Harried tech titles survive on optimism

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An outdoor board over New York's Times Square as recently as last month proclaimed The Industry Standard would help "simplify" subscribers' lives.

What the board left unsaid was that in August 2001, the Standard was simplified-into extinction-in one of the quickest publishing rise-and-fall stories ever. The drastic decline in technology ad pages meant there was a lot less for readers to absorb; business weeklies and hard-core tech magazines look anorexic next to the well-fed issues that used to cram newsstands.

At least they were on the stands. In addition to Standard Media International's Standard, 2001 claimed magazines including Future Technology Media Group's Small Business Computing, Imagine Media's The Net and Ziff Davis Media's [email protected] Week. Imagine's Business 2.0 was sold off to AOL Time Warner and merged with the struggling eCompany Now. "I've never seen anything like this," says Harlan Schwarz, senior VP-director of strategic print services at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, New York.

In this magazine ad category, a number is worth a thousand words. Tech ad spending in consumer magazines plummeted 37.1% to $858 million in 2001, vs. a year earlier, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Among the hardest hit was any subcategory associated with the dreaded Internet: Internet business and home office services, for example, sank by 80.7% to $13.4 million. Tech ad spending in business-oriented tech titles dropped by 10.4% in the first three quarters of 2001 to $1.5 billion.


The early word on 2002 doesn't look much brighter.

Publishers Information Bureau, which doesn't track the full breadth of tech titles, reveals devastating statistics on how the technology slump has affected mainstream magazines and continues to do so. PIB says spending among technology advertisers slid 28.8% to $1.2 billion in 2001; ad pages dropped 34.3% to 17,425.7. The business weeklies Business Week, Forbes and Fortune suffered overall ad page declines of 37%, 39% and 36%, respectively. According to January 2002 figures, tech advertising had by far the worst performance of any of the 12 categories that PIB monitors, free-falling by 42.5% in ad pages and 35.5% in revenue from the already depressed levels of January 2001.

What's a publisher to do? Pick another career?

Putting on some rose-colored glasses-and holding one's breath-is the preferred option, as conversations with executives at tech titles make painfully clear. Technology may look like it's on holiday, publishers say, but it's here to stay, and they look hopefully to the enterprise, wireless and security categories to help them crawl out of the slump.

"The threshold question is: Is technology becoming less important anywhere?" says Kelly Conlin, president-CEO of International Data Group, which backed The Industry Standard and is the publisher of such titles as InfoWorld and PC World.

IDG is placing its bet on promoting its titles as product lines, containing a number of branded products, such as trade shows, in addition to the magazines. The company also is building integrated marketing packages with major players such as Nokia, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard Co. that employ media including Webcasts and e-mail newsletters to help advertisers find customers. "One of the key issues is not to overly rely on page numbers as a proxy for the health of the industry," Mr. Conlin says.

There may be no technology publisher where the industrywide suffering is more apparent than Ziff Davis Media, which said in January it would take a fourth-quarter writedown of $275 million related to restructuring costs.

Ziff Davis is betting the real money will be in information technology spending. Having shuttered consumer titles such as Expedia Travels and FamilyPC in 2001, the company also launched several properties last year, including Baseline and CIO Insight, aimed squarely at corporate managers with money to burn. "We're in the process of what I term `building forward-looking portfolios,' " says Stephen Moylan, exec VP-sales and marketing at Ziff Davis.

But just how soon the bet on IT managers will pay off is an open question. Mr. Moylan points to a survey of chief information officers by Merrill Lynch & Co. predicting a 2.7% increase in IT spending during 2002.

But Allan May, who works closely with enterprise software company Oracle Corp., as exec VP-managing director at Grey Global Group's MediaCom, San Francisco, has a different view. "It's going to be a gamble," he says. He's worried the payoff may be too far off to keep some magazines afloat.

"I think it's going to be another difficult year," he says.

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