Regional business publications remain upbeat

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Despite talk of a looming U.S. recession, city and regional business magazines aren't panicking—at least not yet, according to several publishing executives who attended the annual Alliance of Area Business Publications meeting last month in Key Largo, Fla.

These weekly business titles seem to be retaining their advertisers, and many are augmenting their revenue with new print and online products as well as events.

That's in stark contrast to what's happening at daily city newspapers, which continue to struggle and downsize. Last week, Sun-Times Media Group, parent of the Chicago Sun-Times, said it was considering a sale of the company and its assets. The newspaper chain had been slashing costs for two months to lower its annual operating costs by $50 million. Last April, Chicago real- estate magnate Sam Zell won a bidding war to take Tribune Co., parent of the Chicago Tribune, private in an $8.11 billion deal.

Although a number of the 60 or so AABP attendees acknowledged slower-than-usual advertising commitments in December and January, none said they were planning cutbacks.

In fact, some publishing executives said that if a recession is near, now may be the right time to expand.

"Your competitors aren't thinking that way, and you can knock the hell out of them," said Grady Johnson, CEO-publisher of the Charleston Regional Business Journal. He said that in hindsight, the launch of the paper in 1995, two years after the Navy announced the closing of the naval base and shipyards in the area, was precisely the right time.

It may also be the right time to buy local business media properties. The parent of the Charleston Regional Business Journal, 13-year-old Setcom Media, was sold last month to Brown Publishing Co., a family-owned chain of daily, weekly, niche and business publications. As part of the sale, Johnson added the title of CEO of the newly created SC Biz News.

It was the third out-of-state acquisition for Cincinnati-based Brown in the last few months. In September, it acquired Fort Worth Business Press; in October, it bought the Des Moines Business Record. Financial terms of the three deals were not disclosed.

"These were all good properties, in good markets," said Brown Publishing President-CEO Roy Brown. "They have sustained themselves very well in the late 2007 fade that other people have felt." He added that all had "an identifiable path to digitalization." In its home state of Ohio, Brown owns 15 dailies and more than 60 weekly general-interest titles.

Less than two weeks after the AABP meeting, Brown Publishing announced another purchase: Boulder Business Information, publisher of the Boulder County Business Report and its associated event and online assets. The deal also brings Brown BBI's majority ownership of the Northern Colorado Business Report in Fort Collins, the Wyoming Business Report in Cheyenne, Wyo., and DataJoe, a research and online data company. Financial details were not released.

The Brown acquisitions underscore the resilience of this sector of the marketplace, said Mark M. Edmiston, managing director of media investment bank AdMedia Partners. "There's a lot of opportunity in the local markets," he said. "If you're a Staples in Lancaster, Pa., you still need a place to advertise paper shredders, even if the national [advertising budget] is cut back."

It may even be a good time for start-ups. That's how Karen Moore, publisher of Southwest Florida Business Today, sees it. "This is the right time," said Moore, who launched her paper at the end of October and now has three full-time staffers. She said that in times of change, businesspeople are especially hungry for information to help them make business decisions.

For Jeff Hankins, president- publisher of Arkansas Business Publishing Group, entering the Web development business three years ago has provided a good source of new revenue and brought in incremental advertising to its portfolio of 15 titles. Hankins' seven-person Web team has been hired by a handful of media companies, as well as advertisers of various shapes and sizes, from construction companies to medical clinics.

"Our online advertising and sponsorship business will be 7% of revenue this year, and our Web development work will be 7% of revenue," Hankins said.

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