November 15, 2016 Last Updated 12:12 pm

Want to know what it looks like when you lose influence? Look to B2B magazine industry for a clue

The trade magazine business has been in decline for a while now, having lost its influence due to digital alternatives and direct marketing, but it has learned to adjust somewhat to survive and sometimes even thrive

The mainstream news media woke up last week Wednesday and discovered a horrible truth: it is no longer as influential as had been in the past. Worse, its grand plan to expand its audience, while not altering its editorial mission and focus, looked to be in tatters.

Newspapers and major magazines have known for a while that its editorial endorsements no longer were as election altering as they might have been in the past. More and more newspapers have chosen to not endorse at all, but this election brought many more endorsements from publications that either never endorsed before, or had only done so on extremely rare occasions (such as The Atlantic).

skjerdal-reading-400What must it feel like for a newspaper editor to suddenly realize that all their work, and their editorial heft, had not influenced the voting public (or at least not enough to alter the results)? They can check with their B2B colleagues.

It has been a bad decade and a half for the B2B publishing industry, brought on by both the rise of digital alternatives to print magazines, but also the “investments” by private equity companies that ultimately destroyed much of the industry.

Twenty years ago, most industry segments were served by multiple print magazines, and sometimes by a multitude of niche magazines serving ever smaller segments. In construction, where I was a publisher, the industry could be segmented by housing, commercial, transportation, landscape, etc. Then there were segments serving design, maintenance, etc. It is still segmented this way, but with fewer magazine titles, and certainly fewer magazines regularly publishing issues of over 100 pages.

To make up for lost ad pages, and few readers willing to renew their subscriptions (even when free), the industry evolved to emphasize events and data services.

In many cases, B2B publishers left the print magazine business altogether, either going digital-only, or becoming exclusively events oriented. Some print titles remained, mainly to serve as promotional vehicles for the events (and awards, awards, awards).

For The New York Times and The Washington Post, which wants desperately to expand its audience in order to stay alive (let alone profitable), discovering that much of the audience it wants to attract are regular readers of alt-right news sites, and sometimes outright fake news sites, has to be depressing. At a time when it wants to sell more digital subscriptions, it is seeing that much of its readership is only attracted to its comment threads where they criticize the editorial and often link offsite.

What can these media companies learn from the B2B industry? First, that diversification is vital. Having only one media brand, in B2B, is not commercially viable for the vast majority of B2Bs. For a newspaper company, this might mean utilizing the roll-up strategies of New Media Investment Group or Gannett, or it might simply mean developing new digital brands to slowly expand their revenue lines.

One example of this comes from today’s news that New York magazine has launched a new site, and a new brand, called The Strategist designed to help online shoppers.

They can also learn that losing print advertising doesn’t have to mean losing all the revenue from the commercial side of the business. Certainly the newspaper business has ventured into native advertising, but I always felt that was a fad that would go nowhere. Instead, there needs to be other ways to continue to engage their former ad clients. Sponsorships, custom publishing and other ways might be possible solutions.

Photo (above-right): Intensely reading the newspaper in Addis Ababa by Terje Skjerdal used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Photo (home page): The Reader (1910), The Casas-Rodríguez Postcard Collection used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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