@ FOBM: Boldly Go Abroad To Dodge The Crunch; Pack Your Wiki

As the struggling economy begins to give some business publishers palpitations, what comfort might they find in still-growing markets? Reuters Media president Chris Ahearn, a moderator at our Future Of Business Media conference, told his panel: “I’m expecting growth to slow down around the world … (but) I’m not going to freak out based on six to eight weeks of extreme market volatility. Like everybody here, we have diversification, it’s not just Europe and the US; it’s China, it’s India…”

As we contemplate the former, China’s Xinhua Finance Media president Graham Earnshaw is confident that market can be a sanctuary for troubled westerners: “There are arguments that China will suffer less over the next couple of years than other markets. Our business is heavily dependent on advertising so we’ll have to see how that goes, but there’s an argument that China is going to be the bright light; overall things look better than they do here.” And while United Business Media (UBM) CEO David Levin said buying companies in China is a convoluted process, Earnshaw argued working in China is much easier than on Wall Street.

Sharing best practice: As business media make the internationalization journey, their paths are fraught with both organizational and cultural sensitivities. While western publishers seem at pains to flatten out and decentralize for multiplatform distribution, in the Far East it’s anything but. Levin said his company was relying on an internal planning wiki to scale publications and events overseas by sharing best practice: “If you’re taking a show to China, you want to see who’s cocked up to try and avoid their cock-ups. It’s wonderful, its organic, its self-organizing. Frankly, we’ve been liberated – we use technology much more, horizontal organization principles … we’ve gone very flat, and generally the performance of the business has improved.” The flattening Levin talked about – UBM split its tech publisher CMP in to four this year, “breaking down of big blocks of print media” – has helped UBM reduce its print dependence from 74 percent to under a quarter.

Keeping it tight: Legal publisher Incisive Media’s North America CEO William Pollak, too, said Incisive is decentralizing publishing operations, though not back-end operations: “It’s a very flat organizational chart, where managers are compensated for being all things they can be for their market.” In stark contrast to Xinhua, where Earnshaw’s focus on one market only doesn’t require anything more: “We’re very much centralizing the business really. We’re centralizing, rationalizing and bringing down the number of products and areas in which we’re involved.”

Feet on the ground: Don’t bother trying to run things from afar, however. Incisive’s Pollak: “There’s no substitute, if you want to build a single company, for getting people to live and work together … if you don’t have infrastructure on the ground, it’s very difficult to pull off; you have to find yourself a really good partner or (hire locally).” Case in point: UBM’s Levin said the time differences make it very hard for US publishers to run a Chinese unit from the west coast, for example, arguing Europe’s position between poles makes it the best location for B2B.

And then you get there… ? This flattening out seems to come with a passionate focus around individual multiplatform brands rather than specific publications. The decentralizations all seem to come with added empowerment for those brands. Levin said UBM’s games team doesn’t need to have the same attitude as its channels team; instead there is “an intellectual framework that allows us to develop the optimum for each of those communities”. Or, as ahearn said: “It’s about the community, stupid.”