August 26, 2016 Last Updated 3:26 pm

Time for major changes at the top of the food chain, not more staff reductions at the bottom

Each month we are told that things could not be better in the US magazine industry, audiences are growing, the birds are singing and flowers are in bloom. It is not that the trade association representing major magazine publishers are living their lives in denial so much as that is what they think their membership expects them to be saying to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, magazine company CEOs adopt new strategies about as often as Donald Trump changes campaign managers. Well, almost as often.

The future, we are told, is video content. Or it is audience building. But in reality is the same as it was last year, and the year before that: make staff cuts in order to reduce costs and buy time.

Public companies do so knowing they will have to explain their cuts at the end of each quarter during their conference calls, while private companies can wait until past the deadlines of their big issues – generally in the fall and maybe early winter (depending on the focus of the magazine).

What doesn’t seem to ever happen, however, is any reckoning in the corporate suites. The big publishers are still run by the same people who miss their earning forecasts and rule over shrinking empires. Occasionally we hear of a vice president here or there losing his or her job, but one can figure out that the moves are made primarily to save the skin of the one at the top of the pyramid – and besides, the veeps generally get a nice parachute when hearing that their jobs have been eliminated.

Meanwhile, we hear that the new trend is to fire publishers. I suppose it was their time. Sales reps and journalists have face staff reductions for years, so why not publishers?

When cutting editorial and sales it is often said that the moves are being made because of a change in strategy. The favorite explanation in recent years is that the cutbacks are part of a digital-first initiative. I guess they think we are all idiots because executives never explain how cutting staff sizes helps digital publishing, and besides, no new digital initiatives are ever announced at the time of the layoffs.

Now, eliminating the publisher position, as has been done at Tribune Publishing tronc and Time Inc., or simply consolidating titles under fewer publishers, as it reportedly being done at Condé Nast, is never justified for what it is – reducing costs. There is generally a convoluted explanation about why the new scheme will be more successful. The favorite explanations are cutting through bureaucracy or cutting through the wall between editorial and advertising. If such moves have ever increased revenue than I am still waiting to hear of it, because it makes no sense at all from a revenue stand-point as far as I can see.

(To see how all this ends up, see the B2B magazine business. They have been employing this strategy for years. In my last magazine job I was hired to be publisher of a 4 magazine. When I left I had 9 titles under my name. It was absurd, but I was still employed, though those other publishers were not.)

All these moves, cutting staff or publishers, is the result of disappointing results. But when a company reorganizes itself after such disappointing results, who is really to blame? If a publisher fails to makes their numbers, and they have their own sales staff, it is commonly understood that if they are let go after disappointing results it is justifiable. But if all of them are, or a large group of them are, is the problem really with the publishers?

Why is that the CEOs of these failing companies are still around, after quarter after quarter of miserable results? Well, that is easy to understand: there is no one that can get rid of these people. The boards of directors of most American businesses are hand-selected by the executives of the company and only on the rare occasion can shareholders ever mount a rebellion.

Does this sound like I am being bitchy? I certainly have no reason to be, I don’t report into any of these executives anymore. But you, dear reader, probably do, and you aren’t going to hear any of the trade publications calling for the heads of these companies to be lopped off. No, they need these guys to show up at their next event in order to tell those who pay to attend that all is well, that audiences are growing, and that they have a new strategy that will mean tremendous growth in the quarters to come.

Meanwhile, there are less of us employed in this business, and that is not making things better. TNM needs you to stay employed, to read this website, to do your jobs. You are the industry, not these overpaid, bags of wind.

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