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.
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.