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Q&A
James Ledbetter on the short, absurd life of The Industry Standard.

BY JESSE OXFELD | It's such a right-place-at-the-right-time thing you'd almost think he planned it all in advance. James Ledbetter was an important guy at The Industry Standard, its first New York bureau chief and then the London-based founding editor-in-chief of its European edition. But before that he was the "Press Clips" media columnist for The Village Voice. So when the biggest magazine success in history—in 2000, just a few years old, the Standard sold more ad pages than any other mag ever—became the most spectacular magazine failure in history—in August 2001, Standard Media went bankrupt—it was only natural he'd write a book about the experience. Starving to Death on $200 Million: The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard is Ledbetter's account of his time at the magazine, and it's also his analysis of its vertiginous boom and breathtaking bust. Still living in London, where he's the business editor of Time's European edition, Ledbetter spoke to mediabistro.com about the Standard, his book, and what the critics had to say about both. (Buy Starving to Death on $200 Million at Amazon.com.)

You were at
The Standard for three years. Did you realize how crazy everything was while you were there?
When I had time to slow down and think about it, sometimes. It was such a hectic pace, writing sometimes four or five stories a weekplus managing.
My own staff in New York grew from a bureau of one to a bureau of 22 in the course of about 18 months. So I was constantly hiring and constantly recruiting, and it was just kind of a blur for most of the time. It did at times strike me as crazy, but it also struck me as very excitingand those two things can sometimes go hand in hand.

Didn't anybody in top management look at what was going on and say, "Wait a minute, this isn't working; we're spending a lot more than we're bringing in, we have these leases that cost way too much money"?
It wasn't really until the fall of 2000 that they began to see big problems, which they attributed to the fact that our advertisers weren't paying us. [The magazine was founded in the spring of 1998, and it went bankrupt in August 2001.] Some of our advertisers weren't paying us because they were going out of business. Prior to that, the atmosphere in what I call the "fat year" was that we had more money than time. The money was coming in at literally $2 or $3 million dollars a week. So the sense was that not only did we have the money to spend, but that it was almost kind of imperative to spend it. Because we felt, like so many of the companies we were covering felt, that we had to get really big really fast. In part that was to compete in a very difficult news space, and in part it was because we were planning on doing an IPO. I think a lot of people look at that aspect of it and say, "Why did we do that, why did we pursue an IPO strategy?" Look at what it cost us. It meant running the business in a particular way, in a sort of whirlwind, job-factory way. And I'm not convinced that that's the best way for a young publication to grow.

Having worked on this book, are there things that in retrospect you realize you personally should have done differently?
I suppose if it would have helped, we probably didn't have to spend as much building the very lovely New York bureauwhich I never got to occupy because by the time it was done I was already on my way to London. And I guess there were some people who were brought in at a higher salary than they needed to be. But, to be honest, I don't think that the spending decisions that really crippled the company were made primarily on the editorial side. Because a magazine and a website need writers and editors, and without those things you're not a magazine or a publication. I don't think that a magazine necessarily needs to spend $5 million advertising on television. That's an extraneous expense, and in our case it's virtually impossible to argue that it did us any good. It doesn't need to spend a million dollars a year for a billboard over the Bay Bridge; it doesn't need to spend $6 or $7 million on customer-relations management software—that didn't work; it doesn't need to sign a lease for a building in midtown Manhattan for $1 million that no one ever occupied. There are people in the publishing industry who would say that we could have gotten by with half the editorial staff. And the truth is, yeah, we probably could have, but it means that the product would not have been as good. And the staff burnout would have been even higher than it was. Had I had a clearer picture of where the company finances were going, yeah, I would have restrained my spending a bit, but that's really nickels and dimesor, in my case, pence—in terms of the broader thing that brought the company down.

Early on, your book was described as an "investigative memoir." How much turned out investigative, how much memoir?
That's a good question. When I said that to the Daily News, the book at that point was complete abstraction. I had no idea what it would look like in the end. What we eventually settled on I would say is about two-thirds memoir, one-third investigative. Or 60-40, maybe. There were certain limits to the amount and type of investigative work that I could do. One of which was simply time constraint. I had to turn the thing in in six months. That means doing all the reporting and all the writing in six months. That's pretty fast. So I didn't get to speak to every single of the 400 people who worked for the company, which you would want to do if you were doing a full-length investigative book. There were people on the board who declined to be interviewed by me, which was unfortunate. And the paper trail, such as it existed, I went through pretty thoroughly, but there were things like internal corporate finance reports that I was not going to get access to. So you make the best of what you have. I think that the book did a reasonably good job in pointing at the factors that brought the magazine down. It is not, as I say in the introduction, it is not an exhaustive account but there are a lot of things you have to balance when you're doing a book of this kind. If you made it a top priority to dot every i and cross every t, it would take you five years. And that's fine. I have a lot of respect for people who take five years to write a book. But, to be perfectly honest, the story of The Industry Standard was not getting any fresher as I wrote it. And to have a book come out five years after the company had declined is just silly, because nobody would care anymore. Some reviews have said that they don't care now. Which I think is a strange thing. "Here's a book that you shouldn't read." Why are you reviewing it? If you don't care, then just don't review it.

Was there anything you learned in your research that shocked or surprised you?
Yeah, I was surprised to learn that our CFO had a very recent bankruptcy on his resume. I was certainly surprised to find out about the million-dollar lease in midtown Manhattan that nobody occupied.

You guys were down in Soho or something, right?
Yeah. No one has given an explanation about why this lease was signed. And the hilarious thing was that it was space rented from Si Newhouse. So, yeah, there were lots of surprises. But I think that the overall pattern had been captured in the good reportage at the time.

One complaint I saw in reviews was that as the shit was hitting the fan, you were in London, so you didn't have direct insight into what was going on in San Francisco. Do you think that's a weakness in the book?
There are aspects of that criticism that I accept, and aspects of it that I don't. One thing I can accept is that I can'twell, I wouldn't pretend that I was in meetings that I wasn't in. I think the book does a pretty good job of trying to recreate through interviews and reporting what it was like for those folks, what the atmosphere was like. [Senior writer] Gary Rivlin sort of being in a huff with his piece being interfered with, [founder and chairman] John Battelle in tears at the Christmas party. I wasn't inside those things, but they are in the book. But I guess you could say the choice to frame it as a first-person narrative necessarily limitedor kind of skewedthe narrative towards my own experience. And my own experience, like anybody's experience, is limited. That said, a story like this needs a frame, and I struggled with different approaches that didn't work. So the frame of the personal memoir, though inadequate like every frame, is nonetheless the best of all the options that I could think of. And I really haven't heard too many suggestions for how else to do it, and still have it be an interesting story and allow me to use some of the best material in the book.

Finally, after the perpetual chaos of the Voice, and this wild ride over three years, how are you liking the comfortable bosom of Time Inc.?
I'm very happy with my job. I have a great boss, doing lots of very interesting stories on a wide variety of subjects. And one certainly has the feeling that it'll be around next year.


Jesse Oxfeld is the editor of mediabistro.com.

 

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