Interview: UBM CEO Levin On How To Rescue Failing Media Businesses

What do you do when the world turns upside-down? Find a flat surface and face in a different direction.

David Levin, CEO of the specialist publisher of titles like Information Week, EE Times, Music Week and Farmers’ Guardian – talks with paidContent:UK about how United Business Media is re-inventing its business when all the familiar old rules have changed…

Go live to be unique

“When I started six years ago, we were two-thirds a print magazine business. Now, only five percent of our profits come from magazines. The bet we made was that live media wouldn’t be disintermediated, so we built an events business that is now our core – 55 percent of our profits come from live media.

“In music, CDs disappeared and digital music is effectively free, rock concerts are really expensive – we put on the equivalent of rock concerts, hard to replicate.”

Sell what has no future

Having disposed of several printed magazines, UBM now retains about 100 titles with affiliated websites. That reduction is not purely by design but mostly by circumstance that has nevertheless been managed.

“Five years from now, either we’ll have found a way to take our magazine communities and are getting paid by them for providing value – in which case, it will be more than five percent – or it won’t be here at all; but it will only be five percent that’s gone. We’re approaching that point where it’s sufficiently small.

“There are a number of organisations who were two-thirds print that didn’t make the jump we did. The asteroid hit and we’re in the ‘Survivors’ bucket. On the print side, we’re still an early mammal.

“We sold a number of titles like Exchange & Mart – we had a view that it wouldn’t exist and it doesn’t anymore. I wish we’d sold even more. Everything we’d kept we could have sold and have been better off.”

Go through the pain

Levin relayed the case of electronics title EE Times: “That’s a weekly title that’s been reborn. There’s a lot more creativity coming out of them, but that’s because they had a near-death experience. As a business, three years ago, it nearly died.

“The management there sat down and said ‘jeez, our old business model no longer works‘. So they had to rebuild it from scratch. The pain of that helped.”

Levin says EE Times, like other UBM titles, have, online, added plenty of data-driven services, education, training, “a tonne more video”, social interaction and expert contributions, providing communities of professionals with value through means that may be more about tools than content and that don’t necessarily resemble a conventional “publication”.

“It’s all about engagement,” Levin says, “- getting activity that is not one-to-many broadcast. Typically, things called Something Week were strong, they’re difficult to transition. That’s gone, so you want some kernel of data or value-add.”

Acceptance is the first step

How, practically, does a publisher rebuild? “We’re fortunate in that there are publishers who’ve been through a near-death experience who are able to share the experience of being with a cadre of people,” Levin says. “All of whom, the whole business has failed.

At first, you’re angry with the parent, then you’re angry with the market, then you’re angry with the business model, and then, at some point, they’ve internalised it and concluded ‘it’s none of those, it’s about what we do’ and ‘I had a right to play in this, now what am I going to do?

“Relatively few people are successful in the journey. We’ve got a fantastic guy in charge of EE Times, Paul Miller, who was an editor, once upon a time, of EE Times itself; likewise, in Built Environment, we’ve got Adrian Barrick. What they have in common is, they can sit down and they can show you the scars – they’ve had a cadre of people who have come with them who they’ve had to change and rebuild and reorient; very painful. Relatively few media businesses have made that transition.

You needed the core to die to give the prod which allowed the creativity which allowed people to say, ‘this no longer works, we’ve got to do something different’.

“We’ve got the first exemplars of traditional print-based media which are recovering – not as print-based media but as community-based publishers.

“My concern, with some of the continuing larger media enterprises, is, actually, they’ve still got a mothership which dictates the rhythm and meter of the business.”