That’s the question. Whether it’s a no-brainer to hang in and suffer all of the outrageous highs and lows of advertising, economic instability and the decline of print or instead, in search of fortune, shake a spear at that particular sea of troubles? These might be among the issues facing the multiplicity of business to business publishers that continue to produce magazines, directories, exhibitions and other activities that rely on advertising and sponsorship, for lawyers and other advisers.
It hasn't been an easy time for the magazines and related sectors for a good number of years now. Moreover, many of its problems are not just related to the state of the economy but were connected in any case to the effects of the Internet revolution and evolving business models. The problems and opportunities, such as there are, have been articulated in many experts in the fields, where the shift is away from print and from advertising sales in favour of business intelligence provision and data management, working across multiple vertical markets.
Yet the UK is still awash with legal and professional magazines, directories and events of one kind or another, with numerous publishers owning the range of titles. Certainly nothing like a complete list but among the relevant businesses are the likes of Reed Elsevier, Centaur, Wilmington, Euromoney, Incisive, Informa, Legalease, Parity Media, Futurelex and Chambers, never forgetting the huge list of similar products published by or on behalf of the various professional and trade bodies. No doubt each can describe in detail how they perceive their products and services to be different from those of their competitors, in part reflected in their advertiser profiles and subscriber bases, where the latter exist. However, the advertising market has been miserable for a long time and will not return to its glory days; the print side of magazine publishing is in terminal decline, hardly to be compensated for with online revenues.
The problems are reflected visibly in the financial fortunes of the holders of business-to-business assets. Relatively recently, Centaur Media, publisher of The Lawyer and Corporate Adviser, announced the departure of its chief executive officer and its head of publishing, having already parted with several directors from among its senior team. As a predominantly advertising-driven business, maintaining controlled circulation (free) magazines, Centaur is believed by some to have been too slow to move from the traditional model to becoming a “digital-first organisation”. Centaur need not be highlighted in isolation; Incisive Media, publisher of many magazines, including Legal Week some time ago refinanced its considerable debt. American Lawyer Media was separated from Incisive after only a short time being part of it. Elsewhere, other magazines have disappeared or have been transferred from owner to owner in attempts to pass the problems form one to another.
The clue to the business-to-business world is in the name. The idea should be that such businesses and their portfolios help organisations connect, communicate their propositions and do business effectively. Their products and services should help professional and business people succeed by enabling them to connect with each other and with the markets they serve. Key to this must be knowledge about audiences, reflecting the quality of market databases; content quality, even in controlled-circulation environments; market intimacy; brand strength; technology leadership. In a market with an abundance of players and possibly an excess of products and services, relative to market needs, it’s unlikely that all will have the resources to provide the necessary solutions in the market and to compete in the future.
I'm pretty sure that it’s time for consolidation in the UK business to business market and that as the economy starts to look more buoyant the deals and arrangements will begin to happen. Simply looking at relative scale and overlap in market sectors, particularly after the dark days have facilitated clearing out the worst of the dross, one could see how Wilmington Group and Centaur Media might fit together. With similar assets such as Solicitors Journal and The Lawyer, their competing Mercia, PracticeTrack and Taxbriefs businesses and much more, there must be scope for consolidation and the benefits of scale. A few years ago, UBM PLC, a leading marketing and communications services business that in 1996 sold Tolley to Lexis Nexis, came close to merging with Informa. I wonder if their love will ever rekindle or if other suitors stand in waiting. Maybe a combination of Incisive and Informa would serve the legal community well and provide an interesting competitor in the market. The woes of Reed Business Information have been aired widely for a long time but more specifically within Lexis Nexis reside such ancient properties as New Law Journal and three internally competing tax magazines. It’s hard to believe that this is where Lexis Nexis’ future lies. Among the smaller businesses, some still in the hands of angels and venture capitalists, the short to medium-term objective must be to find buyers while it is still possible to do so.
In the distant past, some of the legal magazine business was sustainable either from subscription income or, in its absence and sometimes in addition by display, charity, classified advertising, including job advertisements and inserts. However, much of the advertising and inserting was from somewhat circular and incestuous sources such as other publishers advertising their publications and events. The decline in traditional publishing and the poor effectiveness of these types of advertising have reduced the income stream significantly. As for job vacancies, so many alternatives sources have substantially reduced the significance of what used to be the core media. Flicking through many certain magazines to identify the scale of advertising revenues can be depressing.
As to the directories and events business, it has to be more of the same. It’s hard to understand how the UK needs so many directories, be they print or online. Legalease, Chambers and Partners and Wilmington all produce competing directories, as well as legal magazines, among them Legal Business and Chambers Magazine. If I were looking for or trying to do business with a lawyer these days, there are so many ways of finding them, not least through their own web sites and marketing activities. Again, one might imagine combinations involving these three and Centaur Media, Incisive or Informa, to name a few. Perhaps, as with the legal and professional information publishing industry, two or three dominant companies will be created, none of them likely to be the existing big names in UK legal publishing, gain market share and drive the future of the business to business sector.
Back to the more traditional legal publishing businesses and as changes at Bloomberg BNA are announced, recently someone who is exceptionally well informed again asked me if I thought that there is an increased chance that Reed Elsevier will sell Lexis-Nexis and exit legal publishing. The argument was that a year ago Reed Elsevier was adamant that it would not but there were whispers that this might possibly change. My response was that there is not even a remote chance but it will be interesting to watch. It could be a different story, of course, at Wolters Kluwer. Meanwhile, there are those experts who believe that “publishing” is “rapidly becoming a meaningless term”. On such issues and others and for a reasoned and insightful view on the future of legal publishing, Susan Munro’s recent paper and presentation on the topic is of significant value.