From Dot-Bombast to Dot-Bomb
STARVING TO DEATH ON $200 MILLION
The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard
By James Ledbetter
PublicAffairs -- 291pp -- $26
Like Sissy Spacek's hand popping up from the grave at the end of Brian DePalma's classic horror flick Carrie, The Industry Standard continues to assert itself long after its demise. This is partly a consequence of nostalgia for the tech boom, of which magazines were a central cog. Pubs like The Standard, Business 2.0, The Web Magazine, and Wired helped blow up the bubble, and their short-lived success mirrored the Internet's rise. But The Standard distinguished itself in one key way: In 2000, it sold 7,400-plus ad pages, more than any magazine in U.S. history. Then the bubble burst. By August, 2001, The Industry Standard had declared bankruptcy.
When I heard that former Standard staffer James Ledbetter was writing a book about the magazine's death, my first thought was: Now there's a really bad idea. (My second thought, reflecting on his advance: Why didn't I get the contract?) As with many of the boom-era flameouts, The Standard's demise had been dissected endlessly in the media. And aside from former staffers and media mavens, it seemed there wouldn't be much of an audience for Starving to Death on $200 Million.
After reading the volume, however, I have to say it's a good, if incomplete, chronicle of the magazine's fast rise and furious fall. Ledbetter, The Standard's New York bureau chief who later went on to found its ill-fated British edition, is a smart reporter with a flair for spinning a yarn. He has talked to all the major players, dug up some revealing details, and strung together the whole story in an engaging, memoir-like fashion. Intriguingly, he sets up the narrative like a murder mystery: Did The Standard overdose on lavish spending and shoddy management? Or was it snuffed out by its low-profile yet powerful financier-partner, publishing empire International Data Group?
The answer, of course, is both. The book's greatest strength--and the source of its drama--is the tension between The Standard and IDG. At all magazines, there's friction between the editorial and the business sides. But this was a marriage made in hell. Time and again, The Standard's founder, former Wired editor John Battelle, butted heads with IDG management, particularly with its founder and chairman, Patrick J. McGovern, a.k.a. Uncle Pat.
To Battelle, a brilliant editor who was "always impatient with the present," IDG didn't get the Net, even though the parent company had conceived the idea of an Internet-business magazine and recruited Battelle to hatch it. To IDG, a penny-pinching publisher obsessed with turning a profit, "no amount of financial success could erase Battelle's sins of arrogance." Ever cocky, Battelle once boasted to staffers that the publication would have 900 employees and $1 billion in sales by 2005. Meanwhile, IDG got little credit. At The Standard's second-anniversary party, Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Weber says McGovern's wife noted that there were no banners mentioning IDG. "Why wasn't IDG acknowledged?" she asked. Weber had no response.
Ledbetter nails the Standard team (and himself) for excessive spending, shoddy management, and journalistic compromises. At The Standard's "Global Internet Summit" in May, 2000, the company flew more than 40 members of its staff, most in business class, to the conference in Barcelona's sumptuous Hotel Arts. It spent about $5 million on TV ads. And it blew more than $8 million on software that promised to match companies' products with potential buyers but that never worked. It built up a huge Web site that never turned a profit. And in one of the book's best previously unreported details, Ledbetter describes how The Standard launched a European edition without creating a budget and without realizing that IDG had already licensed the name in several countries. This meant the new mag would be competing against other Industry Standards on newsstands. Many of these same mistakes, Ledbetter notes, were made by Wired: Both followed the management-by-IPO philosophy that required the headlong pursuit of growth with little concern for the bottom line.
Even though he never produces a smoking gun, Ledbetter is persuasive in arguing that IDG drove The Standard into bankruptcy, quoting one parent company exec as saying this was a "better option" than accepting more outside financing and assuming huge liabilities. Along with the culture clash, IDG had other problems, including The Standard's commitment to more than $56 million in real estate leases that it couldn't escape. Adding insult to injury, in bankruptcy court IDG bought The Standard's assets for $900,000, mostly to protect its overseas trademark rights.
In spite of such minor revelations, Ledbetter's account isn't a bull's-eye. It gets off to a slow start as the author tells how he discovered the Internet--in 1998. And because Ledbetter never worked at The Standard's San Francisco mother ship, his experience comes across as peripheral. The author could have remedied this flaw with more interviews or research but elected not to do so. Moreover, there's a shortage of spicy details that could have broadened the book's appeal. As one former staffer put it to this reviewer: "He missed the sex."
Still, given the scarcity of accounts that capture the Sturm und Drang of the Internet boom, Starving to Death makes a worthwhile contribution. If you want to know what the late-'90s fuss was all about, Starving to Death offers a serviceable account of the madness.
By Spencer E. Ante