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The publishing world is going through life and death experiences (with plenty of deaths recorded with grim glee at the Magazine Death Pool).

Late last year, the Stanford Professional Publishing Course went on life support, and the prognosis, at least according to rumors at the Frankfurt Book Fair, was poor.

I always wanted to attend, but I never was able to — at least not to the main Stanford course. It was always too expensive or scheduled during a family vacation or something. I did ultimately get to teach at the more recent Stanford Publishing on the Web courses. I met some terrific people there, and had some memorable experiences. The speakers weren’t from the usual circuit.

But after lingering only briefly on the boundary of life and death, the Stanford courses are officially defunct.

It’s certainly not because there isn’t a lot to learn about publishing. It’s probably due to a few changes that mirror shifts in the publishing landscape:

  1. Publishing isn’t as lucrative as it once was, so an optional meeting like the SPPC became the object of budget cuts
  2. Learning from senior executives became less meaningful in an age of disruption
  3. Other meetings from smaller organizations drew attendees away, making it harder to fill a long course like Stanford’s
  4. Online options (blogs, webinars, email newsletters) emerged to satisfy the ongoing professional education needs
  5. The overall definition of who published expanded, making it harder for a single course to find an addressable audience

Another trade stalwart, Editor & Publisher, recently announced bankruptcy and plans to cease publication, but it has been pulled back from the void thanks to a lifeline from, of all places, a publisher of boating enthusiast magazines.

The rescue comes with a shake-up in the editorial office, but the publisher remains in place.

Editor & Publisher was being closed along with Kirkus Reviews (an event covered here by Joe Esposito) as Nielsen Business Media sold off other assets.

Duncan McIntosh, the owner of his eponymous publishing company, had an odd rationale for the purchase of Editor & Publisher:

I published newspapers when I first got into this business and have been reading Editor & Publisher on and off for more than 30 years. I heard about its closing and thought to myself, ‘That can’t be.’

For a boating enthusiast to not sense the ballast and bilge water he’s acquiring here surprises me. A magazine appealing to newspaper publishers strikes me as akin to buying a typewriter company for stenographers — the future NPV must be pretty awful. Terms of the deal weren’t divulged, but I’ll bet the multiples in the acquisition were at or below 1x revenues.

Ultimately, which move is savvier? Clearly, the Stanford move. They are cutting their losses. In a risky, dynamic business environment with deflated valuations and mediocre media forecasts, it would be possible to talk yourself into getting a magazine like Editor & Publisher at a bargain basement price. To do so, you’d have to believe in calm seas ahead — after all, as another sea-faring man once said, what could possibly go wrong?

When anyone asks how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog the like, but in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about. . . . I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. You see, I am not very good material for a story.

But this captain may have also wanted to reflect on another thing he said:

The big icebergs that drift into warmer water melt much more rapidly under water than on the surface, and sometimes a sharp, low reef extending two or three hundred feet beneath the sea is formed. If a vessel should run on one of these reefs half her bottom might be torn away.

Of course, this was the captain of the Titanic. And while Editor & Publisher is just a small sailing craft in comparison, that only makes its future in the high seas of digital information exchange all the more perilous.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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Discussion

1 Thought on "Lifelines and Funeral Rites in the Publishing World"

I had always wanted to attend the Stanford course and was never able to for similar reasons to those you cite.

I think there may be one other reason for the program’s discontinuation to add to your list: the expansion of publishing programs at Columbia and George Washington University (as well as University College of London). Both universities now offer a wide number of courses through the year. Both the Columbia and GW programs also allow students to earn credit towards a degree—something that was not offered at Stanford.

I still think there was a place for Stanford’s course, though only if they reoriented it towards new media. The Publishing on the Web course that you mention might have become the centerpiece of a new program focused on the very disruptions that resulted in the demise of the original program.

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