Why do publishing companies seem to be run by people who hate publishing?

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the MBAs (King Henry VI, Act IV, Scene II – slightly revised)*

henrylucestam.jpg

No stamps honor
publishers who hate
publishing.

In Advertising Age, Simon Dumenco asks a very important question, Do Magazine Publishers Still Believe in Publishing? And no, he isn’t asking that question in the way “print-is-dead” zealots ask it. He’s asking that question because, like me, he’s looking around and wondering what’s up with the people are who are running media companies who can’t figure out how to make money with brands that millions of readers care about. And again, this is not a question about print — this is a question about print or online.

Quote:

“That big publishers can’t manage to sell enough print ads, in a post-print media economy shadowed by a larger economic meltdown, is not exactly shocking. What is shocking, though, is that they’re essentially saying to scrappier, upstart online competitors: Take our business, please! We’re throwing in the towel! If we can’t play by the old rules of publishing — the profit-soaked, imperial model with endless layers of coddled management ensconced in luxe trophy offices — then we don’t want to play at all!

Frankly, I should be rejoicing over the phenomena Dumenco is observing as I’m a member of Team Scrappy and not Team Coddled Management. But still, it stuns me to observe what Dumenco sees when he asks, “Looking around at some of America’s largest magazine publishers, I see…publishers who are anti-publishing.”

A few years ago, I was interviewed by Media Life Magazine on the topic, “Why Magazines Matter” and was asked the question, “Are there any industry-wide practices that you consider detrimental to the business of magazine publishing?

Here was my answer in 2005:

“I think people who don’t even read magazines, who certainly don’t think about magazines, make way too many decisions about the business and editorial aspects of the industry.”

Almost four years later, I’d augment that observation slightly to add that people who don’t read magazines or use the Internet or watch TV or go to movies seem to be running certain media companies.

Team Scrappy has the whole innovation playground to itself because people who love media actually run those companies.

Later: So what will happen when publishers who hate publishing pull the plug on publishing? Well, I would be less than transparent if I didn’t suggest my belief that companies like Hammock, who help the marketers formerly known as advertisers, create their own print, online and video media, will benefit from this trend. So I’ll go ahead and say it. Indeed, I’ll go ahead and invite marketers who want to speak directly with customers and not through publishing companies who seem to hate publishing to contact me at rexhammock@gmail.com.

But another thing is happening, as well. As reported in the New York Times this morning, the Kaiser Family Foundation is starting a news service to produce in-depth coverage of the policy and politics of health care, both for an independent Web site and in collaborations with mainstream news organizations. In my book — and I have 20+ years in this book — such an endeavor used to be called “custom publishing” and was viewed as something tainted as “non-idependent.” I, of course, have been a champion of the notion that media created by or for associations, foundations and even corporate marketers, can provide great journalism, insight and be of the highest quality.

I just never thought I’d be assisted in my advocacy of that point-of-view by media companies run by people who hate media.

*By “all the MBAs,” I don’t mean any MBAs to whom I’m married or with whom I work all day.

  • Well, I think the results we’re seeing across some huge media companies is the profit motive at its finest. It’s not so much that giant media conglomerates are anti-publishing. It’s more that their desire to publish is in every way enormously subservient to their desire for profit. And, let’s face it, their profits don’t transition from print to online easily or nicely.

    Now, that’s not to say I’m against the profit motive. It’s just that, as you’ve said, if you don’t love publishing more, if you’re not in this industry because the idea of connecting people with the information they find most useful gets you pumped, then you’re willing to abandon those people when it’s not as profitable as it once was.

    It’s a shame.

  • I’m all for profit. My point (and I think Simon’s point also) is that “overhead” is the issue. Online media can be very profitable if you have a corresponding business model on the expense side. The problem isn’t legacy “content” it’s legacy “fat.” Rather than slash their structures and executive perks, the people who run some of these companies would rather abandon the business.

  • “The problem isn’t legacy ‘content’ it’s legacy ‘fat.'”

    Truer words have not been written in this space – exactly and totally on point here Rex. Although I do think that the current economic meltdown has opened some eye to the legacy fat and many companies are starting out on a corporate fitness regiment. Though I have a strange feeling that they may just be cutting out the good fat and letting all that bad, heart attack fat fester.