Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Heartfelt Apology to the Publishing Industry

Let me offer my deepest apologies to everyone who, like me, works in the magazine publishing industry. I’ve been committing an unpardonable sin without even knowing it.

From time to time when I wasn’t covering my usual obsessions – like the U.S. Postal Circus, black liquor tax credits, and greenwashing – I have actually written about and even opined about our industry, often focusing on major New York publishers. I thought somehow that having worked many years (too many years) in the industry and having the benefit of insights from a host of brilliant and well-informed insiders qualified me to speak about the business occasionally.

But I’ve discovered in the past few days that all wisdom about magazines emanates from the New York publishing elite. And I’ve learned about the unwritten rule that only members of that elite may pontificate about the publishing industry.

Rosie's salute to NY publishing
The revelations started last week with coverage of the proposed Meredith merger/takeover of most Time Inc. publications. Hick that I am, I saw real potential in the move. Meredith, a smart company that uses its strength in publications for women as a springboard into new ventures, would take on Time brands serving a similar audience.

How foolish of me! New York media reporters soon set me straight, pointing out that Meredith is based in Des Moines. Like, Iowa. Like, in the middle of The Flyover (which is how the Beautiful People refer to that cultural wasteland you
have to cross when jetting between the real cities, New York and Los Angeles).
Country bumpkin
How could the “country bumpkin” Meredith possibly fathom the sophisticated world of New York publishing, the cognoscenti hinted. After all, publishing breakthroughs like Pathfinder, the conversion of McCall’s to Rosie magazine, and MagHound were certainly not incubated in Des Moines.

Sure, the simple Midwesterners do fine when publishing about gardening, baby care, and potluck supper recipes. But how, the New York media writers hinted, could they ever cover weightier matters like art, fashion, and the Kardashians? Ad Week openly questioned whether low-budget Meredith would be able to maintain the “high-end standards” of some Time-produced titles.

Silly me, I used to think that another heartland publisher, Reiman Publications, had one of the industry's most successful business models.It was doing user-generated content, big time, before the concept even had such a high-fallutin’ name. With its passionate fan base and sophisticated direct-marketing efforts, Reiman made selling books and launching new publications look easy.

But New York publisher Reader's Digest Association saw that Reiman needed to be fixed. (My God, the Reiman magazines didn’t even sell advertising!) And fix it RDA did. RDA bought Reiman in 2002, dropped the respected (in red states, anyway) Reiman name in 2007, went Chapter 11 in 2009, then "Chapter 22" (second time in bankruptcy court) this week.

Ah, so that’s the sophisticated New York way of making money in publishing: Forget about giving readers what they want. Just pump up the perceived value of your company so you can borrow lots of OPM (Other People’s Money), then bail out when reality sets in -- leaving the OP holding the bag. Badda bing, badda boom!

I’m not the only one who needs to apologize. Publishing Executive (Philadelphia, 97.0 miles from the Time-Life Building) had the audacity last week to publish a scathing critique of Time, Inc.’s “half-hearted” digital efforts written by an innovative but geographically challenged publisher, Ron Matejko. Objections to the article poured in faster than a New York minute, reports editor Jim Sturdivant.

“Some readers felt that, being located in Arizona, Matejko was not qualified to comment on the digital strategy of a New York publisher,” Sturdivant writes. The outrage! Some guy from Ari-freakin’-zona dares to think he can grasp the intricacies of New York publishing when he’s probably never had lunch at Elaine’s!

The moral of this story is, to paraphrase Chief Joseph: Judge not a New York publishing executive until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins – or ridden 10 miles in his limousine.

For further reading, here are Seven Sins (commentaries on New York publishing) of Dead Tree Edition:


Anonymous said...

I guess there must be an on/off switch when you get west of the Hudson River. In 1991 a New York magazine executive (New York Times Company), William (Bill) Kerr, went to Meredith to head up their Magazine Group. He went on to become President of Meredith Corporation then Chairman/CEO of Meredith Corporation and finally Chairman of the Board of Directors until he left the company in 2010. Most, if not all, of Meredith's senior management would have worked with this New York Publishing executive and learned how to run and compete with New York publishing businesses. It may be why they've been such tough competitors all these years and continue to grow their businesses.

K Reilly said...

Right on, as always. Love you, DTE.

Joe Pulizzi said...

Really enjoyed this...I've been in publishing (out of Cleveland) for over a dozen years now. I've also had the pleasure of speaking at over 60 events on publishing and marketing over the past year. I can tell you with 100% certainty that most of the publishing innovation is not coming out of NYC.

Keep up the great work
Joe Pulizzi
Content Marketing Institute

Anonymous said...

Spot on! Being one of those in the "New York Media" I'm quite certain there's little, if any, innovation coming out of New York to say nothing of success rates in figuring out how to turn print profitable.

Portland Website Development said...

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Gusgsm said...

Very good post , indeed

As a lad working in the magazine industry for 25 years myself, I have laughed a lot with it, though I can perceive and sharethe pain running underwater in it.

Receive my thanks from the other side of the world.

Geographically challengedly yours,

Gustavo Sánchez (from Madrid)