E&P's demise a sober lesson for newspapers


The Nielsen Company announced last week that it would close Editor & Publisher (E&P) magazine by year's end after 125 years of reporting on the U.S. newspaper industry. No official reason was given, though one can guess the lack of growth prospects and tepid profitability were the culprits.

As of this writing, there remains a distant hope that a “white knight” will save E&P. There's been an amazing outpouring of support and sentiment in the past few days. Whether that can be translated into the preservation of this institution is unknown.

In any event, the events of the past week provide lessons to be learned for publishers.

Let me start by saying the Nielsen announcement profoundly affected me. It was the equivalent of a relative dying. It literally stopped me down for several hours. From what I can see online, others had a similarly emotional reaction.

My ties to E&P today are relegated to interacting with two of their best editors, Jennifer Saba and Mark Fitzgerald. Yet in years past, INMA held a marketing awards competition with E&P that brought me in contact with publishers Ferd Teubner and Colin Phillips, among others over the years. It was E&P in the 1930s that first recognised the emerging profession of promotion by supporting this competition.

E&P elicited love and hate. It was like the beloved uncle, with all its quirky imperfections yet always wearing its heart on its sleeve.

When I was a young reporter and editor in East Texas in the 1980s, I used to scour E&P's classifieds, ruminating on where I would go next in my career. In the newsroom, we would pass around a single copy that would be read by 30+ people on the distribution list. Long before the internet, we would devour every precious word.

Yet in 1999, I was so displeased with E&P's coverage of the business side of newspapers that I created The Newspaper Industry web site and e-newsletter for INMA to aggregate such coverage in one location. I noted that E&P had begun re-writing other people's stuff, so why not just link directly to the source? It was a success for INMA, but a small blip on E&P's radar.

Every week in print for many years, E&P was the source of news and information on the U.S. newspaper industry. You couldn't do without it. I've heard “Bible” attached to E&P's name many times in the past week.

I suppose that, beyond losing a “relative,” E&P's demise eerily mirrors what doomsayers say about newspapers. What would happen if our local newspaper went out of business? Who would cover the local news? Who would be the connective tissue of the community? Would life continue as normal? Would people find “good enough” alternatives?

My pat answer is that, hypothetically, bloggers and non-profit web sites would rise up and take over the role of the local newspaper. Eventually, amateurs would become professionals, a web site would emerge as the leader, a business model would revolve around their audience, and the ecosystem would return to equilibrium.

There was nothing hypothetical about E&P's demise last week. It was real. And it hit too damn close to home.

I'm still trying to make sense of it all:

  • Who covers the newspaper industry? Who is going to assume E&P's role? Are media-related magazines going to beef up coverage of a stuttering industry? In the investment world, Deutsche Bank and others dumped coverage in the past year. Aggregators will run out of links to content if content providers cease to exist.

  • Wrong price:TThere was an online report that suggested that Nielsen could have offloaded E&P to a variety of buyers who would have taken the asset off their hands for nothing but the assumption of obligations. Nielsen refused, believing the brand was worth millions. I suppose that's a business decision, but how sad that a for-profit company killed a brand altogether when there were takers – albeit at the wrong price. Sound familiar, publishers?

  • Cause of death: How did E&P really die? Nielsen may have held the knife, but an autopsy might show more natural causes. For all the influence that E&P had, dissecting its audiences and value propositions reveals incongruencies that developed over the years. Like newspapers, its classifieds shifted to free online sources. Like newspapers, there was over-reliance on a certain advertising category (technical/production aspects of newspapers). Like newspapers, it gave away far too much for free on its web site. Like newspapers, its coverage became too broad for its resources. Like newspapers, differentiating value eroded over time.

Some blame the popular journalism blog by Jim Romenesko as a culprit in E&P's demise. Romenesko is required reading for anyone in the U.S. newspaper business today, a brilliant daily aggregation of our industry by a guy who did it for free as a hobby in the 1990s and now is profitably housed by the Poynter Institute. Author and pundit Jeff Jarvis joked on Twitter: “O irony: I see a link to E&P saying Romenesko didn't kill it ... on Romenesko.”

The E&P story should serve as a sober warning to newspapers on several levels.

First, influence is great, but it rarely pays the bills.

Second, to create value for content there must be the perception of scarcity. Don't give it away.

Third, don't try to build audience by being all things to all people.

Fourth, align your target audience with your target advertising.

And, fifth, this can happen to you.

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