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Editor and Publisher Folds

Posted on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 4:20 PM

The magazine publishing industry responds to the closure of a prominent trade publication.

By Meredith L. Dias

Last week, news of Editor and Publisher's demise sent the publishing industry into a tailspin. The magazine had been a standard bearer for newspaper professionals since 1884. The impact of its closing was so great that the publication became one of Twitter's trending topics as users tweeted and retweeted the various news articles and press releases. While there is still faint hope that the magazine will find a new owner to pick up the pieces, editor Greg Mitchell warns readers on the Editor and Publisher website that the next print issue "may still be the final issue of E&P, after 125 years."

With so many magazines and newspapers folding, the closure of any publication hardly comes as a shock anymore; however, the loss of Editor and Publisher carries a symbolic weight that is difficult for any industry professional to ignore. Inevitably, debates have arisen regarding the actual cause of death: an irreparable newspaper industry, poor business strategy, inability to become profitable online, etc. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that a valuable resource to publishing professionals has closed its doors.

Failure to adapt to the digital publishing environment may be reflective of poor business planning. William Dunkerley, editor of our publication and principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, believes that the failure of Editor and Publisher and other defunct publications can be traced back to "an unsuccessful business strategy." This may seem obvious, but with so much emphasis in the press upon the ailing newspaper industry, dysfunctional business models can sometimes fly under the radar. Publishers feel so defeated after reading the daily industry news that, in some cases, they fail to scrutinize their own circulation, advertising, and online strategies in sufficient depth.

Steve Outing, longtime writer for Editor and Publisher, issued his eulogy to the publication on Thursday, December 10. Though he confirms that "the staff will be out of their offices by the end of the year," he also notes that "things are up in the air in terms of what happens to the 'Editor and Publisher' brand." He remembers the early '90s, when Internet browsers first appeared on the scene; he saw the new technology as an opportunity for newspapers. His eulogy grows increasingly frank as he sizes up the news industry's failure to align itself with digital technology: "If only I'd realized that the newspaper culture was too mired in the muck of its own long history, and that its leaders would, for the most part, resist-resist-resist the rapid changes required by the evolving digital culture to do what needed to be done to survive."

Journalist Will Bunch writes in The Huffington Post on December 11, "Its passing was not completely unexpected; this was a publication that has largely flourished in the now comatose format of magazines, writing about the terminally ill business of newspapers, dependent on dollars from the morally wounded world of traditional advertising, including the nearly extinct paid classified ads." Still, despite the magazine's ultimate failure, he notes that Editor and Publisher closed its doors on a high note. He likens the years directly preceding its death to "a supernova, with a great burst of energy," a final heyday he attributes to editor Greg Mitchell, who took the reins in 2002. "In the remarkable way that they died," Bunch concludes, "Editor and Publisher showed the rest of journalism how to live."

Mitchell's appointment as editor was not the first radical change for the magazine during the past decade. In 1998, the magazine underwent a comprehensive redesign, a move celebrated at a Newseum publishing symposium. This redesign may have made the magazine particularly attractive to BPI Communications, the VNU subsidiary that purchased Editor and Publisher in 1999. Could this corporate buyout of a previously family-owned publication have cemented its demise, or was the purchase its only means of economic survival heading into the twenty-first century?

The failure of Editor and Publisher raises a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did the newspaper industry's leading trade publication somehow fail to help industry leaders adapt to the digital publishing climate, or did the collapse of the newspaper industry make it impossible for even the most acute industry publication to survive? An industry magazine is supposed to help companies and professionals to thrive. Did Editor and Publisher fail to become the ultimate sourcebook for editors and publishers wondering how to survive online -- or, as Steve Outing's comments suggest, did newspaper veterans simply refuse to heed its advice?

Plummeting ad revenues and constant press releases announcing publication closures (not to mention the frequently updated Magazine Death Pool blog) paint a bleak picture, but they have also driven even the most diametrically opposed industry veterans to a common, commonsense consensus: that they need to think fast if their publications are to survive long-term. Will the demise of a trade publication in print since 1884 represent a cautionary tale so bone-chilling that it will ultimately be remembered as a catalyst for real change? Will it spawn the brainchild that will solve the online profitability conundrum? Or will Editor and Publisher simply be a particularly notorious casualty of the publishing crisis, a tragedy that disrupted everything but, in the end, changed nothing?

Meredith L. Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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