Why specialist titles thrive with independent publishers

Media giant IPC are in the process of disposing of around 28 niche titles – like Guitar and The Railway – and reportedly are selling to several small publishers rather than as a job lot.  This set me thinking about specialist media businesses and whether they actually do better under independent ownership than as part of a large media organisation.  At Emap I disposed of several niche specialist magazines that were deemed to be uneconomic.  They moved to independent publishers, where they were nurtured and started growing again.  Here’s my thoughts on why niche media businesses can actually do better when independently owned:

1. Hands-on publishers

Publishers in large media businesses can turn into management accountants, spending most of their time measuring and reporting to bosses and explaining variances, rather than getting stuck into the business.  Independent publishers are more likely to deal direct with ad clients and key suppliers, and spot opportunities more quickly.

2. Enthusiastic staff

Editors, marketeers and ad sales people in an independent business are more likely to be enthusiasts for the topic, be more loyal, and have their own network of relevant contacts, rather than be hired hands who will rotate to another market at the end of the year.

3. Entrepreneurial

Independents can react quickly to market changes, tweaking circulation promotions, creating new commercial opportunities, trying out digital media or launching new services for their readers, without having to take part in a cumbersome and bureaucratic strategic and budgeting process, or write a board proposal.  Interesting that Athletics Weekly and The Spectator launched iphone apps months before big media owners got started.  Check out the Media Pioneer award winners for more stories of innovative independent publishers who are outmanoeuvring the giants.

4. Close to customers

Independent publishers are more likely to take the calls from ad clients or readers, or meet them at events, without the barriers of centralised ad teams or susbcription bureaux, so they quickly find out if things need to be fixed, or identify a new opportunity.  The value in specialist markets is often in running events, selling products or arranging trips, not just content and advertising, but you need to listen to the customer to discover which will work in each market.

5. Low overheads

Large publishers have central city-based departments whose remuneration packages are driven by the needs of mass market and glossy publications; these overheads get allocated out to smaller titles (although the big cheeses rarely get involved in those businesses) and swamp their profitability.  Independent publishers are often based in the regions, and cut their cloth to suit their revenues, particularly if they are privately-owned.

I’m interested to hear either from independent publishers or those working on specialist titles in large media owners – do you agree with my points, or have I missed some key factors?  Please comment below, or join 350 specialist media people on the Specialist Media Network on Linked-in and take part in the debate.

The Media Pioneer awards are run in conjunction with the Specialist Media Show and InPublishing.  They celebrate entrepreneurial and innovative thinking by specialist media businesses across print, events and digital.  The overall winners will be announced at the 2011 Specialist Media Show on 11 May 2011.  If you know a business that deserves to be nominated, please contact me with more details.

About the author: Carolyn  Morgan runs Penmaen Media, a consultancy advising media owners on how to profit from digital media and marketing. She is also content director for the Specialist Media Show. If you’d like an informal discussion about how you can develop new revenue sources for your specialist media business please contact Penmaen Media for a chat.