High flying web-based publications?

Andrew Bond comments on the recent changes at Pro-Talk, comparing the troubles at the Control Engineering US publication (CE), with the new technology superstars typefied by Pro-Talk websites.

Web-based publishing doesn’t necessarily provide a more secure berth than the paper-based variety as INSIDER contributing editor Nick Denbow found when he had his relationship with website http://www.Processingtalk.com brought to an abrupt conclusion last month. Still, it gives him more time to develop INSIDER’s coverage of the instrumentation side of the automation business. Processingtalk is one of the Pro-Talk family of web sites developed by Tony Rand, Andy Pye and others and sold to former Control & Instrumentation publisher Centaur in the mid-2000’s. Also said to be poised for departure from the Centaur stable is Mike Page, one of Pro-Talk’s founder editors and currently editor of Manufacturingtalk.com. Mike is retiring to concentrate more on the freelance articles he enjoys writing, dealing with manufacturing production, and probably railway history too.

But what did Andrew Bond’s INSIDER have to say about CE?

US automation publishing market in retreat!

US automation publishers were up to their knees in crocodile tears last month as they lamented the passing of Control Engineering (CE) magazine and its associated eNewsletters and web sites. While there’s no reason to question the sincerity of the sympathy for the plight of CE’s staff expressed by other editors such as CONTROL’s Walt Boyes and Automation World’s Gary Mintchell in their respective blogs, which might best be summed up as “There but for the grace of God . . .,” wider expressions of regret can surely be taken with a large pinch of salt. The publisher and indeed editor hasn’t yet been born who doesn’t feel a touch of ‘schadenfreude’, combined with a good measure of relief and a quickening of the pulse at the possibility of new opportunities, when a major competitor bites the dust. Nor should one take too much notice of the implication in some of the comments from competitors and others that the decision by publisher Reed Business International (RBI), formerly known as Cahners and a wholly owned subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch Reed Elsevier, was some kind of vindictive and perverse action by what Boyes describes as a “mega giant” or the result of what Eoin Ó Riain, Readout publisher and ISA Publications Department VP-elect, suggested was “Lack of enthusiastic support on the part of a huge conglomerate.” Not at any price RBI had announced as long ago as last year that it wished to divest itself of some of its business-to-business publications, following an earlier attempt by the parent company to sell the whole division, and had indeed successfully disposed of a number of titles. The announcement of the closure of CE and what appear to be all of the remaining titles it had failed to sell suggests therefore that it had been unable to find a buyer at any price, or at least at any price that made sense, and that, within its own cost structure, CE didn’t make money. Ruthless they may be in the end, but publishers are more often open to criticism for putting off closures too long than for making them too precipitately, witness some of the titles currently being persisted with in the UK by Centaur, the publisher whose closure of Control & Instrumentation in 2001 Ó Riain compares with that of CE. The month closed with news that CFE Media was acquiring CE and two other titles, reputedly in a managment buy out, so CE may yet rise from the ashes. However, this is the second time in less than a year that a US automation title has run into near terminal trouble, the first resulting in the decision by ISA last Autumn to move InTech magazine from a monthly to a bi-monthly frequency and to outsource all of its electronic titles, along with responsibility for all advertising sales, to Automation.com, while dispensing with the services of the majority of their staff (INSIDER, November 2009, page 7). Taken together these two events could reduce the US automation publishing market from five magazines at the turn of the millennium when Control Solutions, as Chilton’s Instrument & Control Systems had been rebranded, was still clinging on, to just two and a half today. The big question for the remaining survivors must be whether the US market is even capable of supporting that many. InTech will presumably have to survive in one form or another at least for the foreseeable future, if only because, like many learned institutions’ journals, it’s pretty much the only concrete thing that many members actually see for their subscription.
Gary Mintchell, while admitting that, after a variety of similar experiences, he will “never really feel secure,” believes that the CE “event” is “specific to one company” and that, as “part of a small company that bleeds trade media, print and electronic,” his own title has a long term future.
Walt Boyes, meanwhile, makes a more discursive justification of the role of business to business magazines in general and his own in particular, arguing that “Magazine readership isn’t going down” and that, even in the face of competition from the web, “they still want their magazines.”
Let’s hope he’s right. But the real problem is not whether people want their magazines but whether the established business model for providing them essentially free to the reader or, in the jargon, on “controlled circulation”, supported by display advertising as the main and usually the sole source of revenue, is still sustainable. Many, at least on this side of the water, suspect that in fact that model is irretrievably broken and that publishers, after more than ten years of trying, have still not found a workable replacement. Indeed, while readers may still want their magazines, they don’t necessarily notice their loss for too long once they’ve no longer got them, while advertisers, faced with an ever expanding range of alternative media channels through which to communicate their message, can get along just fine without them. Following the UK lead This is in fact one area where UK experience has foreshadowed that in the US. As Ó Riain pointed out, the UK’s leading title, Control & Instrumentation, together with its previously hugely profitable exhibition, was closed nearly a decade ago and little or nothing has come forward to take their place. True the UK still has two publications in the field but neither is in particularly rude health and one, ironically, presents itself as the European edition of the now defunct CE. In fact Control Engineering Europe, which has been published under license from RBI by IML, has little in common with CE other than the name. Whether that name continues to be an asset in this new circumstance remains to be seen.
Sales manager Mark Burton clearly believes it will, telling “whom it may concern”, presumably principally existing and potential advertisers, that the closure of CE in the US “does not affect in anyway the frequency of print or online products for Control Engineering Europe, UK and the Middle East.” We shall see.

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