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The Death of the Trade Press

Engineering Away Objectivity

Obsolescence is a familiar and friendly concept to engineers.  In fact, it is our job.  We are professional creators of obsolescence.  Each day, we go to work with the goal of making some previous work of engineering obsolete.  Our revised rodent retention device must surpass, supersede and exceed all previous versions, else we have failed.

Audio Cassettes – gone.  Rotary-dial telephones – expurgated, and not a moment too soon.  Typewriters, cathode ray tubes, mimeograph machines – all banished to the backwaters of vintage-retro curiosity by our hard-working, innovation-happy profession.  

Occasionally, however, we have what the military describes as a “friendly fire incident.”  We inadvertently engineer the demise of something that was important to us, and in the vacuum that ensues, it is replaced by something much worse.

Such is the case with our own trade press.

Let there be no mistake that it is all our fault – particularly those of us who tirelessly toil to fill what is probably mankind’s single greatest desire from technology – ubiquitous, instantaneous, unrestricted communication.  One needn’t take but a couple of steps up Mr. Maslow’s pyramid to reach a point where communications technology comes into play – connecting us ever more closely to other human beings past and present and thus exponentially expanding our access to information.  The global communications infrastructure, wireless technology, computing systems, and mobile device technology – all courtesy of our cumulative, collaborative, busy-bee vocation – have conspired to radically re-write the social norms of communication and information access just within the last couple of decades.  Remember when photocopied memos dropped in your company mailbox were the primary mechanism for intra-organizational information dissemination?  Of course you do.  Uh, except for you youngsters on the front row who were born after the Atari 2600 was obsolete.  You can continue tweeting what @tfmkevin is saying right now through Twittelator on your iPhones, smug in the knowledge that it will also be auto-cross-posted as your updated status on facebook.  We’ll text you when it’s time for you to start paying attention again.

Remember when the latest weekly printed copy of EE Times, dropped in that same company mailbox, was your best and biggest source of objective, well-researched information about the latest trends in your profession?

Uh oh.

Before we torpedoed our trade press with our own technology, the business model was simple and the benefits were solid.  A well-trained, well-funded, professional, objective corps of trusted editors scoured the industry landscape for relevant, meaningful news and trends.  They then analyzed and distilled that information down to useful, compelling content and delivered it to us in crisp, unblushing, black and white text in our mailbox.  These editorial departments were funded from the other side of a well-guarded wall by their respective advertising departments – who injected lucrative, full-page print ads into the mix, presumably in a manner that did not bias or affect the editorial direction.  As readers, we trusted the editorial departments to be objective.  Editors took that responsibility seriously and worked to maintain clean separation between the commercial interests of paying sponsors and the needs of the audience for unbiased editorial analysis.

The good thing about all this was that the math worked.  Millions of dollars in ad revenues poured into leading publications – funding aggressive, responsible, and professional editorial departments who then, in turn, attracted a large and loyal audience of industry professionals.  Advertisers wanted to reach those professionals and maintained advertising budgets that were adequate to feed the machine.  From weekly newsprint rags to glossy monthly and bi-monthly editions, competition was fierce.  The audience was well-served, advertisers reached their audience, and publications were profitable.  Everyone was happy.

Until we engineers “fixed” it.

The internet was a mere curiosity to the trade press at first.  Publications created newfangled websites with the idea that they were simple (and somewhat exciting) extensions of their print properties – giving “sneak previews” to those “edgy” enough to venture online for some of their professional news.  When online advertising began to emerge, traditional publications simply used it as a “deal sweetener” to close their big-money print ad packages.  Buy a few hundred thousand in print ads, and we’ll throw in a bunch of that online stuff – kinda’ like sprinkles on ice cream.

Print advertising had tangible value, but online ads did not.  

Ironically, one of the big advantages of online advertising is measurability.  This gift of technology allows us to track exactly how many people have actually viewed an ad, and even how many were interested enough to take some simple action in response (like “clicking here”).  Now you don’t have to guess whether or not your ad is reaching its intended audience, you can measure and track it in real time – down to the individual pair of eyeballs.  For advertisers, this should be a boon, right?  Online advertising metrics provide a degree of insight never before available to marketers, and with that information, they can fine-tune their process, give their management solid, tangible reports on advertising ROI, and catapult their business to new heights of techno-turbocharged marketing awesomeness.  Then, this goodness should all trickle back through the food chain.  Whatever is good for advertisers is ipso facto good for the publications that can deliver it, correct?  Tech-savvy technology trade press could capitalize and compete with new and more powerful tools. We’d all be playing the same game, just at an accelerated pace.

Not even close.

Unfortunately, the old, happy, sustainable model of trade-press print publication economics was built on top of a colossal lie.  The limitations of the medium allowed (and even encouraged) all the participants to carry on for decades, unaware that the emperor was wearing no clothes.  

Here’s how it worked:  Technology Company A would spend tens of thousands of dollars for a full-page print ad in a popular electronics trade publication.  Sure, it was expensive, but the medium made it seem reasonable.  After all, there were printing and distribution costs associated with producing and delivering that ad worldwide into the eager hands of engineering professionals – most of whom were clearly camped out at the water cooler, just waiting for the admin to breeze by with a stack of the latest industry rags, so they could snatch one and begin consuming Company A’s advertising masterpiece before the pile even reached the mail room.

Company A’s vice president was happy – hold the full-page ad up next to a similar-sized ad in some mass-market consumer publication like “Vogue” and it looked just as good – maybe even better.  Flipping to “Vogue’s” rate sheet, the VP felt even happier.  His full-page trade-press ad was considerably cheaper than the one in the other magazine.  Obviously it was a good value.  Sure, the circulation numbers (more often measured at the output of the printing press than at the readers’ eyeballs) were lower than “Vogue,” but the audience was higher value.  An engineer that spotted an ad and therefore designed a particular component into the latest piece of consumer electronics equipment had a value hundreds of times higher than a consumer that was inspired to go out and pick up a new handbag.

Companies pumped piles of marketing dollars into print campaigns with virtually no thought of calculating the cost per sales lead or the return on investment.  A-list advertising agencies were hired and paid exorbitant sums to build high-tech advertising campaigns worthy of international mass-market consumer consumption.  We readers got all the benefit – we had a professional journalistic editorial community looking after our interests in information integrity, and we got entertaining and provocative eye candy advertising punctuating the articles.  

Then Moore’s Law hit the advertising side of the house, and the results were not pretty.  Companies began using these newfangled online metrics to monitor trade-press advertising, and the answers were terrifying.  Using our new tools, we could suddenly see that getting a single ad in front of a single pair of interested, well-qualified eyeballs was costing as much as hundreds of dollars.  As an engineer, for the price technology companies were paying to woo you through advertising, they could have bought you season tickets to your favorite professional sports franchise.  Clearly something had to change, and that something was advertising budgets.  Marketing money was pulled from print and spread into a host of other venues – online, trade shows, company websites, billboards – whatever might provide relief from the tyranny of reality that had just struck the traditional print media.  

Leading publishing houses stepped up their use of online advertising as bait.  Keep buying those big, expensive print campaigns. Pretend not to notice that they aren’t working, and we’ll give you piles of “free-to-us” online stuff.  This made the measurable component (the online part) of the the advertising buy much more economically attractive.  The ROI on near-free online advertising looked pretty good, actually, if you closed one eye and didn’t acknowledge how it was being subsidized by massively ineffective but unmeasurable print campaigns.

At the same time, however, print was falling out of favor worldwide as an information distribution mechanism.  Billions of eyeballs were abandoning magazines and newspapers in favor of flat-screens, and the resulting decline in print circulation was impossible to disguise.  Print became the purview of the elderly segment of the population, and the young, professional crowd moved almost exclusively online.  Today, in the US, the two largest circulation print magazines (2008 figures) are from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).  With circulation around 24 million each, they eclipse high-profile print media aimed at younger audiences who have moved online.  Publications like Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Vogue weigh in with circulations of one to three million each – less than 10% of the size of AARP’s audience.  Mainstream media is now digital.

The combination of reduced circulation and re-distributed advertising budgets hit print publications hard.  Online publications (like the one you’re reading) were now reaching larger audiences much cheaper than their rapidly-shrinking print properties.  They had to reduce costs to survive.  

Unfortunately, one of the first stops on the cost-cutting tour was the newsroom.

Trained engineering editors are expensive to maintain, and the agnostic accounting pen found its way to the largest identifiable drain on resources without regard to the long-term impact on the overall viability of the business.  Seasoned editors were laid off in droves.  In a warning shot across the bow, in mid-2007, EE Times let veteran editor Richard Goering go, essentially sending the message that electronic design automation would no longer get first-tier coverage because EDA firms were not ponying up enough advertising budget to fund the editorial.  

The result?  A key enabling technology virtually disappeared from the mainstream trade press because the firms that make it didn’t bring a big enough dish to the pot luck buffet.  The rest of the industry was on notice.  Pay the piper or become invisible.  

For the audience, however, this would be the equivalent of “Car and Driver” deciding not to mention engines anymore because the engine component manufacturers weren’t buying enough ads.  The entire editorial value of the publication is compromised.  Critical parts of the engineer’s technology toolbox and workflow are left mostly unmentioned.  The engineering publication no longer serves engineers, it serves only sponsors.

Traditional publishing companies are now struggling to make the transition to online operation, and the results are anything but satisfying.  Evisceration of the editorial departments resulted in the near-elimination of objective content.  The resulting online replacements for print publications are filled with information primarily supplied by vendors, with virtually no objective voice.  Vendor-contributed articles make up most of the pseudo-editorial content, and advertising disguised as editorial fills up the balance of the space.  The editors who are still employed are compromised into choosing between vendor-written promo papers, selecting vendor-generated press releases, and even moderating vendor-sponsored webinars to lend a false air of objectivity to blatantly proprietary content.  

As an example of the above, consider EDN’s current series of “Editorial Webcasts.”  The publication posts a topic and solicits vendors to sponsor the “event.”  Each sponsoring vendor is given a few minutes to whip through their PowerPoint slides, with an editorial “moderator” providing the illusion of objectivity.  It’s all fun until somebody pretends that any actual editorial is involved. If the topic is something like “Low-Power FPGA design,” and a company like Actel (whose entire branding strategy now revolves around low-power FPGAs) decides not to be a sponsor, do you think their products will be mentioned in the “Low-Power” webinar?  Not a chance.  The paying sponsors would wax on about their offerings as if Actel didn’t exist.  The moderator wouldn’t dare breathe a clue about a non-paying competitor – let alone challenge any of the assertions of the sponsors who are paying for the air time.  

The event is a commercial, pure and simple.  There is nothing “editorial” about it.  The odd thing is that vendors willingly participate in a sponsored event where their competitors get the same list of sales leads they do.  Invite your customers so you can give their contact information to your competitors.  What’s not to love about that?  Unfortunately, companies most likely participate through a mechanism more akin to buying protection than advertising.  Sponsor this webcast, and the audience won’t be led to believe that you’re not a player in the game.  Pay your money or take your chances.

A host of online alternatives have sprung up to fill the vacuum left by the traditional trade press.  However, many of them are even more devious than the institutions they replace.  Aggregator websites do nothing but pirate content from other sources, surrounding it with their own advertising space.  Others rely exclusively on vendor-contributed content – most of it redundant to what you’d find on the vendors’ own websites.  None of these add anything to the actual body of editorial.  They simply silently siphon a stream of revenue from the creators of true content and offer little or nothing in return.

The supposed saviors of the day are those in the blogging community, but there, too, the pot is poisoned.  While bloggers are largely entertaining and often fairly well-informed, the standards of research and professional ethics applied to bloggers are nothing like those of professional editorial.  It is unlikely that a blogger will bring you the latest from the front lines of the battle.  They’re more likely to sit home in their armchair and offer their perspective on the work of the professional journalists who are risking life and limb to uncover and report the truth.  

My own personal epiphany on the blogging community came from a recent conversation at a trade show with a friend (who is an industry blogger).  He said “I’m excited!  I’ve finally found a way to monetize my blog.”  I was interested and asked him to explain.  “Product placement – just like in movies and TV.  I’m getting vendors to pay me to mention their products.”  

Clearly, blogs are not the heroes that will save journalistic objectivity for the new-media generation.

As engineers and consumers of trade publications, you should be aware of what you’re reading and how it is produced.  When you’re trying to gather accurate information and objective analysis that will enable you to do your job, you need to know and trust the source of that information – or at least be able to give it the grain of salt it deserves.  

Did we mention that this is all your fault?

Full Disclosure:  Obviously, this article is an editorial opinion on a topic in which we have a vested, commercial interest.  Several of the companies and publications we’ve discussed are our direct competitors.  We don’t think you should stop reading them.  For our part, we’ll always do our best create objective, original editorial content and to clearly separate that content from sponsored content.  Both types of information have value and are necessary in giving you the tools you need to maximize your performance in your profession.  We are grateful for your continued support.

One thought on “The Death of the Trade Press”

  1. Thanks for your history lesson and hopefully an eye-opener for those seeking unbiased (fair & accurate) editorial content and/or those thinking they’re still getting it from some technology media outlets. Its a sad story.
    I get particularly worked up when I hear in-house writers of marketing content referring to themselves somehow as journalists. They’re doing PR and writing for a business’ perspective. Writing stuff doesn’t make you a journalist. But I digress.
    PS: Your post sounds a lot like ones from Tom Foremski, who writes on technology and media, particularly the demise of traditional media, in his Silicon Valley Watcher blog – http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/ I’m not sure if he’s claiming editorial purity. However, his journalistic background is certainly far above any average blogger.

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