Wood: Adapting to disruption

It’s been a few years since I attended a conference of the Alliance of Area Business Publishers, but a recent gathering in Chicago provided the perfect opportunity to reconnect with old friends in the business-publication industry — including learning how others have adapted to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

AABP represents almost 50 publications, ranging from the very large — think Crain’s Chicago Business or the Los Angeles Business Journal — to the very small, such as, well, BizWest. It includes magazines and newspapers alike, but all with the common thread of serving a B-to-B audience, with a highly educated, affluent readership of C-level professionals.

Chicago, with its central location, is the traditional location for the fall conference, and it was our first opportunity for an in-person gathering since before COVID.

While the gathering was small at 60-plus — masks required — it provided some powerful information and insights:

• Jim Kirk, group publisher at Crain Communications, interviewed Joe Mansueto, founder of Morningstar Inc., CEO of Mansueto Ventures and owner of FastCompany and Inc. magazines. Mansueto acquired FastCompany and Inc. in 2005, using Morningstar stock to fund the deal. While he said he didn’t regret the acquisitions — the publishing industry has taken a tumble in the past 16 years — he wishes that he had financed the deal through debt, rather than miss out on some of Morningstar’s stock boom. And although the publications are far smaller than they used to be in distribution, they have built loyal, engaged readership and attractive niches in data offerings.

• Don Harkey, owner and CEO of People Centric Consulting Group, shared ideas for how companies can boost employee retention, hiring and engagement by focusing on company culture. He related the story of a Denver restaurant that received 400 applications, a feat he said was due to the solid culture of the operation. (And yes, employers should also pay attention to pay, benefits, etc.)

• Publishers were somewhat disheartened to hear a panel describing continued paper shortages and likely additional price hikes. It’s just one way that global supply-chain issues are disrupting the publishing industry.

• Attendees heard of different approaches to events. Business journals, including BizWest, produce a wide array of business-oriented events, from award programs to contextual events (such as the upcoming Boulder Valley Real Estate Conference). Publishers shifted legacy events from in-person to virtual during COVID, and some, but not all, are now edging back toward in-person events, or hybrid solutions. Differing opinions were expressed about whether audiences were experiencing “Zoom fatigue.” That’s certainly true in some markets, but some publishers intend to retain virtual events as another means of relaying information in the future.

Other sessions focused on technology trends, data privacy, sustaining sales, content studios and more.

The sessions were great, the panels well-organized, the speakers intelligent and inspiring. But the most-important aspect of gatherings of this sort is the connection with colleagues and friends, each of whom is experiencing the same challenges in the COVID era as the other.

Additionally, one publisher is planning a startup business journal in an adjacent market. Another is weighing a potential buyout offer. Some are eyeing retirement. Discussions of family, health, sports and other subjects were rampant.

Such connection is a form of therapy, I suppose, being able to get things off your chest with people with whom you relate.

As I said to one friend and colleague, as a group of us sat down at The Drake for drinks, “It’s good for the soul.”

Christopher Wood can be reached at 303-630-1942, 970-232-3133 or cwood@bizwest.com.