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Thomas Industrial Network dropping print in favor of the Internet

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BY SEAN CALLAHAN

The Big Green Books are wearing the black of mourning.

Thomas Publishing Co.’s Thomas Industrial Network announced last week that it will stop printing its massive, multivolume directories The Thomas Register of American Manufacturers and The Thomas Register Regional Buying Guides, both of which have been a staple for decades at industrial facilities around North America. After 2006, Thomas, which was founded at the turn of the 20th century, will make these directories available exclusively online at ThomasNet.com.

"We’re a 106-year-old Internet company," said Linda Rigano, director-strategic alliances at ThomasNet.

"Our customers are telling us that what is most important to them is their online presence," said George Short, Thomas Industrial Network’s CFO.

Increasingly, users of Thomas’ directories were opting against the print format and for the online version because it offered search functionality, immediate access to vendor catalogs, direct links to vendor Web sites, e-commerce capability and a library of CAD drawings. ThomasNet.com contains information on more than 650,000 manufacturers, distributors and service companies indexed by 67,000 product and service categories.

Thomas Industrial Network’s advertiser base also noticed the difference. "We don’t get too many leads anymore from the print [directories]," said Tom Fitzhenry, VP-sales at Minor Rubber Co. "It mostly comes from the online."

Thomas Industrial Network’s move was largely applauded. "They got the memo," said Tolman Geffs, managing director at media investment bank Jordan, Edmiston Group. "Armies fight harder when you burn the bridge behind them. Seriously, there’s no going back now."

Despite its longevity, Thomas Publishing has been viewed in some quarters as a pioneering company in moving from print to electronic media. It was one of the first b-to-b publishers to offer CD-ROM versions of its directories as well as one of the first to move online. Now it is a trailblazer in abandoning print.

Short said the move was not made for cost-cutting reasons but to reallocate resources for the future. He said this will force Thomas employees to think not about creating and deploying information for print but only about using it on the Internet.

However with other companies, such as GlobalSpec, building online engineering search engines that compete with Thomas but without the burden of print, cost-cutting had to play a role, industry observers said.

"[Shuttering the print directories is] also a necessary step in an environment in which new competitors do not have expensive print legacy products to maintain," according to a report from Outsell, a research and analyst firm.

Observers expect other directory publishers to follow Thomas’ lead in the near future. Caroline Riby, media director at Roberts Communications in Rochester, N.Y., said, "With our [industry’s] products, like SRDS, it’s rare that any of us cracks the book." Instead, media buyers visit srds.com.

Whether cessation of publishing print versions in favor of online editions expands from b-to-b directories to b-to-b magazines seems unlikely, at least in the short term, industry observers said. Directories are designed expressly as reference tools and consequently for searching. Magazines are read differently.

The Thomas Register "is pure reference, and you would never take one of these home to read to your kids," Geffs said.

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