October 10, 2017 Last Updated 12:38 pm

Musical chairs in the publishing business is a sign of life, though not a sign of growth

High-profile journalists have been moving around recently, often from successful titles to one’s with uncertain futures, but the more important trend is the reduced staffing of many magazines, and the lack of leadership at the individual brands

One doubts that it was much of a coincidence that Atlantic Media sent out a personnel notice today regarding a promotion after word spread that The Atlantic had lost Molly Ball to TIME magazine. Or maybe it was a coincidence, who really knows. (See Pershing promotion here, Ball hiring here)

Ball’s move to TIME is pretty high profile, but many are scratching their heads regarding it. The Atlantic is one of the hottest magazine’s out there, with a future pretty much assured by the ownership shift to the Emerson Collective, the organization founded and run by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs. As for the future of Time Inc., well, that is up in the air.

Still, people move around for all sorts of reasons, and I am not privy to any information that would make this decision clear — and frankly, it’s none of my business anyway.

What is interesting, however, is the number of moves TNM has had to report of late. Few really are new hires so much as shifting around of all-star talent. Like the trades that come at the deadline each baseball season, the winning teams generally stock up on talent, while the losing teams stay quiet about their losses. In publishing, however, people move around all the time for lots of reasons, some that become only apparent later.

Unfortunately, when you ignore the names involved in these stories, and just look at who is adding to staff and who is laying off, one sees that very few are building their staffs, and many more reducing head count. For example, most of the time when a big name editor leaves a magazine they are replaced with the next in line, and then that spot is left unfilled. It is cost reduction the easy way.

Maybe it is because I am a publisher, but I really think the trend of, first, having publishers manage more than one title, then, the elimination of the publisher position altogether, is what has sent the magazine industry into a death spiral. Yes, the idea of group sales has merit. But we are talking about the fate of individual titles. Once a title loses a manager who lives and dies on the success of that title, the title withers away. There are exceptions, but they are only exceptions.

The same could be said for editor in B2B, as well. Many of the B2B companies long ago started to force their editors to edit two titles or more. To accomplish this, those editors seriously cut back their traveling to see industry leaders, serving on association committees and boards, seeing clients. B2Bs saved a few dollars — trade magazine editors, after all, are terribly underpaid — but then soon saw their magazines lose ad pages. Many owners didn’t see the connection, but then again… you know, owners.

I’ve been a publisher in good times and bad times and have face cost cutting decisions many times. But the kinds of cuts we have seen the past couple of decades have torn the heart out of the industry, and they can’t be blamed on the internet simply because the numbers don’t support that conclusion.

B2B magazines began their decline in the early part of the 2000’s, back when Google and Facebook could be blamed for taking ad dollars. Then, the industry was dominated by private equity companies that bought up portfolios, cut costs, strapped companies with fees, then tried as best they could to sell off the portfolios for a profit. Many didn’t have to see for a profit because the money they took out of the companies before they sold them was enough of a return to justify the initial investment. But they so weakened the B2B companies they left behind that most PEs avoided new investments due to the condition of the industry they left behind.

In consumer publishing, the slide started later, with much of the consolidation occurring within the industry rather than from outside it. This trend continues and one can see a future where a Time Inc. outsources their few remaining magazines to another company, keeping the brands so that they can produce branded video content. Meredith almost merged with a broadcaster (Media General) which surely would have led to the sale of the print part of the company. Print magazines dodged a bullet on that one, but I fear it is only temporary.

Photo: Musical Chairs by David Maddison, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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