Friday, December 11, 2009

Farewell, Editor & Publisher: How Many Canaries Can You Ignore?

In the process of selling off several of its core B2B entertainment industry titles, Nielsen Business Media also announced the eminent closing of Editor & Publisher, the century-plus old trade publication that had chronicled the ins and outs of the news industry. At a time at which magazine closings seem to be about as regular as train stops on a commuter line, E&P's demise is not exceptional in many ways. Any number of trade publications are struggling to survive in an era in which online media enables unlimited competition for the attention of its readership and for its advertisers' and subscribers' cash. But there is something particularly poignant about E&P's shuttering. After all, if an industry which insists that the quality of its content will be its distinguishing factor cannot support the high-quality journalism covering itself, then how can they expect others to do likewise for their own interests?

There are few people who can scream about canaries in coal mines and get away with it for long, and I am no exception to that rule. If you haven't figured out that most publishers are caught between highly skilled staffs oriented towards traditional publishing platforms and new platforms that can't deliver them decent salaries with room for both management's profits and platform reinvestment, then you must have been clipping your bond coupons on a tropical island. But that doesn't mean that publications like Editor & Publisher have to die. What it does mean, though, is that in some ways the publishing industry is returning to its roots of scrappy, independent publishing that may do better without the overhead of large, corporate parents.

This doesn't mean that news publications will always do best as independent outlets, but it does mean that publishers that are mean, lean and more focused on their markets than on hitting the train back to comfortable suburban homes are going to do just fine. The good news is that Web infrastructure is perfectly suited to such operations, most especially when publishers listen to their audiences and engage them effectively. An interesting an ironic example of this positioning is the recent rebirth of Conde Nast's former Web site by American City Business Journals as a portal oriented towards the owners of small and medium businesses. With a platform that is well designed to slice and dice content and functionality for any number of focused local and topic-oriented markets, ACBL's no-nonsense approach to publishing is far more emblematic of what will succeed moving forward in profitable B2B and consumer media than the high-gloss world of major media companies.

The caveat to this approach, though, is that the scrappy publishers must push themselves to the extreme to take advantage of highly affordable publishing technologies to outpace major media companies in having audiences adopt their brands on the platforms that they prefer. This is to some degree why blog-oriented publishers such as TechCrunch and The Huffington Post have survived and thrived in online media. Having been handed the equivalent of a guerrilla fighter's AK-47 automatic rifle in today's affordable social media publishing technologies and deploying the tactics and strategies that they enable, lean and agile online-first publications and their technology partners have carved away a good portion of the meat of publishing's profits.

It's not as if the major media companies can out-tech these smaller rivals easily, either. The expense and useful life of proprietary content technology development is rarely beneficial to a publisher today. There are some exceptions to this rule on the very high end of content markets such as in financial securities trading and other specialized professional functions, but in general it's source-agnostic content technologies that have defined today's most successful publishing platforms. For general media markets, publishers have tried again and again to gain the upper hand through sponsoring source-specific content technologies that simply don't deliver all of the information and experiences that people expect now through source-agnostic technologies.

It's what you might call a prolonged mourning for the mass-production printing press era, the ability to define a marketplace through a technology that only traditional publishers could afford and master easily. Sorry, that train left the station a long time ago. By ceding their technological superiority to others, publishers sealed their fate years ago. If Compuserve had knocked the socks off of the Web in its ability to amaze and delight content audiences, it would still be around today. Consortium services like Hulu are trying to regain some of that high ground of technology, but as long as they fail to leverage all of the content that people find to be valuable based on the artificial divide of "it isn't real content," they will always fall short of audiences who know "real" when they see it.

In short, I do think that the closing of Editor & Publisher is a small but significant landmark in the history of publishing. It marks the point in the publishing industry's history when it admitted that it no longer really cared about its traditional strengths. Print publishing and the editorial disciplines that drove it are now officially legacies that will inform the future, but no longer define it. There will continue to be print products indefinitely, and highly customized print products are likely to be a growing marketplace for some time. But when an industry will no longer buy coverage of its own traditional operations, then it's time to admit that a chapter in that industry's history has been finished. I wish the very best of luck to the staff of Editor & Publisher, they have put out quality journalism in the face of enormous industry change. I hope that we will see E&P resurface in the near future as a web-first publication, perhaps with a focus on the future rather than on the past.
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