ABM wrestles with ad falloff

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[dana point, calif.] The skies above the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where the American Business Media held its annual spring meeting last week remained stubbornly cloudy, reflecting the mood of the trade magazine executives gathered there.

"[The recession] will end," said Thomas Kemp, chairman-CEO of Penton Media, "but the big question is when." Members of the ABM, largely publishers of trade and technology magazines, have been battered by ad revenue declines of about 20% between 2000 and 2001, according to the Business Information Network figures compiled by Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Ad revenue in the first two months of 2002 dipped 29.2% compared to the same period for the previous year, according to BIN.

Mr. Kemp said the most recent data he has seen for the industry indicated ad revenue will continue to decline in the near term but at a slower rate compared to 2001. In his opening remarks at the spring meeting, however, Gordon T. Hughes II, president-CEO of ABM, declared, "I believe the worst is over."

But in virtually every sector of b-to-b media, from agricultural to tech, executives were uncertain of an uptick, and showed little confidence in the strength of recovery.

"We're pretty sure it's bottomed out," said Chuck Roth, president of Farm Progress Cos. "It's not going to get a lot better real soon. We don't think it will rebound until 2003."

"This could be a slow recovery, when a recovery ever starts," added Gary Marshall, president of CMP Media, which publishes InformationWeek and other tech titles. Like most b-to-b media companies, CMP has responded to the downturn by cutting staff and closing titles, such as Internet Week.

But the ability of b-to-b media companies to cut costs in this recession has been hampered by a postal rate hike, which has angered ABM members. Mr. Hughes spoke for many of them when he called the U.S. Post Office "financially out of control."

A decade ago, trade shows were a common new revenue stream for trade publishers. Now, b-to-b media companies are looking to profit from databases they have compiled on the industries they serve.

"There is real revenue in data," said Mr. Hughes. But Mr. Hughes and the ABM also recognize the calls for increased privacy on the Internet and elsewhere may cut into potential revenue from selling data.

In the meantime, publishers are seeking a silver lining. "We've got a flat [revenue] forecast for this year," said Jim Watt, chairman-CEO of Watt Publishing, publisher of Poultry International, "and if that happens we'll consider that a good year."

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