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Ken Magill

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How the Internet Wrecked the Trades

11/5/13

By Ken Magill

The Internet and marketing’s tonnage mentality have ruined trade reporting—for now, at least.

When I first started in trade publishing in the mid-90s, my work would pass under no fewer than three sets of eyeballs before it ever saw the light of day: a copy editor, the managing editor, and the editor in chief.

Those layers are gone and it’s the Internet’s fault.

Not that I’m complaining. Because of the Internet, I get to stay home, write, and bathe every third or fourth day when the wife tells me I’m disgusting. Actually, if I bathed every time the wife told me I’m disgusting, I’d bathe every night between 10 and 11 p.m.

In any case, here’s how the Internet wrecked the trades.

First, the dot-com boom of the late nineties literally fattened trade magazines and newspapers for the slaughter. Some magazines began to look like mid-sized city telephone books.

As publications grew, so did their editorial staffs. It became nearly impossible for trade publications to find and hold onto editorial talent. I remember one reporter-wanted ad for my old employer, DM News, in the New York Times drawing six resumes of utterly unqualified respondents—a construction worker who wanted to try his hand at writing, for example.

In hindsight, however, we had a talented reporting staff and a publisher committed to delivering real news. He also loved to stir up shit and didn’t care who we pissed off. What’s more, he allowed us to expense alcohol as long as we spent the money cultivating sources. Can you say: “Ken Magill’s dream job?”

Then came the crash of 2000 and three rounds of layoffs. That was the beginning of the end of quality journalism in the marketing trades.

In 2003, I got a chance to fulfill my lifelong dream of working for a big-city daily and went to the New York Sun. There I learned my place is in the trades—or at least the trades as I remembered them.

So in 2006, I went to work for Penton Media’s marketing group. Penton has since sold its marketing group to Access Intelligence LLC.

But in 2006, the group was wrestling with making the transition to a digital-first publisher. Its print ads were disappearing. Its online advertising was growing, but not fast enough to make up for the steady loss of print.

Sometime around 2008 or ’09, I believe, I was appointed to a committee to help come up with ideas to make the transition to digital first. During the committee’s meetings, the subject of editorial quality hardly ever came up.

It was all about ginning up page views.

I don’t blame the folks at Penton for a lack of focus on editorial quality. I also don’t blame them for focusing on generating as many page views as possible with what in the 90s would have been considered a laughably low number of editorial staffers.

It’s happening everywhere in the trades. Where once managing editors and copy editors were considered necessary for editorial quality, non-writing editors are now considered an unaffordable luxury. As a result, silly mistakes such as typos are rampant in online publishing.

In 2011, I spoke with DoubleClick founder Kevin O’Connor about a venture he had recently launched called FindTheBest.com. Having been through the dot-com boom together, we began to reminisce. He recounted how the trade publications he visited during his DoubleClick days were all bustling with activity.

Having just done a new round of media visits for FindTheBest, he said: “They’re all like mausoleums now.”

It’s all about low-CPM tonnage with as little editorial staffing as possible. Editors are expected to bang out and post as much copy as possible with little to no editorial support.

In business-to-consumer advertising, the marketing-tonnage mentality is understandable. In business-to-business, not so much.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I’ve embraced the havoc the Internet brought on publishing by going out on my own.

But next time you see a trivial, thinly reported, typo-ridden blog post or article on a trade-publication website, you’ll know why. And it’s not editorial’s fault.

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