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Friday, February 29, 2008

Niche Media and the Beginner's Mind 

I spent the early part of this week at the Niche Magazine Conference in Austin, TX, where I had the opportunity to contemplate both the state of b2b media and our nation's election process up close.

First, let me note that I thought the conference was a true gem--one of those events you don't necessarily want to tell others about for fear that it might ruin what makes the conference so valuable. But I'll take that risk, because it's the kind of event that I think more of us in b2b media should be attending. It was a shame, but not a surprise, that there was no media coverage of the event--probably because there were no big media stars on the agenda, no dazzling $100 million-plus deals being talked about, and very little representation from big b2b media companies among the attendees. Heck, there wasn't even an investment bank among the many fine sponsors. Apparently, there's little else worth covering in our "media about media."

What we did have were a couple hundred publishers of niche b2b and consumer magazines getting together to hash out real issues, learn from one another and have some fun. (After all, who can resist a conference with a miniature golf tournament, where one of the prizes was for "Biggest Cheater?") At its core, the conference was for people who actually scrape out a living doing smaller magazines and related media, people who have to meet payrolls and protect their life-savings, people who do publishing out of passion and love--you know, the kind of entrepreneurs who built this business in the first place.

I don't know about you, but my first jobs in b2b media were with small companies owned by entrepreneurs, before they were sold to larger companies. Most of today's large b2b media companies are aggregations of media created by entrepreneurs. In fact, most b2b media companies remain a bunch of small niche publications and media, writ large by shared corporate overheads and services, breathtaking debt and financial valuations.

No offense to other media conferences, but frankly, seeing the same faces at the same conferences talking about the same "big picture" publishing and media issues is a metaphor for the staleness that imbues b2b media. We're so experienced that we've forgotten how to look at problems with beginner's minds. We've let debt loads, investment bankers and private equity firms set the agenda for what we should or should not be focused on, as opposed to listening to and acting on our instincts--instincts which created this business and its successful brands.

Given that Texas is a current battleground state in our elections, and the issue of experience is a key theme, I spent more than a few minutes in Austin wondering if I and some of my colleagues in b2b media have become too experienced.

You see, the problem with "experience," in my view, is that it often blinds us to alternatives. Those of us with loads of experience spend a lot of time thinking about what can't be done, as opposed to what should be done. That's why it was good to spend a few days in an environment where small publishers were grappling with the same problems big publishers are, and finagling solutions with band-aids, hard work and ingenuity. Since they often don't know what can't be done, they just go ahead and do it.

The Niche Magazine Conference (NMC) was refreshing in all senses of the word. I returned home charged up with great ideas, and a commitment to looking at b2b publishing and media as if I were just starting out, not knowing any better. I'll bet I'll be able to serve my readers and advertisers better just by letting go of a few (or more) assumptions.

So thank you to Carl Landau, Nancy O'Brien and the staff, speakers and attendees at NMC. I'll certainly be there next year (April 27-28 in Denver, by the way). And I hope to see some major b2b executives on the attendance list, looking to open their minds and to remember the passion and love that built--and will continue to build--this business.


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