James Ledbetter on the short, absurd life of The Industry
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 historyin 2000, just a few years old, the Standard sold more
ad pages than any other mag everbecame the most spectacular magazine failure
in historyin August 2001, Standard Media went bankruptit 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
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 softwarethat 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, pencein
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,
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.