Popular Woodworking Corporate Owner Files for Bankruptcy
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Publications, Media, A Content & E-commerce Company, Community filed for bankruptcy protection on March 10, 2019. I would rather not be writing this post, but one of my pet peeves as an author is that when I research enterprises from the past that weren’t successful (like Gustav Stickley or the Byrdcliffe colony) I hit a lot of dead ends because people don’t write about failures. History is generally written by the winners, but this is a case where one company managed (or more accurately mismanaged) to wipe out not just one but four woodworking magazines, all of which had their moments of being well worth the price of a subscription.
What these publications had in common was that when they were good the focus was on the quality of the content and they had an audience that appreciated and supported that. What they also have in common is that with changes in ownership they abandoned that focus and shifted from knowledgeable enthusiasts writing for their peers to interchangeable parts that followed a formula and judged success in curious ways.
I worked for Popular Woodworking Magazine from 2004-2014 as executive editor. The first few years I was there it was the best job I ever had. The last few years it was the worst job I ever had. The growth of the internet changed the environment and the rules for all media. Everyone knew that changes needed to be made, but no one knew (or was willing to face) what those changes were. For magazines the pre-internet business model barely made sense, especially on the newsstand side of things. The subscription/advertising side was a little better but it was still standard practice for a company to spend $20 in marketing efforts to sell a discounted $20 subscription. When the internet took off, much of what magazines did became less relevant and less of a value to consumers and the old business model made no sense at all.
In the first few years I was at Pop Wood we put out a pretty nice book and came up with ways to leverage the internet to make money, mainly because the first round of investors let us do what we thought best, as long as we made them money. But in a good sized corporation one successful entity is easy prey for the parasitic parts of the company and politics often trumps good business decisions. There was a corporate circulation department that charged our budget a lot more than other magazines because we had profits to charge against. As the years went on and the company was reorganized, restructured, reinvented and rebranded it became harder and harder to tell if any part of it, or the whole enterprise was successful or not while the degree of control we had over what we published all but disappeared.
A year or two after I joined the company private equity group number one sold us to private equity group number two. The second set of owners had a lot in common with the first; they were out to sell the company as soon as they could for as much as they could. The actual products we produced were just numbers, as were the audience and the employees. If the economy hadn’t tanked in 2008 the company likely would have been sold again. After 2008 no one was interested in buying a publishing company and the upper management was faced with a bitter truth; people who had based their careers on making companies look attractive on paper to the next buyers had a company to run for the foreseeable future and no clue about how to do that. And the second group didn’t have the sense to let us make decisions based on our knowledge of our audience, our products and our competitors.
There was a cultural shift that started at the top of the ladder and drifted down. In essence the upper management had to know best, if that weren’t the case they wouldn’t be in charge now would they? Gone were the days when a manager would come to a drone like me with a lame-brained idea and walk away with a new product that generated real money. The entire company became more focused on a game of numbers. A large percentage of the company spent their time creating budgets that had little or no basis in reality, and revising those budgets when reality crept in. People were manipulated in the same way as the numbers. Instead of making the business we were in the best it could be and adapting to changing times we were told that we could out-Amazon Amazon and out-Google Google, but we couldn’t spend any money doing that. Behind the scenes there were changes in the arrangements between the company and the investors as the CEO scrambled to maintain the appearance of a successful company.
F+W “grew” by acquiring other companies. That enabled the CEO to brag that he took the company from $130 million a year in revenue to $180 million under his leadership. I sat in the back of the room and wondered how that worked when the revenue for the original part of the company went from $130 to $100 million (dropping 30%), and the company we bought lost a similar amount of revenue. That didn’t look like success to me, but I didn’t say anything. I learned to keep quiet in company meetings after the time I asked if “becoming a cutting-edge digital media company” meant that we were going to get software and computers that would actually enable us to produce digital media. In this type of corporate culture the way to get ahead was to tell the emperor how nice he looked, not ask where his clothes were.
Organizations and corporations have personalities that start at the top and work their way down. When an organization no longer puts the quality of its product at the top of the things of value, then it doesn’t matter if the employees care about the product, the customers or each other. The ongoing functions become a matter of keeping the people at the top happy and the people at the bottom in line. When the quality of the product doesn’t matter to the organization, the relationship between the entity and its audience changes. In the world of woodworking magazines the corporate owners have acted to make their products even less relevant and less of a value to the audience. In a world where executives are infallible it doesn’t matter if authors and editors know their subject or not. I was told on several occasions by those who outranked me that “the readers are ignorant, we don’t really need to know that much, we just need to know a little more than they do.”
I don’t like the term “content producers” as it doesn’t acknowledge any degree of expertise. The easy way out for content producers and magazine editors is to pick the low hanging fruit and target the segment of the audience that is new to the craft. That lowers the bar and it provides a good excuse for repeating basic information and losing the audience after a short time. But if you want to succeed, or at least earn a living in a world where anyone with a camera and an internet connection can provide that information, you need to provide something better. That’s what Popular Woodworking, Woodworking Magazine, American Woodworker and Woodwork all did when they were at their best. They didn’t do what everyone else was doing, they did something different and something better.
Yes the internet and greedy people are to blame for the demise of woodworking magazines and the lack of good woodworking books. The funny thing is that the audience for quality content is still out there. They are passionate about the craft and they want to increase their knowledge and their skills. They aren’t renewing their subscriptions because the content isn’t satisfying, the magazines have half the pages that they used to, and they are tired of being asked to renew at a higher rate than they paid initially by a company that apparently thinks they don’t have the capacity to figure out they can just cancel their subscription and sign up again. They are smart enough to figure out when they are being sold the same product in a different wrapper. They are hungry for a good burger in a world where all the content producers either want to be McDonalds or think they can get ahead being a cheap imitation or a cool version of McDonalds. Someone should have the sense to open a Five Guys or a Smashburger.
Some folks are holding on to the notion that a buyer will step in and save Popular Woodworking, based on the F+W bankruptcy filing saying that they hope to sell their assets. I’m not one of those. The valuable parts of PopWood are long gone. I used to joke that F+W needed to find someone with a lot of money that knew less about publishing than they did to sell it to. Sadly that’s no longer a joke and we’re witnessing something that once was good dry up and blow away.
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If you’re keeping score at home, American Woodworker was an early competitor to Fine Woodworking before it was sold to Reader’s Digest by Rodale. As Reader’s Digest was imploding it was sold to New Track Media, a company that was started by the CEO of F+W when it was first sold by the Rosenthal family, after F+W was sold to the second private equity investment group. New Track also bought Woodwork, an independent publication. Buying an existing magazine lets the purchaser increase its circulation numbers in the hopes of generating higher advertising revenue. Shortly before I left F+W in 2014, F+W purchased New Track, rolled the American Woodworker subscribers into Popular Woodworking subscribers and ceased publishing new issues of both American Woodworker and Woodwork.
I simply realized I no longer enjoyed reading the magazine from cover to cover, and so let my subscription lapse. You’ve helped me understand why that happened.
Why don’t you and other KEY people BUY Pop. Woodworking for a song and bring it back to a GOOD magazine like it used to be? I think you could generate a good balance between Online and Paper Print…
You, Swartz, and other KEY people that left, I think, would be HAPPY to turn it around… Under New Management!
Have you thought of doing that?
Think about it… You could DO IT.
As a beginning woodworker I liked the Popular Woodworking subscription and had subscribed for 2 years; Just, I mean just subscribed for 3 years on 2/27/19. I paid by CC and will request refund and suggest there are others in this same boat and they should request a refund since the refund was for a subscription that would be in the future. I am in agreement with Joe Lyddon that you and/or KEY could buy magazine out of BR court and revitalize it.
I feel your pain and share your frustration. You didn’t mention Shop Notes. As a beginner that was a favorite but I dropped my subscription long before Youtube because I started seeing the same stuff over and over. Thankfully, the People who made such publications as Shop Notes and Pop Wood are still writing and doing through books, DVD’s and classes. Their market will find them, without the bean counting middlemen who are probably moving back in with their parents. Yes, print periodicals are as dead as Vaudeville, but through books I have a beautiful Craftsman kitchen and hopefully after the next class a nice Morris chair. As long as the people who know way more than I do- and there are plenty- this ‘ignorant reader’ will gladly pay the money, drive the miles, and give it my all to maybe become half as good. See you in Indy.
I have even a greater respect for you after reading this post. It reveals your comprehensive knowledge of the “business”. Who said you’re just a pretty face who likes making boards smaller?
Unfortunately, amateur woodworking will die with our generation, just as did those quality publications. I’ll continue to dig through my boxes of old magazines when needing an answer or idea.
It’s a shame that American Woodworker and Woodwork were casualties of this foolishness. Those were quality publications. PWW made a lot of progress with their content but it proved to be too little, too late.
The big challenge for a monthly magazine is that there are so many resources, a lot are top notch, on the internet that publish more frequently for free and provide personal feedback for questions. It’s a tall order to beat that.
As a “wannabe” writer I fear the pattern that is so well described by the author. Nearly any fool with a reasonably good sense of grammar and syntax can “self-publish.” The content may or may not benefit from the invaluable work of a competent editor. The responsibility that goes with being an author has been displaced in part with the tasks of inventory management, marketing, and distribution. While the changes may appear to be subtle I believe that content has suffered greatly. Good authors do not automatically turn into good publishers and publisists. And newbies to the practice of woodworking – like me – frequently find it difficult to learn and grow with contemporary “how to” publications.
Thanks for telling this story. You’re absolutely right that (almost) nobody wants to write the story of a failure, so I’m doubly grateful that you took the time to put this together. It’s an instructive cautionary tale, to be sure. I think we’ve all seen this story play out multiple times in many different industries, but we don’t always realize how common the story is. I’m curious about one thing, though. What’s the take-away for us? What’s the moral of the story? I’m especially thinking about people who work in a stagnant or declining industry? What’s the lesson for owners of aging companies facing new competition? What’s the lesson for people who work in such companies?
Having been a subscriber of Pop Wood for many years, I used to look forward to the arrival of the next issue and the new and interesting content I would find within the covers….then things changed and it stopped being different from all the others…the writing quality seemed to devolve and the types of articles became boring and repetitive. I used to wonder how that could happen when the audience seemed to be there for the type of content the magazine used to publish, and now I know. I am familiar with the type of CEO you referring as I used to work for one very similar in a different industry…more interested in self-agrandizing than in making the company better. A sad day for all of us that loved and supported what you and the others who worked there tried to do.
A year or two ago I subscribed to it. In my first issue there was an editorial stating that she wanted to publish articles from people other than old white men. I requested and received a refund.
I have never purchased a magazine or read an article based on whether it was written by a man or women or someone of a different race.
I think it potentially had good articles, but personally i won’t miss it.
As a long-time and early contributor to Pop Wood when it was still in Concord CA and as editor for a while of Woodwork magazine i am equally saddened by what happened as a result of the Internet completely changing the publishing scene and the mis-managed corporate greed that followed. Omnis temporalis est. However I still believe that fundamentally content is king; we just have to find a new way to market it. Let me know if you have any ideas.
I could take this blog, replace company and product names, resulting in nearly the same
story describing the company that employs me. It might be easily called plagiarism if I
posted my version. We did avoid the last stage (bankruptcy) and was sold to much bigger company.
Once they opened the package it was clear how much was wrapping paper with little content inside
the box. I blame the MBA degree, but that would be a very long detailed rant that I will avoid.
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