As a Thomson man of the generation of ’67, I was well schooled in the dictum “its not what you buy, but what and when you sell that makes the real difference.”* And having spent almost three decades button-holing anyone who would listen, like some crazed digital ancient mariner, on the importance of building digital presence in B2B publishing and information markets, I should probably be pleased to see headlines in the Financial Times (3 March 2012) heralding the sale of EMAP’s print assets (“Analysts say EMAP faces challenge to move away from print”). But I am not. I know exactly when these print assets should have been sold: in 2002 at the end of the Dotcom Bust. And I cannot persuade myself that a wrong move then will be rectified by a pointless move now, or that value will be added to anything by selling the subscription/advertising print stable at EMAP – or at UBM, or at Haymarket, or Centaur, or Incisive – to someone who is simply going to live on a declining annuity until it expires. There will in any case be few buyers, and those who do appear will not want the stable, but just one or two of the old nags. The analysts who shriek the headline of this piece are simply transaction mongers who have a firmer grip of deal commissions than they do of the current strategic realities of B2B. So lets go back to 2002 and see what has happened after the management of B2B information and publishing and events decided that it was far too early to exit print subscriptions and, like the regional press, the market would come back to them.

By 2005 it was becoming clear that the bits that worked in B2B, outside of events, were information services and solutions. By that year controlled circulation magazines and newsletters, which had proliferated and at times been generated by online at the end of the previous decade began to wilt. Just as in the pre-2005 period we had spoken of VANs and VADs, so we began to talk about “vertical search” (it turned out to be much the same anyway) and started providing tailored information to self-defined users in commerce and industry. We were beginning to experience for the first time what it was going to be like to live in a “networked society/economy”. A small revolution was taking place: managers were beginning to have to find out what their users did for a living and construct solutions around their daily lives. This meant specialization and expertise in particular verticals: managers could no longer be shifted from title to title on the basis that they knew journalists and advertisers and everything else was the same whether you were publishing in machine tools or in ladies fashions.

And then we came to workflow. If we were really entering an information solutions-type world (where Thomson Reuters had already gone in IP and GRC , and Lexis Risk in insurance) then we had to provide our content directly to the desk of the user, sliced so that it modelled his working patterns, and supported by software tools that added value to it and kept us essential to his processes, and thus too important to be lightly discontinued. And how did we plan to earn his trust in this guise? By either inventing a new brand (think Globalspec in engineering) or by using our old print brands to ensure user confidence (think Bankers Almanac at RBI). Never mind that the print which supported those brands had eroded away, since they were there for entirely different reasons.

And now we are laying another layer in digital development on top of all of this. We now talk of Big Data, of using the services we have created for users as a sort of focussing glass so that we can go out from them to the client’s own content and all sorts of other datasets and find linkages through data mining and extraction, squeezing fresh insight all the time into the workflow of users who, wherever they work, have increasingly become, like us, knowledge workers. And our events activities increasingly morph into always-on trading and learning experiences, where we do introduce clients to the range of products and services in the sector, update and inform on new releases to people who have said they want to know, and move increasingly into the training and professional development of the sectors that we have chosen. Do you see where we are going? We are going to be the full service providers to a handful of vertical markets which we feel confident about dominating.

Why are we confident about that domination? Because we have the brands, many of them over a hundred years old in this country, which our verticals were brought up upon. And behind those brands are archival morgues, full of data with residual value in a Big Data sense. We did not sell those brands in 2002 when they were a going concern, so why sell them now when they are a cause for concern. By all means close the print, by all means reconstruct the service values  using far less journalists in targeted niche environments online. By all means drive towards areas where you have real data intensity, but on the way remember the community and its existing brand affiliations. You want to take them with you.

Which brings us back round to EMAP. I see no point in hanging on to peripheral services, even data-based services like DeHavilland bought as recently as 2007, if they have no strategic coherence in terms of the markets that give EMAP positions of strength. I take these to be construction, local government, broadcast media and fashion. If strength in automotive cannot be linked to the Guardian’s position in Trader Media, then sell that too. But hold onto brands where they can be used to give community credibility and data where it can give archival searchability. By selling them you get a smaller but more profitable business. And that is also the result of digital network development of the type described here – smaller and more profitable businesses. Just don’t throw away something which is pretty worthless now on its own, but which may be needed on a journey to a much better place.

* Note that the companies that Thomson SOLD in the mid-1980s in the UK form the majority of EMAP and Trinity Mirror today, as well as large chunks of Springer and Infinitas, and elsewhere and afterwards the bulk of Cengage and a big portion of the US regional press. Were they right or not?


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