What Is A Magazine Publisher, and Are They Still Needed in a Digital Media World?

By: D.B. Hebbard

he title of publisher is quickly vanishing from the magazine industry as company after company eliminates the title. Condé Nast started off the year by announcing that going forward there would be no need for “publishers” as they were being replaced with “chief business officers” as the company tried to grow cross-brand advertising.

“We’re modernizing our revenue teams to simplify the way we work with our partners and better leverage the extraordinary talent in our company,” said chief business officer and president of revenue Jim Norton in an email to staff.

Time Inc. made the same move earlier, and many B2B magazine companies have done the same, or at least consolidated the position so that publishers are responsible for multiple titles.

Skeptics see the moves as simple a desperate attempt to cut costs. With sales staffs trimmed down, moved into category sales teams, the publisher’s position remains the largest cost left on a title’s P&L, save for the editor’s line item.

M&A professionals should see the move with caution, as well. Magazine companies looking to sell off a title often cut costs ahead of a sale so the “black book” looks far more attractive. Take out the costs of the publisher’s position, as well as the sales staff, and just about any ailing magazine can look to be in the black (when it really is bleeding red ink).

The latest to make this move is Forbes, according to Keith Kelly at the NY Post:

Rich Karlgaard was named publisher of Forbes in 2002 after the tech spinoff title he was editing at the time, Forbes ASAP, was shut down. For a while, the plan worked brilliantly.

A company spokeswoman said he is still with the company with the titles of “editor at large” and “global futurist.”

His old publisher job has not been filled.

With the publisher position soon to be a thing of the past, it might be good to be reminded just what the publisher was supposed to be doing to begin with.

The role is/was very different at consumer magazines versus B2B.

At consumer magazines, the publisher led the sales team, and was roughly equal to the editor. The editor was most often the face of the magazine to the public, while the publisher was more low-key, but the face of the magazine to ad agencies and brands. Publishers did not have to have an intimate knowledge of the editorial direction of the magazine, except for the editorial calendar, which is used to sell specific issues.

If publishers were the default sales managers, one can see where their role would become diminished if the sales teams would be reorganized into category sales, with the brand-specific teams laid off or moved to new roles. Some publishers, seeing the writing on the wall, went with the flow and became category managers.

The problem with category sales, of course, is that the individual brands might not get the attention they need. We will see in the next year if this leads to more titles being shuttered.

At B2B magazine companies, the publisher role is/was a bit different. The editor, who was roughly equal to the publisher at the consumer book, reported directly to the publisher. Some hated this, claiming that this led to editorial being more commercial, more influenced by advertising. But B2B editors are also paid much less than their consumer cousins.

In the past decade or so, B2B media companies began to eliminated some publisher slots, making the remaining publishers responsible for multiple magazines. When I joined Cahners in 2000 I was offered one of two positions, either the publisher of two magazines involved in the metals industry, or two involved in pollution and industrial coatings. In either case, I would be running two magazines

In my last spot in B2B magazine publishing, I was hired to run a four magazine group. Four magazines may be a bit much, but they were at least in the same related industries. But by the time I left, I was running nine different titles, in several different, unrelated industries. The only reason for my “promotion” (with no additional pay, of course) was that the previous publishers of those magazines had been let go, and the owner didn’t want the cost of replacing them.

Today, it is rare indeed for a B2B publisher to handle only one title, and as it is hard to sell across categories in B2B, there is no need to category teams. In fact, a category team in B2B is really a sales staff responsible for two or three titles, not the same category across all titles (why would Caterpillar buy a construction equipment ad in a construction magazine and a medical magazine?).

Like a lot of trends in publishing, magazine executives jump on the trend before it has been proven to work. The publisher role is being eliminated in the name of cross-brand selling of digital advertising, but so far there is little proof that the digital ad gains are making up for the print ad losses. But as the cost savings in eliminating a management position is too alluring to resist, the trend continues and is growing.

In my opinion, the biggest factor in all this is that few magazine (or newspaper) executives are today coming from the publisher ranks. This used to be the case in the past, but no longer. Rich Battista of Time comes from television, and never held the publisher position at an individual title. Bob Sauerberg of Condé Nast came from the newspaper industry, and when he joined Fairchild he came in as CFO.

In a bit of irony and comeuppance, one publishing executive told me that when they eliminated the publisher position they soon found that no one had any idea how to piece together the budget for the upcoming year. Further, with no publishers, there was no one left to blame when the magazine P&Ls looked bad, leaving the top executives with both more work, and less people to point to for the company’s bad performance.

Author: D.B. Hebbard

Source: talkingnewmedia.com URL: https://goo.gl/nWc5Md