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Biz-News Outlets Grow, but Will Ad Dollars?

It's Tough for Brands to Stand Out in Crowd That Now Includes Fox, Too

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Greg Stern and Matt Ringel are just the sort of executives that business-news outlets such as CNBC or BusinessWeek dream about reaching. The 46-year-old Mr. Stern, CEO of Butler, Shine Stern & Partners, an independent Sausalito, Calif., ad agency, said, "80% of my business media is consumed on the web, accessed either via e-newsletters or articles sent by colleagues." And he reads and hears so much, he said, that "I'm not necessarily looking at who it's from."
Matt Ringel, president of Games Media Properties
Matt Ringel, president of Games Media Properties

Mr. Ringel, 37, also immerses himself in business information that comes to his electronic doorstep. "I find I just need to have the relevant news pushed out to me, and that I'm pretty well covered by specifying preferences at a number of sites and getting the RSS feeds, getting a couple of e-mail newsletters," said Mr. Ringel, who is president of Games Media Properties. "The news is less of a destination for me," he added. "The 'bots' out there know what I like."

Business media are full of figures and financial analysis, but something about the category these days isn't adding up. As consumers such as Mr. Ringel and Mr. Stern become more elusive, media companies are introducing new products and tweaking old ones. It's not clear, though, that any of them will drum up what they need to survive: a large influx of additional ad dollars. Consumers face such a dizzying array of options that it's hard for any one brand to stand apart.

Murdoch steps in
Into the fray leaps News Corp., which today launches its Fox Business channel. CNBC recently rejiggered part of its programming schedule. Condé Nast Publications this year made a big bet on its new business magazine, Portfolio. The Wall Street Journal, which is being acquired by News Corp. later this year, plans to launch a "high-quality monthly glossy magazine" in September 2008.

Time Inc., meanwhile, expects to launch several hours of daily broadband programming on CNNMoney.com in January, said Vivek Shah, president of Time Inc.'s Fortune/Money group.

McGraw-Hill's BusinessWeek just unveiled an extensive redesign and is eyeing additional local editions as it prepares to launch one in Chicago, said Keith Fox, president of the company's BusinessWeek Group.

These financial-news outlets give blue-chip advertisers such as Microsoft Corp., General Motors Corp., IBM and AT&T the chance to reach a valuable demographic -- chiefly upscale, older men. Consolidation among financial-services firms and technology companies make keeping the coffers full these days a much tougher task.

"I'm not sure there's room to grow the audience," said Tim Spengler, chief activation officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. Without investor euphoria to drive market expansion, he said, business media will have to steal consumers and ad dollars from each other as part of "a zero-sum game."

Indeed trends show a choppy category. Ad spending in 2006 at CNBC fell about 29.2% from 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence (the figures reflect spending on the core media property, not across all venues). In the same time period, ad spending fell about 7.8% at Fortune and about 15% at BusinessWeek. Meanwhile, ad spending is up about 5.5% at Forbes and about 18.4% at The Wall Street Journal. Some of the biggest advertisers in the publications are the companies that own them. The Journal's biggest advertiser in 2006 was its corporate parent, and Forbes Inc. was one of Forbes' five biggest sponsors in the same year, according to TNS.

Big spenders
Online outlays by the marketers business media count on continue to divert dollars from traditional outlets. Financial-services advertisers were the second-largest category online in the second quarter of 2007, with spending of $764 million, or 15% of all online dollars for the period, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Computing advertisers were the third-largest category, at 11%, spending $560 million in the second quarter. Telecom companies accounted for 8% of online revenue, spending $408 million. Business and finance online media captured only 4% of the $542 million that Microsoft's Avenue A/ Razorfish spent online in 2006. But that figure marks an 81% increase over the previous year.

Some of the business outlets have tried to broaden their ad bases beyond technology and financial-services ads. The Journal's interest in a glossy magazine reflects Dow Jones' longstanding effort to lessen its publications' dependence on core business categories by bringing in more upscale-consumer-goods marketers. Portfolio's pages have included ads from a number of luxury marketers. Among magazines in the first half of the year, advertising in the automotive, financial and technology categories -- which used to represent some of the most potent fuel for business media -- showed declines, while ads in the drugs, food, retail and apparel categories were more robust, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

Even as the media outlets add to the raucous din of business news, they hope to stand apart from it by broadening their editorial scope. Fortune and Money were traditionally never involved in daily news, Mr. Shah said. Now, thanks to the web, they are.

The only trouble is that larger media presences produce a thicker barrage of content -- not all of it helpful or welcome. "We believe that there is a profusion of information being pushed to people, and the more that happens, the more important it is going to be for people to have a trusted filter," said Jim Berrien, president and publisher of Forbes' magazine group.

But it's not easy to deliver a cogent take on an event within an hour or two of its taking place. "What I want is AP-style speed combined with the depth of The Economist," said Michael Duda, partner, chief corporate strategy officer at Interpublic Group's Deutsch agency.
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