March 12, 2014 Last Updated 1:50 pm

A sure sign that the good times are over: the chicken recipe

The whispers on Wall Street, we hear, are that there is a growing bubble in tech, as signaled by the outrageous amounts some start-ups are attracting, and the ever increasing real estate prices in San Francisco and elsewhere, and the fact that young people seem to believe that the horizon is endless. Yes, we’ve been there before, and – to be honest – I have no clue as to whether we are seeing a bubble. But I do know when we might be seeing the end of the good times in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. There are always signs.

One of them is the appearance of chicken recipes.

RH-cover-featureRight now it is hard to see any bubble in publishing. Our bubble was popped a decade or longer ago. The sad little balloon that started to inflate back up in the mid-nineties got popped again with the fiscal crisis of 2008.

But tech websites are now all the rage, as are new journalism ventures funded by wealthy investors who are stealing away talented journalists from established media properties such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and others.

One can draw parallels to the late nineties if you look hard enough, but the comparisons only go so far. In the late nineties, journalists didn’t see universally see the Internet as the death of established media properties. Few jumped ship from the NYT or other major media companies for start-up online efforts.

But some did jump. In B2B, new ventures that offered stock options attracted the brave, and some made their move at the right time and cashed out, while most found themselves asking for their old jobs back. Luckily, those jobs still existed. Those start-ups of the nineties were funded mostly by VCs. Today a lot of new money is funding the next Facebooks and Google’s, and just like a decade and a half ago, most of those start-ups will fail.

In media, though, we really are seeing some of our most interesting writers jump to new ventures. New media start-ups like First Look Media, and more established ones like Vox Media, look to many to be the start of a new trend where the websites are personality (read: journalist) driven, rather than driven by the launch efforts of an established media company.

But a funny thing to remember about those rich investors who are behind many of these efforts: their interest in their start-ups might decrease if their they find their bank accounts are also decreasing. Rich folks have a way of preferring to stay rich rather than continue to fund a losing proposition.

In the late nineties, the new magazines covering the Internet boom came both from established players and start-ups. The Industry Standard, for instance, was launched by IDG. Red Herring was launched by a former banker, Tony Perkins. The other big launch was Business 2.0, a magazine that was sold to Time Inc., a company that has made a habit of over paying for things related to the Internet long after their value was in decline.

imagesThe Industry Standard is one of this amazing magazines that was unknown at its start, and unknown today, but wildly successful in its time. It’s time was 1998, which it was launched, to some time in 2000.

For some reason I got on the publisher’s mailing list and was sent out the magazine when it first launched. Its arrival was bit of a mystery to me at first but soon the magazine was coming out weekly, and soon its issues were growing. In 1998, saying you received The Industry Standard either drew a puzzled reaction – what’s that? – or a jealous stare – how do you rate?

At its zenith, the magazine was a weekly version of Vogue or Cosmopolitan – at least in terms of issue size. The magazine was packed with ads from new start-ups. Any start-up that wanted to get known, to say it had arrived, took out an ad in The Industry Standard. I doubt a sales person ever made a sales call, they answered their phone and then went to launch parties, usually on the roof of some agency office on Battery Street. In 2000 the magazine sold more ads than any other magazine in existence, and then launched a European edition – some said simply so the editors could travel on the company dime.

By March 20, 2000 the dot com boom was going bust. The NASDAQ, in which most of the tech stocks traded, fell from a high of over 5000 to 3600 in a manner of weeks. Most, including myself, didn’t believe the good times were over. The nineties had been peaceful and prosperous, the Internet had become established. Surely this was only a blip?

Then in November, George Bush was elected, times really were changing. In January, The Onion wrote satirically of the Bush inaugural speech: “My fellow Americans,” Bush said, “at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us.”

And so it was the end. But how could we have known that by August 2001 The Industry Standard would fold?

Well, actually, those of use who had received every issue since 1998 could see it. It wasn’t just the thinner issues, it was something else. Since its launch, the magazine was filled with stories of tech start-ups, of dry stories about routers and switches and communications gear, along with stories of start-up parties. It was all about tech and was called the lifestyle magazine for the technorati.

But that was meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Now, in 2001, someone had the bright idea that The Industry Standard really was a lifestyle magazine and so appeared the first chicken recipe story. It was a jaw dropper.

By August, the word was leaked out that the magazine would fold. In the end, it had nothing to do with chicken recipes. It had to do with efforts to spin out the magazine. It had raised $30 million in PE funds in 2000, expanded its staff and its vision, but could not see that the end to it all was coming, and coming fast.

No, the chicken recipes wasn’t the end, but it was the meteor that was the sure sign the end was near.

Today, there are some who think the new tech bubble will burst soon, and with it those new media ventures may lose their funding and close down. It seems far too early for that now – at least, it feels that way.

But I doubt that when the end is near that we will see Glenn Greenwald or Ezra Klein write chicken recipes. But if Matt Taibbi does a piece on native advertising, I might consider selling my stocks.

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