Ask one industry executive what 2001 will bring for tech- and new-economy print publications, and you'll get a quick answer: "What's that giant sucking sound?"
Kelly Conlin, president-CEO of International Data Group, which publishes The Industry Standard, PC World and InfoWorld, puts it a little differently. "In some ways,  was an anomalous year," he understated.
It certainly was. The Industry Standard, riding the dot-com boom like nobody's business, notched 7,128.6 ad pages through November 2000, topping the magazine industry and beating its nearest competitor, Time Inc.'s Fortune, by more than 1,000 pages. Business 2.0 and Red Herring followed, in seventh and 12th place respectively, with triple-digit gains themselves.
But after the boom comes the hard part.
Execs at the magazines in question insist all is well enough. Red Herring Communications Vice-Chairman Chris Alden said 2001 will bring growth that will outpace the rest of the market - again - even if it doesn't approach last year's meteoric result. "If  brings 5% growth [for the magazine industry overall] " we'll do far better than that," he predicted. Red Herring, with ad pages up 150% through November, saw its ad pages drop 5.8% in November vs. the same month a year ago, and Red Herring Communications has had layoffs.
Other new-economy magazines have shrunk to suddenly manageable sizes. The Industry Standard's ad pages were down 11.9% in November vs. a year ago. Conde Nast Publications' Wired saw its ad pages drop 15.3% in November vs. the same month in 1999. (Business 2.0, owned by the Imagine Media arm of British publisher The Future Network, went up 81.7%.)
In perhaps the ultimate measure of a crested boom, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Dan Fost weighed six new-economy mags - the aforementioned four, plus Upside and Time Inc.'s eCompany Now - and found that while June issues weighed in at 10 pounds, current issues tip the scales at five.
"We don't expect much growth in 2001," said David Bunnell, CEO and editor of Upside Media. "A small amount of growth is possible - plus or minus two or three percent." Still, Mr. Bunnell, whose magazine arguably started the whole niche in '89, dismissed the importance of the dot-com falloff.
"We've seen the PC boom, the PC bust; the bio-tech boom, the bio-tech bust; the multimedia boom, the multimedia bust; and the Internet boom and the Internet bust," he said. "It's the nature of technology." Mr. Bunnell said dot-com ads accounted for about 20% of Upside's advertising, a figure commensurate with Red Herring's ad breakdown.
"There is still a tremendous amount of tech architecture being bought and sold," said IDG's Mr. Conlin. He predicted IDG would see ad revenue growth of 15% in the first quarter of 2001, but said he had no further forecasting data available.
In late November, IDG pulled the plug on Standard spinoff Grok. "Supplements by their definition are published when volume allows," Mr. Conlin said. "Right now, the ad volume is down." The Standard expects an ad falloff this year from last year's heights.
Days later, Imagine Media pulled the plug on Fuse as a standalone title just as its debut issue reached readers. The move came after its parent Future Network warned 2000 results would be below expectations due to softness in the computer games market, hurting its games magazines; a restatement of earnings in its French division; and, ominously, signs of year-end slowing at Business 2.0.
"Ever since the decline in the fortunes of dot-coms that began in March, [Business 2.0] has been managing a transition toward a broader base of advertisers," Future Network said in its earnings warning. "But there are signs that some non-dot-com marketing budgets have also been reduced for the end of year period."
There were other signs of pulling back. As Powerful Media's Inside.com last month debuted Inside, its new every-other-weekly convergence magazine, it decided to delay a shift to weekly frequency till the end of 2001. Inside is produced in partnership with the Standard.
There was even a report - denied by all sides - that the Standard and Business 2.0 were discussing a merger.
Despite the brave faces at the titles - and their legitimate arguments that there's much more to tech advertising than dot-coms - some magazine observers are already predicting the worst.
"I think there will be a little bit of a shakeout," said Reed Phillips, managing director of DeSilva & Phillips, an investment banker specializing in media. "A number of these magazines were struggling as they went into last year."
Asked if he expected any titles to leave the category, Mr. Bunnell said, "It ain't gonna be Upside." M
Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.