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Starving to Death on $200 Million: The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard by James Ledbetter


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)


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Let it Die

Aside from a great title, Starving to Death on $200 Million: The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard, there’s not a lot worth reading in this new book by James Ledbetter. Publishing types will likely find something of interest, and those who miss the Internet bubble days may revel in some chapters here. For the most part, Starving to Death is a boring chronicle of how someone’s employer allowed a business to die. Ledbetter writes well, but there’s not compelling enough interest in the tale to savor his writing.

Here’s an excerpt (pp. 138-40):

Indeed, it seemed that no matter what The Standard did that might impede or drain its overall business, the print ads kept pouring in. In the fall of 1999, The Standard raised its "rate base" (the number of readers a publication guarantees to advertisers it will reach) from 100,000 to 125,000, with a corresponding boost in advertising rates. That didn't dent the number of ads that ran in the magazine.

Even when the Nasdaq began to crater, the advertising kept flowing. On Monday, March 13, the Nasdaq composite fell 150 points, to 4907, and by early April it was down to 4224. The Nasdaq index represented, actually and symbolically, a good portion of our advertising base. But the companies kept spending. Our smallest issue in April

2000 took in nearly $2.2 million in advertising, and one issue almost hit $3 million. The following month had five issues, all of which were more than $2.5 million apiece, and two of which topped $3 million. That month, even though the revenues from online sales and conferences were below the forecasts made for them three months before, the publication's overall revenues were well above forecast. The operating profit for that month had been projected at $100,000. Instead, it was $3.1 million—all because of print ad sales' Even given seasonal fluctuations in the advertising market. The Standard was well on its way to breaking $200 million in its second full year of publishing, with a hefty profit to boot.

And so what do you do when the money is coming in faster than anyone can count it? You expand. If one magazine is too puny to handle all the companies who want to advertise in it, you split it into multiple magazines. Weber and I, among others, had been talking about different ways to expand The Standard. My idea was to follow the way that AdWeek, one of the leading publications of the advertising trade, had split itself in the early 1990s into AdWeek, MediaWeek, and BrandWeek. In a memo, I argued that The Standard could split intofour: The Business Standard (focusing on business applications); The

Media Standard (focusing on the Internet's role in media, advertising, and marketing); The Retail Standard (focusing on e-commerce, both in start-ups and in traditional businesses); and The Industry Standard (which would function in some ways as a "greatest hits" collection from the other titles and continue to cover technology, telecommunications, and important developments elsewhere).

This was a superficial suggestion; obviously splitting the magazine into four would multiply production and postage costs. Admittedly, it was also self-serving; if my superiors liked this idea, I was going to argue that The Media Standard should be based in New York and edited . . . by me. Battelle's brief response to my memo was to endorse the idea of emphasizing "verticals," the jargon du jour for concentrating on a single topic.

What the company came up with was a monthly publication called Grok. The idea was based on something The Standard had already been doing: On a regular basis, it would publish a "special report" on a single topic, such as the role of the Internet in health care, travel, advertising and marketing, and the like. Because these were scheduled months in advance, the ad department could sell to businesses in those fields; during The Fat Year the special reports became huge moneymakers. Essentially, the idea behind Grok was to isolate the special reports and make them into their own magazine. Hence, the first issue of Grok, to debut in September 2000, was devoted to the entertainment industry, the second to education, and so on.

Like too many magazine ideas cooked up by already-successful publications, the motivation for Grok seemed entirely ad-driven. And in fact, Battelle had told people that we were creating it "because we need another bucket," adopting the lingo of IDG without any apparent irony. In retrospect, Grok seems like a profoundly stupid idea. The

newsstand is a jungle of competition, and magazines must be able to communicate what they're about in a fraction of a second. That's hard enough to do when your magazine's theme is the same with every issue. If you're a brand new magazine with a nonsense word for a title, and a different theme for every issue, the task of communicating with would-be readers is essentially impossible.

Some readers may find the story of bad decisions and judgments to offer a model not to follow. For most of us, reading Starving to Death just isn’t worth the time.

Steve Hopkins, March 25, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: to Death.htm


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