Are Your Shoes Tied? Then You're Smarter Than Many Print Execs

Ron Burkle, in Buying a Chunk of Primedia, Takes on an Industry That's Being Killed by Half-Wit Overlords

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Who or what is really killing print? Craig Newmark? Blogs? YouTube, maybe? The internet in general? Or any of the other usual suspects?
Prints charming: Is Ron Burkle the savior print needs?
Prints charming: Is Ron Burkle the savior print needs? Credit: Bob Riha

Nah, print is killing print. More specifically, a handful of half-wit overlords at many -- if not most -- big print-media companies are killing print.

I was thinking about this last week when the news broke that supermarket magnate (and Bill Clinton buddy) Ron Burkle had agreed to buy Primedia's enthusiast-media division, with its mostly cheesy 76 specialty magazines (such as Soap Opera Digest and Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords), for $1.2 billion. I was a bit choked up (read: I felt ready to vomit) at the prospect of that epoch-ending transaction. You see, Primedia and I have a little history. As a former Primedia employee (back when the company still owned New York Magazine, and I was an editor there), I was around for the company's initial public offering, which I was graciously allowed to buy into at $10 a share.

Last week's price? Two bucks and change. Primedia announced its IPO back in 1995, when it was still called K-III Communications. At the time a Broadview Associates analyst declared that "K-III is at the forefront of the convergence between traditional and electronic media."

Ha! Not exactly. The corporate endgame, inspired by the lead investor, billionaire Henry Kravis, was always to sell out -- after asset-stripping via draconian budget cuts that (whoops!) invariably damaged editorial and business franchises throughout the company. K-III/Primedia was run by often underqualified, opportunistic M.B.A. types who had little interest in quality journalism or even, really, the webby future. Speaking of her corporate-level colleagues, one disgusted publisher at a Primedia-owned title at the time said to me: "They send these boys to Harvard and they can't even tie their own shoes!"

Primedia's stock did briefly run up, thanks to the 1999 arrival of NBC executive Tom Rogers (now chief of TiVo), who briefly seduced Wall Street with overheated Web 1.0 pronouncements. But when Rogers' "vision" turned out to involve mostly bleeding print publications dry while making room for bone-headed acquisitions such as short-lived (the "first apartment-building specific portal"!) and amateur-hour information site (which is now underperforming for its equally clueless current owner, The New York Times Co.), Primedia's stock cratered -- and never recovered.

Now, you could say that Primedia quickly became the laughingstock of the industry. Only problem is, the print-media business was filled with laughingstocks (remember Gruner & Jahr USA, which specialized in ruining storied brands such as McCall's?) and continues to be to this day.

An internet-company executive I know says of his vague and mysterious job: "I create value." That's an M.B.A.-enabled, blowhardy thing to say, of course, but he means it -- and when he says it, it occurs to me new-economy guys like him are at dead odds with many print-media executives these days, who seem to specialize in destroying value, even as they pay lip service to the "convergence of traditional and electronic media."

Worse, the print-media industry is not only filled with f--k-ups, it coddles them. In what other industry, for instance, would David Pecker, chief of tabloid publisher American Media (Star, National Enquirer, etc.) -- who has mocked his bond holders by time and again missing the deadlines for reporting his company's sorry-ass earnings -- still have a job?

I'm talking industrywide mismanagement among print-media companies -- both glossy and newsprint. I'm talking Detroit-in-the-'70s, with no Lee Iacocca in sight.

Maybe Burkle, coming as he does from outside the media business, fancies himself a potential industry savior.

Godspeed to you, Mr. Burkle. If you can tie your own shoes, you're that many steps ahead of the game.
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