July 24, 2014 Last Updated 11:14 am

Why I’ve stopped reading the B2B magazines that come in the mail

The drive to reduce costs is driving some B2B titles right out of business as owners only look at the expense side of the ledger

There are days now where I walk to the mailbox to retrieve my mail when I think that I have not received any magazines – only to discover, stuck between two flyers for car dealerships, a magazine so thin it was mistaken for a circular. Most of the time the magazine goes straight into the recycling bin because looking through the latest issue is too painful.

As a magazine publisher, I look at print magazines a bit differently than readers: I start at the back to see how many pages the issue is, then my mind races to try and calculate if that number is good news or bad news for the publisher. A 52-page issue is a reason to celebrate for some titles, while others would be lamenting a thin issue compared to the year before.

B2B-pic-sm

The old days, when publishers and
editors wore ties to work

Then I return to the front and start flipping the pages counting the ad pages, adding modular ads together to get to a total. Is 12 pages of advertising good or bad for this magazine, is 40 pages a triumph? (Digital editions are much harder to flip through when counting ad pages.)

But what I rarely do is actually  read the editorial. Part of the reason is simply that I really don’t care what the turning radius is of latest lawnmower from Toro, or what a wine retailer is doing in Connecticut to drive sales, or how one type of asphalt additive improves road durability. Honestly, I didn’t really care that much even when I was publisher of Roads & Bridges or Landscape & Irrigation.

Sometimes my editor at R&B would walk into my office and laugh about a story that appeared in our competitor’s magazine and how lightweight it was, how it got some of the facts horribly wrong because the editor was not knowledgeable enough on the subject. I’d smile and nod, as if in agreement, glad my editor was such an authority (he was) – but also glad that my brain cells were packed with the names and phone numbers of the ad decision makers at Caterpillar rather than any facts about asphalt pavements.

This morning was an example of why I don’t look at too many B2B magazines these days. Attempting to track down some information on a certain category of magazines I stumbled upon the website on a magazine I used to publish. This small title was part of a group of titles, and made up the vast majority of the group’s profits back in the day. I noticed that there was not a recent digital edition online so I looked at the last issue available. There, inside the first few pages, was a notice that the magazine would be shuttered. This would be last issue.

According to the editor, the costs to print, distribute and maintain an editorial staff were too much for the magazine to handle and so it would cease publishing. No move to digital-only, but straight into oblivion.

Before I entered the B2B magazine business, I was a newspaper man. None of the newspapers I used to work for still exist: Hearst shut down their paper in Los Angeles, Copley shutdown the paper in Santa Monica, MediaNews Group shut down (merged) the paper in the Bay Area. But most of the B2B magazines I published are still around – but that is starting to change.

The first thing you notice with most existing B2Bs, when you get outside of the major paid titles that serve the advertising and food industries, is just how bad the editorial is. A drinks magazine, for instance, that regularly features a review of wines gives every single win its highest marks. Like a drunk, to these editors, there is no such thing as a bad bottle of wine (maybe you agree!).

But the worst thing editors do is continue to publish the same editorial calendars year after year.

Actually, as any B2B editor will tell you, they don’t really create their own editorial calendars, they are a function of the ad department. The June asphalt paver round-up is there so that the salespeople can push ads for pavers into the June issue, concrete pavers getting special editorial coverage in July.

That’s OK, except that if 90 percent of all the editorial is determined by the calendar why, as a reader, would I want to read that magazine month after month. These books are frozen in time.

Part of the problem lies in those editorial budgets. Consumer magazine editors would be appalled by the size of budgets for contributed articles to B2B magazines. In 1998, the budget for contributed articles for a B2B title I published was just under $5K. That was the entire budget to contributed articles for a whole year!

We actually spent three times that amount that year, and month and after month I had to endure a public dressing down from the president of the company as he asked why we could not keep within our budget?

“I don’t know,” I’d say, “I’ll ask the editor.”

Word would get back to my editor that once again I was yelled at in the manager’s meeting about expenses and my editor would ask me “should I cut back on the articles?” “No way, just keep doing what you’re doing.”

But each month that same company president would read out the results from the previous month’s P&L and sheepishly have to reveal that our revenue was up and our profits were better than budgeted. That did’t prevent the abuse I took and eventually I left that company after getting a big bonus check for blowing out profits. I wasn’t going to cheapen the book at a time when advertisers were adding us to their schedules, when the readers were gladly renewing their subscriptions. Quality was one of the ways we boosted profits, I believed, even when the company didn’t believe that.

But, I’m sad to report, this is not a widely held view. Part of the reason has to do with B2B media company ownership today, much of it in the hands of private equity companies. They play a different kind of game that is tied to management fees, and selling out at the most opportune time. That those companies, and the CEOs they employ, know little about publishing is really not something that is relevant. Being able to hit .300 is not that important when the final score is not tied to runs but to the ability to divest at the right time.

Some other B2Bs are owned by those who only understand the expense side of the ledger. Who see increased profits as only occurring when costs are lowered. At one company I worked for, all the editors and art directors were made independent contractors; all the sales reps were fired and replaced with an outside ad sales firm; and most of the publisher positions were consolidated to the point where I once managed nine different titles with no management layr underneath me to assist in running the magazines. Now, after a few years away, only four of the nine magazines still exist. Even advocates of this cost-driven strategy must admit that shuttering a title is not a sign of success.

Why is this happening? Is it only caused by the rise of digital media?

It would be tempting for someone who publishes a digital publishing website to claim this, but it simply is not true. I still receive a number of very healthy B2B magazines in the mail, and while the ad page reports for the industry continue to show declines, those declines have moderated, and many magazines continue to produce very profitable issues. Others have shifted their business to events and data services, using their print magazines as promotional tools the way brands do. Many of these companies are thriving.

Obviously I place the blame on the owners of these failing titles. Their unwillingness to listen to their publishers and staffs, combined with their unwillingness to change direction, is leading them to a place no one wants to go.

An example of this is a story I often tell of our reader forum for a very successful B2B magazine I published a few years back. I was told by the one and only sales rep, shortly after I was handed the title, that we had a reader forum – one of those online boards where people register and participate in conversation.

I was shocked and excited. Really? That’s great, forums build web traffic and reader engagement.

The problem was, I was told by the sale rep, the company would no longer allow new readers to register because this caused “too many” comments to be posted, some of which might be spam.

“Fine, I’ll moderate the forum,” I said.

But there was a hitch: for reasons, that to this day is hard to understand, only the circulation manager was allowed to manage the forum. The circulation manager? To make a long story short, that board never reopened, and readers flocked to another board which was able to garner far more readers than we could ever dream of.

Today I learned that magazine, the one alluded to earlier, has been shuttered. Don’t blame digital, don’t blame the price of paper or postage, don’t blame the cost of editorial. If we don’t, as an industry, change our ways this is what happens. Quality, new products, employees all cost money. That is a good thing, not a bad thing. Costs are like your pulse, they are a sign of being alive. Without costs there is no business to be run, profits don’t come from out of blue.

Note: the image of the magazine cover used as the “feature” photo on the home page is that of CM Magazine, the first B2B magazine I published (“CM” = construction management). It was launched while I was working for McGraw-Hill in San Francisco. It was shuttered after I left the company by a publisher who preferred their own newspaper tabloid product.

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