Who needs trade publishers?

Last week brought news that another trade publisher was dropping print. Penton Technology Media Group announced that all of its magazines would go digital-only as of May 2012. . A quick Google search lists at least two other trade publishers – Ziff Davis Enterprise and Linux Journal – that have stopped printing magazines in the last six months.

By dropping their old distribution method, these magazines will cut their operating costs significantly. But I’m not sure that the raison d’être for trade magazines – to deliver hard-to-find, specialized information to a qualified readership – still exists.

I find myself relying less and less on traditional publishers to collect and package articles that meet my needs and preferences. This function – the buzzword for it is curation – is helpful, even essential. It’s just that I don’t need trade publishers to do it anymore.

If I’m looking for details of a specific news event or a feature article on a specific topic, I can usually find it quickly by using Google search. For more in-depth information, curated by an expert on a topic, I might search Apple’s app store. For example, in researching information for a trip to Costa Rica for later this year, I’ve become overwhelmed by information from Google searches. I needed a better filter, so I downloaded an iPad app based on a tour guide written by a respectable, though not necessarily widely known, travel writer. The reviews sounded good and, for four bucks, what did I have to lose? The app was very helpful.

For information that I’m not searching for but that would interest me, I rely on my social circles. Online, that means my social media – primarily Twitter and Facebook. After all, by their very nature of being my followers, followees and friends, these people share at least some of my interests. These folks, not some impersonal publisher, are my curators. And the more I plug into to them via social media, the better information I find. This realization crystalized for me last week when John Bethune, a journalist and new-media editorial consultant I follow on Twitter, tweeted about his “New-Media Survival Guide: For Journalists and Other Print-Era Refugees.” The self-published book is available from several sources, including Amazon.com, both as a paperback and an e-book.

I’m a print-era refugee (although I prefer the term bilingual – I speak both analog and digital), and I’m always scanning for information that’ll help me keep up with the latest in social media and digital publishing trends. But it takes a lot of time to wade through the information stream to find the most valuable golden nuggets. Bethune’s guide has done a lot of the panning for me already. It may not deliver all the gold, but it gives me a map that shows where some of the richest veins are.

Through his blog and social media activity, Bethune is building his own qualified circulation. A trade-publishing colleague of mine recently gave me an example of how social media can enable this. “With LinkedIn Groups, you have a self-qualifying, self-assembling and self-maintaining list of people with a common interest,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of a magazine’s mailing list, and you don’t pay a thing for it.”

Indeed. When individual writers can establish their own brands, build their own readership and publish their own apps and articles, what’s left for traditional publishers? Tell me, if you know.

Postscript: Interesting comments by Warren Bimblick, senior vp of strategy and business development at Penton Media, at a recent roundtable on “The New Influencers of Content Creation,” hosted by Folio Magazine:

“In fact the b-to-b controlled circulation model is all about a social community. What it really is about is finding 47,262 people who all qualify and about whom you know tons of information and you give them content in the way they want it, which means asking them. And for some reason yet again the industry is going out to Facebook and LinkedIn, when in fact we own these communities.

My soapbox right now is to keep the communities to ourselves, because we are the qualified people to run them. That said, if I were 30 years younger and an editor, I would be checking every day to see who is following me. It is fascinating what you can use social media for. Not just for pushing content out but for product research, and so on.”


  1. Howard Rauch March 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Hi Tam:

    I wonder if what you say about B2B not being the fountain of information it was known for in the past has anything to do with management turning off the tap on editorial investment?

    It’s also possible that to a certain extent, your information searches are conducted as somewhat of a generalist. So for you, Google Alerts will do just fine.

    On the other hand, I think there are many folks in specific trades who like to leaf through “their” magazine with the expectation of finding everything they need to know.

    The answer to the question of whether B2B delivers to that expectation is “yes” or “no” depending upon editorial staff time available to focus on such editorial endeavors as field trips, research, extensive email/telephone interviews, etc.

    In fact, with some of my clients, I am amazed at how well they do make good on content expectations considering limited staff size available to deal with print and digital.

    So I think B2B publishers still serve an important informational purpose, but we probably could do a lot better. The important ingredients we need to stir into more of the content generated are exclusivity and enterprise.

  2. Tam Harbert March 6, 2012 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Howard. I agree that trade publishers are more valuable if they offer exclusive content and enterprising reporting that doesn’t exist elsewhere. And yet, if it is all freely available on the web (not behind a pay wall), then I can still find it without having to rely on the magazine to curate my information. (Just the other day, I wanted to know what electronics companies had operations in Costa Rica. I found that Intel has a big plant there. I didn’t go to a trade magazine to find this; I went to Google.) If trade publishers put their content behind a pay wall, is the value of that curation worth the cost of a subscription? Don’t really know, but we will find out.

  3. Dana Dubbs March 7, 2012 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    Tam, as a freelance writer myself, I am accustomed to doing in-depth Google searches as part of the research for writing articles, generating new business, etc. However, I do not know of too many busy business professionals in other lines of work who have the time to do this, just because information is freely available on the Web. They need help curating information, and they most often look to others to do it for them.

  4. Tam Harbert March 7, 2012 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Dana. I agree that busy professionals look to others to do their curating, but I think at least some of them rely on their social media circles to point out information/articles of interest. That may not be widespread yet, but my theory is that more and more people will get from their social media circles the same type of targeted information that they used to read trade magazines for.

  5. Chris Anderson March 15, 2012 at 1:58 pm - Reply


    I think there are a couple of points here you may be overlooking.

    First, not everyone is as skilled at Google searching as you are. In fact, given your profession, I’d hazard a guess to say you are in the top 10 percent or 5 percent of users. Others might not have either the time, or the inclination to get their information this way.

    Second, and perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure people in a particular industry always KNOW exactly what they need to learn or discover at any given moment. Part of what good trade publishers do is provide information the reader didn’t know before. In fact, they may not have even realized they DIDN’T know it. This goes far beyond your concept of curation.

    I agree that a lot information is freely available and that quite often trade publishers don’t break new ground. But if a trade publisher can deliver information to a reader that they didn’t know they didn’t know and become trusted, then why wouldn’t they also trust that same brand to “curate” the news via daily newsletters and the like?

    Which is a long way to say: Yeah, I think people still need and WANT trade publishers to deliver timely and relevant industry information.

  6. Tam Harbert March 15, 2012 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Chris. I agree with your points. On your first point, I am guilty of tunnel vision. On the second point, however, I believe that social networking can serve the same function as a trade publisher. It may not be happening much yet, but if you build and manage your social networks carefully, they can and will provide information that you as a reader didn’t know, or didn’t know that you needed to know. Example – as a journalist I do not subscribe to particular trade pubs that cover my profession. But I am finding really valuable information – both articles and opinions on blogs – in my social media streams.

  7. Sue Pelletier April 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Tam, I’d like to disagree with you, but I only can to the point where I can say we’re not quite there yet. Not everyone has a fully built-out social network of people they can rely on to curate information on each niche of their professional interests, but I could easily see the day coming where that is the case for many, if not most. Like associations, trade magazines have a lot of competition these days to be the community for their peeps. Both need to come up with a value proposition LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter can’t match if they want to stay alive. And that’s not easy.

    A few things other things came to mind as I read your post:

    Because like tends to attract like, people who rely on their social networks tend to hear what others who hold the same opinions are saying. They are not necessarily going to get a fair and balanced view of any particular issue. Of course, there’s a question of whether that’s still of value as our society gets more segmented and polarized, but I tend to think it is, and that’s something trade magazines (and other media) can and do provide.

    People tend to forget that a lot of that content that comes up in a Google search is generated by journalists, trade and mainstream. There won’t be much to curate if journalism goes away. Of course, we’re being replaced with “citizen journalists,” some of whom are quite good. Unfortunately, many are not, and without a trusted organization to curate the curators, the risk of bad data rises. Of course, this too changes as you build trust in your social network’s ability to provide the same quality information you would expect from a trade magazine.

    As a trade journalist, I have a bias toward thinking there’s still a need for my profession. As a realist, I know that the profession itself has to change as new channels of communication open up. It’ll be interesting to see where we are 10 years from now, won’t it?

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