Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Birthday, dear blog. Happy birthday to you

God how time flies.
It was five years ago today that I launched this blog.
Much has changed since then -- particularly my career.
When I started this blog I was largely unknown to much of the industry. But because of the kind support of my early readers, my name got passed around. And because of that, I've been able to do what I set out to do on Dec. 22, 2004, -- share my thoughts about the challenges that B2B journalism was about to face.
So I want to take a moment here to say "thanks" to those folks who offered their support way, way back in the early days.

Today it's not all that hard to share my thoughts about the industry.
Heck, sometimes folks even ask for my opinion!
And sometimes my ramblings get published on places other than this blog.
Folio magazine, for example, was kind enough to ask for my predictions for 2010. And although I was late in getting something to them, I did manage to put something together.
Take a look here to read a slew of opinions, including mine, about what next year holds.
(Also, I swear, that I will soon get around to writing a follow-up to last year's prediction that the "B2B industry as we know it is about to collapse." That article is now the most-read piece in the history of this blog ... and it's holding up pretty well a year later.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looking ahead at content marketing

It's prediction time. Everyone in media is publishing their lists of insights and wild guesses for the upcoming year.
I'm no different ... except that I'm running way behind schedule since finishing off an eight-month consulting gig last Friday. It's just too hard to do anything other than goof off with my daughter, who yesterday informed me that "working is silly."
So until she takes a nap long enough to allow me to get around to revisiting last year's prediction that the "B2B industry as we know it is about to collapse," I'll just link to other places where my predictions might appear.

First up is this list from 99 of the best minds in content-marketing (plus me) on what 2010 holds for the industry.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rest in Peace, old buddy

Last night, sitting in an airport and reading the news on my iPhone, I learned that a friend and former boss had died.
And I want to take a few moments here today to remember him ... and to share with you why he was important to those of us in B2B.
Mark Pittman was only 52 when he died. But he was already a legend in the business. If you didn't know Mark or his work, take a few minutes now to read about his accomplishments. CJR has links to major events in his career as well as an interview with him from earlier this year. And the Washington Post has published a fitting obituary.

Mark will be remembered as one of a handful of reporters who sounded the alarm as the world neared financial chaos. That's a good way to be remembered. He did his job. And he did it well at a time when few others did.

When I worked with Mark, he was the team leader of the Public Finance team at Bloomberg. I was the editor on that team. But before I write another word, let me make one thing clear: I had nothing to do with Mark's remarkable accomplishment in deciphering -- and warning the world -- about the madness that had taken over the markets.
Mark was my boss, not the other way around. And he was the guy who first taught me about credit-default swaps, mortgage-backed securities and other derivatives, and the dangers they hid. I don't think I taught the guy a thing.
More importantly, Mark's greatest accomplishment (the Loeb Award) took place well after I left Bloomberg. Although I was a fan of the fantastic stuff he wrote in recent years, I was not his editor for any of it.

But let's put aside Mark's accomplishments for now. Because I can't write about Mark without writing about what he meant to me personally while I was at Bloomberg.
Anyone who knows me knows that I disliked working at Bloomberg. I just couldn't stand what Portfolio called "the famously bizarre corporate culture" at Bloomberg.
But I liked Mark.
Heck, I loved Mark. It was impossible to do otherwise. He was a bigger-than-life, over-the-top, lovable stereotype of the perfect reporter. He drank. He smoked. He worked too hard (he went weeks and weeks limping around the office in a makeshift bandage and untied sneaker rather than take time to visit the doctor after injuring his foot.)
He was also both an inspiring iconoclast and a genuinely kind man in a culture that seemed to disdain both individualism and sweetness.

He was also, ultimately, a guy who loved this game.
He lived for the story. He believed -- in a way that's all too rare in B2B -- that his role was to bring difficult truths into the light.
I think of him often when I run into B2B journalists who spend their days worrying about how advertisers or publishers might react to a story. I think of Mark every time a B2B journalist starts talking about "my industry" and I realize he means the industry he covers, rather than the B2B publishing industry he works in.
Mark was never the sort to wonder what his role was. He wasn't a businessman. He was a business journalist.
And he was one of the best there ever was.
I'm going to miss you, old buddy.

For an interesting take on Mark's career from a former critic, look at this post on Reuters.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A tale of two audiences

I visited the campus of Northwestern University a few weeks ago to do some recruiting for a client. Things worked out OK. I met a few interesting students. And at least one of them may get a job out of it.
But the overall experience of my day on campus was a bit disconcerting, as has often been the case when I visit with academics and students.
And, with one notable exception, things were disconcerting in the same way they've been for years now.

The more things change ...
First, let me mention the exception.
For the first time in the five years or so that I've been visiting with students, every single person I met at Northwestern had at least basic multimedia skills and some Web experience. I cannot begin to tell you what a relief that was.
On the other hand, I saw too much of the same-old nonsense I've come to expect on campuses. One student handed me a cover letter with spelling and grammar errors. Most of the students who signed up for an interview had failed to do even cursory research on me or my client. One didn't even know my name. Not one student could correctly answer my all-purpose, do-you-know-anything-about-business questions (1. Approximately where did the Dow close yesterday? And 2. Roughly what would it cost to buy an ounce of gold today? I was willing to accept anything remotely close to 10,000 and $1,000 as answers.)
And, of course, none of the students seemed to have any idea at all about B2B publishing.

When my day ended I left the old, dusty journalism building and walked about 15 yards to a brand-spanking-new building where a colleague was to give a presentation about opportunities in marketing.
And that brief journey was like walking into an entirely new world.
Whereas only two people had attended a presentation earlier in the day with me and a recruiter from the Village Voice, this room was packed with students from Northwestern's new program in integrated marketing communications.
More importantly, the students in the marketing meeting were engaged -- typing notes on laptops, asking good questions. They seemed excited and eager to learn.
I fell in love with those students.
That was the exact opposite of how I felt about my time with the journalism students.
Most of the future journalists seemed, well, disinterested. Only one seemed truly enthusiastic about the profession. They were largely unprepared and disengaged. Most didn't take notes until I suggested they do so. Two of them needed to borrow a pen.

The nice kids
I shouldn't have been surprised.
Because what I saw in those two buildings was, in a nutshell, what's happening across the entire communications industry. Journalists (and journalism teachers and students) are making incremental adjustments to the new world, but marketers and public-relations professionals (as well as teachers and students in those fields) are morphing like crazy.
Most of the marketing people I know love the new world. They're excited. They can't seem to believe their good fortune to be working in a field where the rules are being rewritten.
But many journalism folks I know can generally be described as somewhat less than thrilled. Those differing sentiments among professionals (and academics) must have an effect on students.
There's also no doubt that the economy has had an impact.
Prospective journalists are being told time and again that jobs are disappearing.
Marketing/p.r. students, on the other hand, seem to understand that the skills they are acquiring have value.

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know I'm not saying anything new.
It was more than three years ago that I first wrote of my concern that B2B journalists were adopting the techniques of conversational editorial more slowly than were the public relations and marketing executives of the industries we cover.
And it's been more than two years since I started writing about content marketing, which I see as the the most exciting and fastest-growing area in B2B publishing. And content marketing is nothing more (or less) than marketers learning to perform the tasks of journalists.
But what I saw at Northwestern was new, at least to me: that in academia, as in business, the marketing space is attracting an extraordinary new type of communicator; while journalism programs are producing a more skilled, but not-so-very-different-from-the-old-days type of person.

If you're interested in spreading the word about B2B among journalism programs, there are some things you can do.
First, reach out to the j-schools in your area. Offer to do a guest lecture. Make yourself available for interviews.
Second, offer your support to the ASBPE Foundation. Funding for the foundation is in short supply. It could do with your help. Among other academic-related efforts, the group hopes to endow a university chair for an "ASBPE professor of business-to-business journalism."

If you'd like to learn more about what's happening in the world of B2B marketing, public relations and content marketing, the Web is full of great resources.
Three of my new favorites are Mengel Musings, owned by Amy Mengel; the B2BBloggers site, dedicated to "shaping the future of btob marketing;" and Social Media B2B, described as "exploring the impact of social media on B2B."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Is the revolution over?

I've written a few times this summer about my growing sense of Web 2.0 ennui -- this feeling I have that as B2B publishing bounces back from the recession, things just aren't as interesting as they were a year or so ago.
And I'm beginning to get a sense of why:
The revolution is ending.

For a decade or so now the world of journalism has been one of ceaseless change and challenge. Consider, if you will, just some of the major technologies and practices we've adopted: external links, blogging platforms, mobile delivery, slideshows, podcasting, database reporting, RSS, email newsletters, Webcasts, Twitter, Facebook, search-engine optimization, etc.
Think, too, of the cultural changes we've made in our working lives as journalists: comments on articles, Creative Commons licenses, open-source software systems, user-generated content, revenue-sharing compensation plans, aggregated content, standalone journalists, etc.
It's been a madcap series of never-ending developments. It's been glorious and exciting.
But I think it may be over.

Be honest. What was the last new development in journalism/publishing that you were truly excited about?
Twitter? Sure. It's wonderful. But it's hardly new. It launched in 2006! And it caught fire in 2007.
The iPhone? Yea. I love mine too. But it's already more than two years old.

I got an email the other day from an editorial director for a mid-sized B2B company. He told me that he'd recently discovered that his team was beginning to forget some of the basic skills of online journalism they'd been taught in the past few years.
But that wasn't such awful news, he suggested.
He'd found that the pace of new developments had slowed to such a degree that he had more time to focus on reviewing the basics.

Old Revolutionaries
In the past few weeks, two of the companies that helped revolutionize our world launched media products that simply bored me to tears.
Google debuted its Fast Flip -- a scrollable version of magazines that looks no different than the half-dozen or so products in the digital-magazine world.
Microsoft took a stab at saving the newspaper industry with a new aggregation tool. But the only interesting thing about it was the confusion over whether Microsoft lifted the idea from TweetDeck or from Sobees.
And if there is one thing that is certain about these "new" products, it is this: we won't have to spend any time teaching folks in the newsroom how to use them. They just aren't significant.

If the revolution is over, we shouldn't be surprised.
There's probably no such thing as ongoing change. Things advance at an extraordinary pace ... and then they reach a sort of stasis. We go from massive change to incremental change. We go from revolution to improvement.

This may be the very nature of human technological advancement.
We lived with propeller planes for decades. Then we developed jet engines and the world was suddenly new.
Then it wasn't.
The jets grew bigger and faster. But they were still jets.
Consider this: I am 50-years old, a child of what was once called "the Jet Age." But there's clearly nothing revolutionary left in airplane travel. The Jet Age just drags on and on and on ... seemingly stripped of its ability to inspire.

If I'm right and the media revolution has ended, I'll say now that I was thrilled to be a part of it.
And in the post-revolutionary period -- we could call it "the Web Age," if you like -- I'll continue doing what I do, practicing this profession to the best of my ability.
But I will look sadly at the newcomers to our industry -- just as I look sadly at the thousands of impatient folks I see each week at the airport -- and I will think the same thing:
Can't you see how cool this is?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A little bit about writing very little

I've been so busy lately that this blog has gone without an update for weeks at a time.
I apologize to anyone who is still taking the time to check this site or their RSS reader for something new from me.
Today is no different. I'm swamped...working far from home at a client's office, living in a hotel and missing my family.
But earlier today someone asked my thoughts for an article about creating content for mobile devices. I responded via email. And it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to do two things.

1. Suggest that people check out the most interesting new site in the media world -- eMedia Vitals. You can start by reading the article in which I'm quoted. (Disclosure: Whenever I read eMedia Vitals it feels like some sort of spin-off from "The Paul Conley Show." Nearly everyone at the company is someone that has worked for me or with me at some point in my career. The rest are people I've either written about and/or tried to recruit for clients. So I'm probably a little prejudiced. But I think this is a strong staff. And the site is extraordinarily good -- offering the sort of actionable material that is missing in other brands that cover the media world.)

2. By copying and pasting that aforementioned email into Blogger, I may actually be able to reduce some of the guilt I feel about not updating this blog ... but without actually taking the time to do a real update (eMedia Vitals only published a tiny portion of what I wrote, anyway. And I hate to see it go to waste.)

And so, without further ado, here are some thoughts on publishing content to mobile devices:

Whenever you're creating content for mobile, it pays to remember two distinct and remarkable things about that platform versus any other.

First, your mobile device knows who you are and where you are.
Mobile devices offer the first opportunity in history to create content that is aimed at individual users. With mobile, you're not publishing restaurant reviews for your community -- you're giving the guy at the corner of Main and State three options for health food within a six-block radius. You're not giving the executive at the airport an interface where he can check his flight, you're sending him a text message when the airline changes his gate.
Some of the smartest applications involve the use of 2D barcodes. In parts of Asia, people are using those things to track bus schedules, download videos, etc. Users see something they want on a billboard or in a print publication, and they snap a photo of it with their mobile device. Think about the power of that. I'm not selling an ad for a soft drink to reach a million people. I'm showing an ad to a guy who has expressed an interest in my soft drink, has 12 minutes to kill until his bus arrives and happens to be standing outside a particular store.

Second, mobile devices are sort of crappy ways to consume information.
They're convenient. We need them to function in the modern world . But they are an inferior method of consuming almost any type of content (the one exception is audio.).
The text is too small -- especially for older people. The video screens are too small -- for everyone. You can't multitask with them (I can watch TV and cook. I can't look at my iPhone and do that.)
Content creators need to accept this about mobile: as convenient as the devices are to carry, they are an inconvenient way to consume information.
So don't waste anyone's time.
Keep your copy short -- about the length of an email.
Don't make it harder than it has to be -- give me text-only RSS feeds that I can read or take the time to build an application for my iPhone. Don't ask me to look at your Web site on a device that fits in my pocket. Even the best mobile browser can't turn your Web site into anything I want to read on a phone.
If you can tell me what I need to know in less than 200 words, do so. If not, try harder.
On the other hand, if I'm sitting around staring at my mobile device it's probably because I don't have anything better to do at the moment. I'm stuck at the train station or sitting at the coffee shop or waiting for an elevator. In moments like that, I want to see something I "need" -- crucial, timely information. Or maybe I just want to see something that's funny.
Either way, you have about 2 seconds to catch my attention before I look at something else. So try to be witty or beautiful, albeit brief. And if you can't do that, just be brief.

Monday, August 03, 2009

People, Prophets and Publishing

Twice last week I learned about developments that sent me into frantic, obsessive pondering about the future of B2B media.
Odds are you saw those same stories. Odds are you too have contemplated their significance.

Both of these developments are about the technology of how news makes it way to us. And these particular stories made their way to me through other people using technology -- just as is often the case these days. Technology flagged the news. A person then used technology to notify me directly. And I used technology to discuss what I'd heard.

But somehow the experience left me feeling disconnected from both people and technology.

Allow me to explain.

The pull of search

Early one morning last week a friend sent an Instant Message to say that he'd received a news alert that Microsoft and Yahoo had reached a deal to combine their search assets. The core of the news was that Microsoft's search function, called Bing, would now power Yahoo search.
Instantly I started wondering what, if any, effect this would have on how B2B editors optimize their content for search.
Most of us now create content that works with the Google algorithm. We've learned to post meta data that pleases the Google gods. And Google has rewarded us. When people search for news and information in our space, Google sends those people to us.
But most of us have paid considerably less attention to the needs of Yahoo and Microsoft. Those search engines didn't merit the same level of devotion we gave to Google.
But something was changing.
So, I wondered: will we need to do anything different to please Bing?

In recent years, I'd have sought the answer to such a question by searching for an answer. I'd have typed "SEO for Bing" into the Google search box and started reading.
But this time I went instead to Twitter and asked people for help by typing "Looking for the definitive article on article-level SEO for Bing. Anyone got a recommendation?"
(If you're curious, the most interesting article anyone sent was this one. The best new-to-me site anyone told me about was this one.)

The push of context
The next day I came across another interesting tidbit. Scrolling through Twitter I found that B2B leader Rory Brown had retweeted something by publishing-platform executive Andrew Davies about how the New York Times was now delivering content based on a reader's LinkedIn profile.
So I logged into LinkedIn and then visited NYTimes to check it out.
The result was disappointing. The system seemed to think I worked in technology, rather than publishing or media. So I shared the news and my reaction with folks on Twitter: "LinkedIn and NYTimes think I work in tech: RT @rorybrown RT @andjdavies NYT using LinkedIn profile data to target news - http://bit.ly/NynAY."

But as much as the execution of the Times/LinkedIn deal fell short, the concept was intriguing.
And within minutes I was chatting online about what B2B publishers might learn from it.

People, who need people, are the luckiest people, in the World Wide Web
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I'm growing bored with Twitter and the rest of the newest media even as I grow more dependent upon them.
The way that I heard about, and then talked about, the Bing and NYTimes/LinkedIn news is just the latest example of the conflict I'm feeling -- the technology that dominates my information consumption/distribution is both wondrous and unsatisfying.
Search functions find information for me.
Contextual engines find me for information.
LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging find people for me to talk to about subjects that matter to me.
Things are faster. News is more relevant; data is more useful.
Everything about how I consume and process information in my business life is better than it was years ago.
Yet, in the end, I feel unconnected and shortchanged.

Alone at the drive-in movie
My brother David is an actor. His latest role is as "Miller" in the sci-fi thriller "The Surrogates," staring Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames. The movie is set in a future where everyone stays at home, logs on, and then lives life through surrogate robots.
David's character is the henchman and follower of a character called "the Prophet," who wants people to abandon the surrogates and return to the real world. In one scene David punches Bruce Willis, who represents the status quo.

I'm not saying I want to punch anyone.
If anything, I want to punch things up.
I'm not saying I want to go backward. I'm not calling for less of what we are now and more of what we once were.
I'm hoping for -- longing for -- the next stage.
But there's a small voice in my head that warns that the next stage will disappoint me as well. It's a voice that suggests I've become less of the real me
in my business life than I ever was before.
It's a voice that says I've become a surrogate me trading information with a surrogate you.
I'm not sure what to do about this. But I find it very unlikely I'll find a technological solution to my Web 2.0 ennui.
(Note: I recognize there's something absurd about feeling bored with Web 2.0 and then blogging about it. Even sillier is the fact that I'm about to tweet about this blog post.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

New-Wave News

I'm having one of those moments where I need to blog as a way to organize my thoughts. Longtime readers know that much of what I write here is less than perfectly organized. In a sense, blogging has become part of the act of thinking. This blog is less a place to share my opinions than it is a place to explore them.
So with that said -- bear with me.
I have no idea where this blog post is heading.

Earlier this week I found myself obsessing over a single line in a lengthy post by fellow B2B blogger Dan Blank. Dan was writing about how his company, Reed Business, was using Twitter. It's a good post. Take a look. There's valuable information in it.
But the part of the post that jumped out at me was a sub-headline that said "We are Coming Closer to a Day Where an Industry Will Report on Itself."

He's right, of course.
In a very real sense, we're already there.
Any journalist with the sense to track the online conversations about the industry he covers knows that Twitter, blogging, content marketing, etc. have already created a world where publishers' monopolies have disappeared. In a world where anyone can be a publisher, thousands of people and hundreds of companies have done so.
It was more than three years ago that I first wrote of my concern that B2B journalists were adopting the techniques of conversational editorial more slowly than were the public relations and marketing executives of the industries we cover.
Fast forward to 2009 and we find that the marketplaces for our content seem to have transformed into marketplaces of ideas. Everyone, it seems, is writing, sharing, tweeting, commenting.
But for every B2B publication that is participating in -- even leading -- the conversations, there are still plenty that lag years behind. (The charts in Dan's post illustrate the gap. Some Reed brands have thousands of Twitter followers and update often. Others have only ventured on to Twitter in the past few days.)

But the more time I spend watching the social-media world, the more I realize that it only seems that we're experiencing a true marketplace of ideas.
What's really happening is that the world of B2B content has transformed into a limited marketplace of ideas. The new world may be broader than the old. More people are participating, more people are creating. But this new world is really just a larger version of the old world.
Look around the Web in the vertical you cover. In most cases you'll find that the conversation is no longer dominated by your publication. That's a good thing. But you'll also find that the conversation is dominated by folks very much like the ones who work at your publication.
Twitter -- at least in most B2B verticals -- is a media phenomenon. Most tweets come from journalists, marketing execs and public-relations pros. If you're a reporter for Paper Bag Weekly walking the floor of the Paper Bag Expo trade show, you're likely find dozens of folks tweeting. But they will nearly all be someone from the media side of the paper bag industry. You can read tweets from flacks and tweets from hacks, but you won't find a tweet from anyone who actually makes a paper sack.
The obvious exception to this is in tech. Walk the floor of a tech trade show and you'll find that everyone really is tweeting. Tech really does cover itself.
So this poses a question: What will it take to reach the point where a non-tech industry actually reports on itself?

The Next Wave
I suspect the thing that may push the entire business world into a more collaborative, more conversational mode -- creating the situation where all industries can report on themselves -- is right around the corner.
And it's coming from Google.

Late last month, Google offered the developer community a preview of something called Google Wave. It's the brainchild of the same team that gave us Google Maps, and it was born of three tough questions, according to the announcement by Google:
  • Why do we have to live with divides between different types of communication — email versus chat, or conversations versus documents?
  • Could a single communications model span all or most of the systems in use on the web today, in one smooth continuum? How simple could we make it?
  • What if we tried designing a communications system that took advantage of computers' current abilities, rather than imitating non-electronic forms?
I hesitate to try to explain exactly what Google Wave is. That's partly because it seems that Google Wave -- like Twitter -- will be different things to different people.
Rather, I'd suggest you visit the Google Wave site and watch the video explaining the concept.
What you'll find is that Google Wave seems to be both a project-management tool (sharing documents, collaborating on changes, talking about plans, etc.) and a communications tool (email, instant messaging, Twitter or something like Twitter, etc.)
Or, as Google puts it: "A "wave" is equal parts conversation and document, where people can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more."
After you've seen the video, you'll likely find yourself wondering: What does this mean for journalists?
Can a news story be a wave? Can trade show coverage be a wave? Can a recurring feature or major issue in the industries we write about be a wave?
What does that look like? Who participates?

The lament of the early adopter
Part of my interest in Google Wave is born of my growing concern that Twitter has jumped the shark. (The folks at InfoCommerce seem to have a similar concern.)
Part of my interest is also that, as has been the case before with technologies I love, something crucial and valuable is lost when a movement grows.
Look: I'm not saying Twitter is dead.
Nor am I saying that it has no value.
Heck, much of my life these days involves talking to journalists about how valuable Twitter can be as a reporting tool. But the fact that so many journalists, public-relations executives and marketing folks are interested in Twitter is exactly the sort of thing that makes me worry about Twitter.
The whole thing reminds me of Second Life. Back in January 2007 I lamented that something was being lost there, as well. And some two and half years later, I don't know of anyone who still finds Second Life to be place of promise for journalism.

This time next year
I don't know what all this means.
I don't know if we'll look back at the summer of 2009 as the time that Twitter lost its luster. Nor do I know if Google Wave will have the same impact that Twitter has had on how we collect and distribute information.
But I'll tell you this: I'm pretty sure that in the summer of 2010 I'll be spending a fair amount of my time thinking, talking and consulting about what a news wave might look like.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Layoffs at IDG

I'm hearing word that there have been a number of layoffs today at IDG.
I don't have an exact number. Nor do I have any official confirmation from the company.
But what I'm hearing is that number of folks being cut is substantial.
And I'm hearing that many of the folks being let go are multimedia journalists, not just old-time print folks.
Even more disconcerting is that some of the bigger names in B2B journalism are said to be among those let go. Although I have not confirmed this yet, I'm told that one of discharged journalists is Don Tennant, a winner of the Timothy White award for editorial integrity.

Although I remain convinced that the worst is over in B2B, there can be no doubt that it will be a long time before things have stabilized.

(Update: Folio confirms the layoffs, saying 8 percent of IDG staff was let go.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Nanny Diary

I've been running an ad in recent weeks for a live-in nanny for my toddler. It's a part-time gig in exchange for room, board and a small stipend. And it seemed to me it was a nice job for someone enrolled in college.
I've posted the ad in a number of places ... particularly on college campuses near our home in lower Manhattan.
As the resumes have come in, I've been saddened to see that the most common applicant is someone who is about to graduate with a media degree of one kind of another.
I've been saddened. But I have not been surprised.

Long time coming
A year ago this month I wrote what is the most-read post in the history of this blog -- a lengthy piece in which I said that "much of B2B publishing -- weighed down by the twin albatrosses of junk bonds and rising print costs -- has sunk into a death spiral."
In that piece I told the "editors, salespeople and designers of B2B" it was well past the time for them to "walk away from print."

Since writing that piece, I've found myself listening time and time and time again to B2B executives complain that I've overstated the problems in the industry and/or that by writing about how bad things are, I'm actually making things worse.

So look: I think it's beyond silly to suggest that reporting the news actually causes the news. And it would be beyond presumptuous of me to suggest this blog has sufficient influence to make things worse (or better.)
But regardless, I think we can probably all agree at this point that I did not overstate the case -- things were, as I wrote at that time, "awful and getting worse."

Does anyone doubt still doubt this? Is it not clear that B2B has sunk into nearly as much trouble as the newspaper industry?
If so, please consider the news of just the past few hours:
Penton is going to a four-day workweek and cutting pay.
BNP is cutting salaries by 25 percent.
McGraw-Hill's media unit said its revenue and profit have plunged.

Hate to say I told you so, but ...
Another of the most-read posts in the history of this blog was published on Dec. 11, 2007. In it I wrote that I had a sense that "something is about to go wrong" and that 2008 would be "an awful year for B2B publishing."
I said then that "everywhere I go I meet people with revenue targets that seem delusional." And I said that the "lust of investors, the demands for growth, the need to justify ourselves to the people who control the purse strings are pushing us into a new era of preposterousness."

Nearly a year to the day after that, I published what is now the second-most-read post in the history of this blog: a lengthy piece in which I argued that "the B2B industry as we know it is about to collapse."
In that piece, I wrote that not only had most traditional publishers dug themselves into a hole from which it was unlikely they could emerge, but that the new Web-only publishers were also proving to be a major disappointment. Those "Web-native companies are finding themselves unable to assume the core journalistic functions needed by the B2B world," I said. And I repeated a concern I first wrote about two years ago this month that as the Web was growing more competitive, the Web-only publishers were demonstrating "the exact same attitudes, beliefs, work rules, chains of command and silos that I saw in the print-only companies that failed to respond to the Web."

And so, as Web-advertising revenue shrinks, I'm no more surprised to learn, as I did today, that T3i has shut down editorial operations at TelecomWeb, than I am to see that the Baltimore Sun is laying off editors. (Note: T3i's consulting and research units will continue to operate, according to a senior executive at the company.)

Just as I am not surprised that graduating seniors, just days away from receiving their journalism degrees, would be applying by the dozens for a nanny job.

Reasons to be cheerful
Today I'm making another prediction. And many readers of this blog may be surprised by this one:
In B2B, the worst is over. From today forward, the industry begins to recover.
(Please don't misunderstand. I'm not predicting that debt-laden B2B publishers like Penton will survive. I wouldn't say than any more than I would predict that debt-laden radio companies like Clear Channel can survive or that debt-laden newspaper companies like Tribune can survive.
Nope. Those companies are doomed. They'll cut costs as much as possible. They'll sell brands when possible. But their primary purpose now is to come as close as possible to making the investors and the creditors whole. For companies that borrowed heavily, we've reached the end game.)

Let me tell a little story:
On a single day last week I ran into three different journalists I know. Each had been laid off in recent months. And each was sort of killing time in Manhattan. I ran into one outside a diner where I had breakfast. I met another coming out of the place I had lunch. And I met the third on a subway platform.
Normally, seeing three unemployed journalists on a single day would be sort of depressing.
But on that same day I also met with a guy who is launching a new company (and needed some recommendations for journalists he could hire on a contract basis), had a phone conversation with another guy who has launched an agency aimed at increasing online ad revenue, and I deposited a check from a consulting gig I'd finished the week before in which I helped launch a data-driven news product.
And so, for the first time in a long time, there was a balance between the good and the bad news that I experience first hand.

Since then, I've seen a continuing -- albeit a very small -- shift in which good news outweighs the bad.
I'm still getting emails from recently laid off journalists. But I'm also hearing from slightly more folks who are finding contract work to pay the bills.
I still hear a panic in some voices. But I hear confidence in others.

The good news is coming from the places where I expected it would.
In that same post late last year when I said the B2B industry as we know it is about to collapse, I also said B2B would soon be dominated by five types of companies, "all of which exist today, but as much smaller players in the industry."
If you're out of work or worried that you soon will be, I'd urge you to look to those five areas for your future:
  • Content marketing
  • Data and tech companies
  • Small, privately held, debt-free publishers
  • Price benchmark publishers
  • Entrepreneur networks
The Nanny Indicator
Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic.
Certainly I'm aware that the state of my business and my life are not particularly reliable indicators of the economy or the B2B industry. I've been blessed. I know that. And I am grateful to God, my family and my clients for the support they have offered me. Even as the media industry and the economy have suffered, I have prospered (although my close friends know there were a few very difficult months last year.)
I am aware, in other words, that a guy who is looking to hire a nanny may not be representative of people in the media industry in 2009.
So make of my prediction what you will.
But I believe the worst is over.
I believe the B2B publishing industry as we have known it has already collapsed. It's not coming back. But new B2B publishing models are emerging quickly (and new B2C models will follow soon.)
And, as a result, I believe that should I be looking to hire a nanny again next year, the application pile won't be filled with resumes from student journalists.

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education, content marketing, brand journalism

Monday, April 27, 2009

Penton goes to four-day workweek to cut costs

Penton is moving to a four-day workweek through the summer in an effort to cut costs.

According to a memo sent to employees this afternoon by Penton CEO Sharon Rowlands, the move effectively translates into a 20 percent pay cut. However, the memo also says the company "we will spread the pay reduction in smaller increments throughout the end of the year to reduce the immediate financial stress on you and your families." (Clarification: a comment on this post correctly points out that it's misleading for me to call this a 20 percent cut. If Penton does, in fact, return to a five-day week after the summer, the effective pay cut will be considerably smaller when averaged out across the rest of the year. )
Furthermore, the move to a four-day week "will not impact" benefits, the memo said.

I've pasted a copy of the memo below. I'll be looking forward to coverage from Folio and BtoB magazines in the near future.

Hello Everyone,

I wanted to provide a brief update on how we did in quarter one and share with you some important steps we are taking to further control our expenses going forward.
The first quarter was the toughest in my business career. Not only did many of our properties report results that were significantly below a year ago and well below budget, but while we were reorganizing along the lines of markets, we were forced to eliminate a number of positions across the company. This isn’t uncommon in the world today especially for companies in the media industry and ones that have a heavy debt burden. We squeaked through the first quarter thanks to all of your efforts - but the next couple of quarters aren’t looking easy.
So we have to balance short and long term decisions in times like these. Some of these are really the right decisions for the businesses - like resizing audiences and identifying more efficient ways of doing things. Others may seem counter to what we want to accomplish long-term - like dramatically reducing the sizes of magazines or the amount of content. After all, if our content is so valuable, wouldn’t our readers need MORE of it right now? Sure, but remember that one of our Achilles heels is that we are mostly supported by advertising which has collapsed.
Speaking of advertising, it has not only collapsed in print, but as a company, we haven’t shown the growth we should on the web. Penton is really tracking a long way behind the industry in terms of percent of revenue that is digital, and we are not showing growth. The good news is we have great focus on changing this picture and longer term I am bullish on what we can do here, but it won’t change overnight.

We have some tremendous exhibition franchises that on the whole pulled us through 2008 and contributed a lot of our growth last year. There will be pressure on these businesses as customers are forced to cut back all their marketing spends. Even some of our strongest shows will show negative growth this year.
Despite incredible pressure on our businesses, we achieved a great deal throughout the first few months of the year - we reorganized our business into a market-facing structure; we delivered our audit significantly ahead of prior year; a number of our businesses delivered great financial results given the economy; and in response to my request, Penton employees provided over 150 ideas to help reduce our expense base.

While we are proud of these achievements in quarter one, the stark reality is that our overall revenue picture continues to rapidly decline. This is not a reflection of our efforts but the result of the widespread financial erosion impacting almost every business and importantly the industries we serve. I wish I could wave a magic wand and change the momentum to a positive one quicker, but it’s not possible, and whilst I continue to believe we have tremendous opportunities ahead and we will see this business flourishing in the future, today we still have a tough road ahead for a few quarters.

As you well know, over the past several months, we have attempted to offset our revenue challenges with proactive cost saving measures – as I listed above. These actions, coupled with your contributions in scrutinizing every expense, have lessened the impact. However, with no clear indication that the economy will turn in the short-term and with our revenues continuing to decline, further action is required to ensure Penton remains fundamentally sound.

Please know that the senior management team and I have carefully weighed the need for the measures I am about to announce. We consider our employees our company’s greatest asset. We are committed to doing everything possible to keep our company on track and to provide you with stable and rewarding employment. With that said, in light of the current circumstances, I have made the very difficult decision to implement temporary measures that will impact each employee’s pay.

We are instituting a reduced work schedule during the summer months. From the week before Memorial Day through the week before Labor Day, the Company will reduce its operations from a 5-day work week to a 4-day work week. For many of our businesses this will involve closing our offices on Friday. Other businesses may need to take the reduction in blocks of days. The end result will be the same for every employee at every level however - it will equate to a four day work week and a corresponding reduction in pay to reflect this reduced work schedule.

Whilst the reduction in work week will be contained only to the summer months outlined above, we will spread the pay reduction in smaller increments throughout the end of the year to reduce the immediate financial stress on you and your families. Special rules may apply to employees in California and to non-exempt employees, and we will be reaching out to these employees and their managers with information and specific instructions.
This revised work schedule will not impact your benefits. In some states, you may be eligible for unemployment for the unpaid leave. If you are interested, please contact your local unemployment office. We have prepared a set of Frequently Asked Questions<http://thepulse.penton.com/News/Pages/FrequentlyAskedQuestionsRegardingTemporarilyReducedWorkSchedules.aspx> regarding this revised work schedule, which you can find posted on the Pulse. In the next few days, your local leadership will organize group meetings, and there will be follow-up communications from your HR reps giving you more detail.

I understand this is difficult news. Thank you for your understanding and continued dedication. I am confident that if we continue to keep our focus on our customers and commit fully to delivering solutions that drive results, we will not only overcome these short term challenges, we will be better positioned to achieve new levels of success in the years to come. I urge you to try and find some upside in this temporary change and use the extra time for yourself, your family, and your friends – time can be a gift. I don’t say this to belittle the financial impact – I know that this is a big deal. I also want to reinforce that I am determined we will come out of this recession strongly and will go on to do great things. We have some tremendous initiatives across the company that this note isn’t the right vehicle to discuss and plan to share my thoughts with you through a video communication that you will see in the next 10 days. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact your manager, any member of our Human Resources Team, or me directly. And thank you again.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Journalism by any other word would smell as sweet

March is academia month for me.
Each year at this time I visit with college journalists and their teachers. And each year it is both a rewarding and frustrating experience.
This year was somewhat unusual in that I did less college-focused stuff than usual. I had too much work to do much travel. And some academic events were canceled. But I did get to spend a few days at the annual College Media Advisers convention in New York.

I saw many of the same disheartening things this year that I've written about before -- journalism departments that have not converged; students just weeks from graduating with nothing to show for it but a working knowledge of Quark; teachers and students with no understanding of how the media business operates; etc.
On the other hand, I saw less of some of the stuff that upsets me. This year, for example, I was pleased to find that only one person in a room full of journalism advisers didn't own a cell phone or PDA.

As you'd expect, much of the conversation at this year's convention focused on the troubles of the media industry. No one seems to be landing a job. The kids are frightened.
So I spent a lot of my time talking about where I see opportunities.
And the place where I see the most opportunity for the next few years is in content marketing.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, I didn't meet a single teacher, adviser or student who was familiar with content marketing.
And so, repeatedly, I found myself giving a brief overview: Content marketing is about removing the middleman. Companies that once spent their marketing budget on advertising are now spending it on creating content themselves. Content marketers are free of the greatest pressure that the rest of media faces, i.e., content marketers don't need to make a profit from their content. I talked about some of the content-marketing sites that I've written about earlier such as Security Focus as well as Kraft, WeightWatchers and the sites of Waterfront Media.
And, of course, I talked about Joe Pulizzi's Junta42, which is ground zero for the content-marketing movement.
But what I found was that the folks I talked to seemed to have tremendous difficulty with the word "marketing." No matter how much I talked about content marketing as a new form of journalism, they seemed to think it could be nothing more than a new form of marcom.

So it was with great pleasure and gratitude that I stumbled upon a recent post by David Meerman Scott.
In David's "Open letter to journalists," he talks about the opportunities for "open-minded" journalists in the new world of content marketing.
But most importantly, David introduces a new (or at least new to me) term to describe the content-marketing industry.
So you can expect that in March 2010 I'll be telling students and teachers about the opportunities in "brand journalism."

To read my four-part series on college journalism from last year, click here and follow the links.

tags: , , , , , , , journalism education, content marketing, brand journalism

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Awards for the dead

Congratulations to the folks at "Heavy Duty Trucking" for winning the Grand Neal Award from American Business Media.
HDT, a monthly magazine owned by Newport Communications Group, picked up the prize for a special report called "Fuel Crisis Survival."
It's a pretty good piece of reporting and writing. And the people involved should be proud of their work.
But seriously, wouldn't it make more sense in 2009 to give the top editorial award in B2B to something that at least had a Web component?
You can read "Fuel Crisis Survival" on the HDT site ... but it's hardly a top-notch Web experience. This is shovelware, pure and simple. Take a look. See if you can spot anything that indicates anyone at the company has even looked at this thing online.

There was one other bit of news from this year's Neal ceremony that I found a little disconcerting.
Crain's FinancialWeek and FinancialWeek.com picked up a number of awards -- including Best Web Site.
And as close followers of the B2B world know, the FinancialWeek brand is no more. The print product shut down in December. The website closed earlier this month.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Layoffs and shortcomings

The layoffs are coming so frequently in B2B media these days that the announcements have become little more than background noise. It's getting harder to remember who has lost their jobs, which publications have folded, what companies have had their debt downgraded, etc.

But sometimes a piece of the bad news catches my attention and I feel obliged to say something.

So it is today as I hear that Crain is laying off 150 of its staffers.
I'm terribly sorry to hear this. I offer my sympathy to the folks who have lost their jobs. I've been laid off in the past. And it's a painful experience.
But there's also a part of me that is somewhat less than sympathetic.
Here's why:
Way, way back in the days before the Web, Crain was my idea of just how good a B2B publisher could be. I was a fan of the company and many of its brands. I thought of Crain as a guide to what all of us in B2B were supposed to do.
But since the arrival of the Web, Crain has become a company I tend to use as an example of what not to do.
And it was nearly two and a half years ago, as I wrote a piece criticizing the company, that I decided Crain would never "get" the Web.

I have no doubt that the folks who have made bad decisions at Crain in recent years will survive the layoffs. That, as unfair as it may be, seems to be the way the world works. Many of the newly jobless are likely innocent of any sin against journalism or the Web. A quick read of the comments in that post I linked to above shows that at least one journalist at the company was struggling even then with the limits placed upon her. And I assure you, I've met several other Crain journalists who have voiced similar thoughts.

I would like to think that things can change at Crain. I'd like to think that somehow the difficulties of the economy and the shock of the layoffs will prompt the survivors to take more risks and practice a more serious form of Web-based journalism. There are reasons to be hopeful -- the Web sites at Crain have in fact improved -- albeit slightly -- since November of 2006.
But tonight I don't see the one thing that would convince me the company is still serious about journalism.
That's because as I write this piece tonight, I can't find a story about the Crain layoffs at either of the Crain sites dedicated to covering this industry: Media Business and B2B Magazine.

UPDATE (3/19) As a comment to this post points out, Crain did eventually publish an article about the layoffs. It appeared on Wednesday. March 18, at 1:25 in the afternoon EDT -- nearly 24 hours after the layoffs were announced.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What would you do?

Could you handle a 13% pay cut?
Could you pay your bills? Support the folks who depend upon you?

American Business Media's Business Information Network released figures today showing that B2B publishers saw their advertising revenue fall 13.1 percent in the fourth quarter, essentially giving B2B magazines a 13 percent "pay" cut.

Certainly those publishers with subscription, data or exhibition revenue didn't see such a dramatic decline. But for the sake of argument, let's just use that 13 percent figure as a benchmark.
So what would you do if your pay was cut 13 percent?
Do you have debt? Would you try to renegotiate? Default?Most B2B publishers have quite a bit of debt. And they're finding their bankers are less than patient these days.
Do you have anything to sell? A second car that you don't really need? Perhaps an investment? Some old LPs? Many B2B publishers are finding that the market doesn't assign much value to what they own. Buyers are hard to find and financing for purchases is hard to come by.
Are there things you love to do, but you know you can do without them? Would you still go to the movies and the ballgame? Would you keep that membership to your local chapter of the International Order of Friendly Sons of the Raccoons? Publishers are cutting back on memberships, meetings and business "fun."
Do you have anyone working for you? A housekeeper? Babysitter? Someone who trims the grass? Would you keep them on? Would you let them go? B2B publishers know that their biggest expense is labor. So they're cutting staff. And they're hoping that, in the end, they will have cut the "right" people and saved the ones they truly need.
Would you hope that your pay would rise soon? Would you borrow in anticipation of that future pay hike? B2B publishers, like much of America, have found that the banks and the credit markets aren't as friendly as they once were.

So what would you do?
What would you do if it were your paycheck? Or your company?

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Penton confirms layoffs

Just a quick update to yesterday's post about Penton ... the company has confirmed to Folio magazine that it has laid off people at three of its magazines.

A spokesperson for Penton declined to say how many people lost their jobs.

You can read the details here.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Quiet please! People being laid off

An anonymous reader of this blog added a comment to a recent post last night that said there had been layoffs at Penton. I started to respond via comment, but opted instead to write a new post.
I don't know if more layoffs are planned at Penton ... but I would be surprised to find otherwise.
There have apparently been a number of layoffs at Penton in recent weeks. But I do not have a good sense of the numbers involved. I also know that in at least one location the company is revamping its processes and workflows to make a long overdue shift to a Web-first publishing model.
I'm not involved in these changes at Penton. Penton has been a client of mine in the past. But I'm not working with them at present.
Nonetheless, I understand the need for the changes at Penton and would, in all likelihood, support a plan to cut costs by reducing the size of the workforce. At the same time, it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I thought the cuts and changes would actually save Penton. I have no faith that a company that has a debt load the size of Penton's and is dependent on a troubled business model for cash flow, can ride out the economic downturn.
In other words, if there were buyers available, I'm sure the company would be sold. But with nary a suitor in site, Penton has little recourse other than to hang on for dear life -- by cutting costs, selling brands on the rare occasion when a buyer surfaces, renegotiating debt payments over and over and over again, all while trying to convert the company into a collection of brands that can survive (or be sold) when the economy turns around.

No announcements
The company, however, has opted not to make formal announcements about the layoffs, etc. I don't think that's the wisest move. You probably don't either. As you know, the morale situation at the company is really quite awful. I get an email, comment or tweet every day now in which someone complains about the situation at Penton.
On the other hand, awful morale is the norm across all of publishing right now. Penton isn't alone in that.
The real problem for Penton is that the lack of transparency about the layoffs and changes is making it impossible for folks to feel committed to implementing change.
The company is losing some of the key people it needs to orchestrate the changes. On Friday I had a very interesting email exchange with someone I think of as among the most talented people at the company. But Friday was her last day. She'd grown disheartened and had taken another job.
I offer my sympathy to everyone at Penton and elsewhere in the media world. These are very difficult times. I understand the anxiety. Many of us have lost jobs. Many more of us will.
But for those of us who are interested, there is a tremendous future for B2B publishing. It won't look like the industry we're familiar with. Many of the companies we work for today won't survive long enough to see that future.
But if B2B journalism is your calling, then I would urge you to hang on.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

The most meaningful award in B2B

Congratulations to Jim Prevor, the founder and editor-in-chief of Produce Business magazine. Jim is this year's winner of the "Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity" from American Business Media.

Longtime readers of this blog know I've said the Timothy White contest represents "
the most important award in B2B journalism." And in a brief email exchange yesterday, Jim said it is "the award I consider most meaningful in the whole industry."

For more about Jim, check out his blog, PerishablePundit, or read an earlier post of mine in which I share some of Jim's thoughts on ethics.

ABM's announcement of the award can be found near the bottom of this email newsletter.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The best among us

It's not too late...but it's close to too late.
Friday (Jan. 23) is the deadline for nominations for the most important award in B2B publishing: The Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity.

If you know of someone who demonstrates the sort of ethical behavior in business journalism that can make us all proud, take a few minutes now to nominate them.

Information can be found at the American Business Media site.

For more on the award, check out this post of mine about last year's winner Harry McCracken.

And speaking of awards, you've got just one more week to submit your nominations for the annual Azbee awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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