed....and I suspect never will...is the directory that "The Bond Buyer" publishes. It's called the "Municipal Marketplace." But most folks refer to it as "the Red Book."
I know that every day at Bloomberg I turned to the directory -- searching for sources, checking names, etc. It was a very valuable tool for a journalist and a very valuable tool for anyone in the muni industry.
I don't see that changing anytime soon. And I can't shake the feeling that the physical product -- oversized and in print -- is the key to its usefulness. There's something reassuring about being able to "reach out" for information by reaching across your desk. There's some valuable, emotional connection in these products.
This week, SourceMedia announced an expansion of the Red Book's listings. I think that's a good idea. At least in this small slice of B2B media, print is not dead. And just in case I'm wrong, SourceMedia also offers the Red Book online.

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