08 June 2005

Killing the Myth of the "General Interest" Reader

Fast Company editor-in-chief and blogger John A. Byrne took offense (or was it defensiveness?) to David Carr’s column in the 5/30/05 edition of the NY Times.

David Carr: "When the Meredith Corporation announced its purchase of Gruner & Jahr's women's magazines last Tuesday, Meredith said that Gruner's business magazines, Fast Company and Inc., were not 'material' to the sale. What that means is that two magazines that sold for more than half a billion dollars four years ago now have a value of zero" (NY Times, reg required).

John A. Byrne: "The reason it's not material is because Meredith intends to make as much or more selling us than it has agreed to pay G&J for Fast Company and Inc. These are two very valuable national magazine brands being sold at the worst time for G&J but the best time for any smart buyer. Smart investors, after all, buy low and sell high" (Fast Company's blog).

But the big story isn’t Fast Company, it’s that the Big Three business books—Business Week, Fortune and Forbes—appear to be in decline. According to Media Industry Newsletter, the three magazines collectively sold around 10,000 ad pages in 2004. Of course that's way off from the go-go days of 2000, when they sold 18,300 pages. But to think it's below the 11,500 pages sold in 1995! Eek.

According to Carr, the migration of audiences and ad dollars to the Internet is part of the explanation (agreed!). The other half of his explanation, though, is that "there is no longer general interest in business."

Hold on a second.

Advertising spends are a trailing indicator, meaning that audiences migrate well before ad buyers shift budgets. Think back to cable TV in the 1990s: viewers spent half their TV time watching cable programs years before cable's ad revenues reached parity with the broadcast networks. So Carr should be citing audience data, not ad spending reports, if he’s going to make a claim like that.

According to MRI data, the aggregate readership for the Big Three business books in 1995 was 10,746,000 (MRI 1995). Last year—combining data from MRI (9,567,000 average-issue print readership) and Nielsen NetRatings (7,591,000 unique online visitors), minus the estimated 14.3% print-online readership overlap (IQ CIMS Business Online Behavior Study 2004)—the aggregate readership for the three brands had grown to 14,704,000. So business-publication readers didn't die off with the 20th century. They're just starting to move online to get their business information.

Why? Efficiency. Even the simplest website version of a print publication makes finding the key stories—those that are relevant to each discrete reader—vastly easier. Online, wealthy investors and can track their portfolios and sectors without flipping to the back of BusinessWeek or waiting for Fortune’s year-end Guide to Investing special issue; business executives can read the news that pertains to their industry without paging through irrelevant coverage; and the CFO can get a whitepaper from SAP without mailing in a postcard that he or she plucked off a print ad.

In effect, readers are using the web to create their own niche publications, their own business-information tools. It's worth noting the online success of stand-alone niche business publications like CNET's (same parent company as ChasNote), which reached 1,825,000 monthly uniques in April 2005 (Nielsen NetRatings) versus PC Week's 902,000 average-issue readership in 1995 (IQ CIMS Business V.2).

So perhaps David Carr hasn't spotted a new trend, this death of the general-interest business publication reader. The Internet has just pulled back the curtain on readership patterns to show that selective reading—cherry-picking relevant content by flipping through a general-interest publication—has been going on all along.


  • Whether the death of the general-interest business publication reader is a new or old trend I don't know. But the signs are certainly there. It may not be something the print publications want to admit but I think the print pubs are admitting it in their actions. A- In the case of Forbes for example, I think it's becoming the reality whether they want to admit it or not. Why? Jim Spanfeller, president-CEO of, comments in the B2B Media Power 50 article a couple months ago that "Until now, media executives had to put their targets up against the various media available, and there was always some degree of waste. But we can give advertisers the unique cut of our readers that's most important to them, such as C-level executives with technology-buying authority in financial services."(basically what you said in your Whiteboard). And in following, is offering two "innovative" guarantees (1) The Brand Increase Guarantee that refunds advertisers' money if their 60-day, $150,000-minimum program fails to increase brand metrics, and (2) The Challenge that offers money back on advertising if it fails to outperform the same dollar amount of *print* advertising in The Wall Street Journal.

    B. Michael Friedenberg, VP-group publisher for the InformationWeek Media Network says, "... print is just part of what we're offering. The real value to advertising with us is that we offer a complete media platform backed by unequaled editorial power that also extends throughout CMP Media's considerable technology portfolio." Interesting that InformationWeek has launched a weekly archived *Web show*, "Inside InformationWeek." which features the magazine's editors recapping top IT news. Each episode runs five to 10 minutes and is presented by an advertising sponsor, which gets to run a short ad.

    C. WSJ follows suit ... "The Journal has remained competitive by adapting to the marketplace with additional segments, and its circulation is as strong as ever," said Mike Paradiso, global media director for Computer Associates International. "And their *online* presence makes them one of the strongest brands in the media space. The "Dow Jones has also tried to build new revenue streams for the Journal and other company properties with the introduction of Dow Jones Integrated Solutions. This unit helps marketers integrate marketing programs across the entire Dow Jones platform, which includes print (the Journal and Barron's), *Online* ( and the recently acquired MarketWatch), broadcast (CNBC and The Wall Street Journal Radio Network) and event marketing.

    D. And at BusinessWeek, the addition of the newly crowned editor in chief is a sign of the times. Stephen Adler spent 17 years at The Wall Street Journal, most recently as deputy managing editor of the newspaper and editorial director of **. He was the ultimate choice for the BusinessWeek job because of his integrated media background. Adler oversees the content of the print weekly, as well as the Web site and a weekly syndicated TV program. "We must be three things to our readers-indispensable, global and truly multichannel," he said. Interestingly, Adler has already started blurring the lines between the print and online editorial teams. "We will integrate the staffs more and more as we go along," he said.

    While the other print pubs invest and try to innovate with the changing trends and follow the readers, we've been in this space, and what we have is here and now and in real-time.

    Okay, I am stepping off the soapbox now. : ) Sorry if this was all's Friday.

    By Blogger bloggy, at 6:22 PM  

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