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Setting the Standard

James Ledbetter's Starving to Death on $200million gives a self-deprecating insight into dotcom decadence.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

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‘This was no mere call for a new magazine: this was a calling…. Digital Man needs something to read. Thus must a new weekly be born!’ (1)

So James Ledbetter describes the founding of the Industry Standard, one of the most ambitious technology and business magazines to be published during the technology boom of the late 1990s and early in this decade. The magazine folded shortly after the technology sector crashed, and its lively commentary is missed by many.

Ledbetter – who started out as the Industry Standard’s New York bureau chief and then became executive editor of the European spin-off Industry Standard Europe – documents the magazine’s rise and fall in his new book Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard.

Founded and edited by John Battelle (formerly managing editor of Wired), the Industry Standard prided itself on being ‘anti-hype’. At its height, the magazine sold more advertising pages in a year than any other magazine in US history. But despite these achievements, Ledbetter is frank about the day-to-day grind of running the magazine, and how the magazine thrived on the kind of hype it enjoyed debunking.

We learn the truth behind popular features like the news summary section – ‘a vital way for the editors to cover their asses if they’d failed to produce a full-length news article on an important story’; and the internet economy metrics gauge, which was ‘ostensibly…calculated by the aggregate of the harder measurements’, whereas ‘in reality, these numbers came primarily from deadline-harried editors, who would pluck them out of the air’ (2).

Examples of less-than-stringent journalistic practice include the measures taken to pad out the magazine: ‘One story I turned in…was intended to run at two pages, or a maximum of 2.5 pages. But we ended up stretching it out to five pages by sticking in a group of essentially redundant photos: here’s the staff in a meeting! And here’s the CEO on the phone!’ The consequences of reporting gaffes in such a speculative investment climate could be far-reaching: ‘I added $350million worth of value to one of the world’s largest internet companies – in a single day…by publishing the details of a prospective merger that never occurred.’ (3)

Some of the more hapless episodes described by Ledbetter involve the launch of the magazine’s European version. As soon as he sent the first issue of it to the printers, he discovered that the burning £5 note on the cover not only contravened the UK’s Forgery and Counterfeiting Act, but – because the £5 note features the Queen’s face – was also subject to a charge of treason. The US-style free speech defences Ledbetter was accustomed to did not wash in Europe. In another instance, a PR stunt where a helicopter would rain copies of the Industry Standard Europe over the magazine’s London HQ was scuppered, because, following the IRA’s campaign in London, it is illegal to fly a helicopter over the River Thames.

One of the Industry Standard’s biggest challenges was maintaining an honest and objective perspective on the business world, while being dependent on that world for advertising revenue and PR. On one occasion, the magazine’s largest advertiser threatened to pull its advertising when it got wind of an upcoming article expressing critical views. To his credit, John Battelle’s instructions on hearing this were, ‘Fuck ’em’ (4).

On other occasions, both the Industry Standard and the Industry Standard Europe had trouble with the PR firms they employed to spread the word about their hottest stories. The firms had an unprofessional habit of burying stories that were critical of their other clients. And they gave their other clients a heads-up whenever a critical story was about to be published, allowing targets of the Industry Standard’s investigative journalism to put out a pre-emptive response, so deflating the newsworthiness of the stories.

The Industry Standard was guilty of the careless spending that characterised the period, and Ledbetter doesn’t shirk from describing this. The head of business development ‘told several colleagues that it was his personal goal to visit 100 countries across the globe at the Standard’s expense’. The magazine was hardly the worst offender when it came to dotcom decadence. But even if some of the criticism it received was excessive, it was nonetheless understandable. ‘Using the magazine’s closure as a metonym for the entire dotcom collapse was irresistible’, says Ledbetter (5).

Ledbetter documents the magazine’s decline with self-deprecating humour. As things went downhill, even attendance at the magazine’s legendary rooftop parties began to dwindle: ‘If you can’t get a journalist to come to an event with free alcohol you’ve really got a problem.’ Eventually, Ledbetter was left sitting in the Industry Standard Europe’s UK offices as his magazine collapsed about him: ‘The atmosphere felt like some slowly rotting colonial outpost from a Graham Greene novel…. I spent a lot of time playing computerised bridge; I even began writing a novel…. There was no one left who cared.’ (6)

Following its closure, the magazine and its assets were sold at auction for $1.4million – which, as Ledbetter points out, ‘was less than the amount of advertising in any single issue of the magazine published in 2000’. It gets even sadder: ‘Shortly after the magazine ceased publication, someone on the West Coast put up for auction on eBay a collection of nearly every issue the Standard ever published…. The final selling price was $20.50.’ (7)

Whether you’re a survivor of the dotcom boom, a veteran of magazine publishing, or just want a good read, Starving to Death on $200million comes recommended. ‘Something about watching a good publication starve to death on $200million makes you highly sceptical of any business, media or otherwise, that promises to save your life’, says Ledbetter (8). But it’s to his credit that he doesn’t come across as too world-weary or cynical.

Now that the technology hype has died down, here’s hoping that other publications can learn from the Industry Standard’s ups and downs, without sharing its fate.

Buy Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, by James Ledbetter, from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p19

(2) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p31-32

(3) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p102, 69

(4) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p60

(5) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p100, 7

(6) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p101, 220-221

(7) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p244, 265

(8) Starving to Death on $200million: The Short, Absurd Life of the Industry Standard, James Ledbetter, PublicAffairs, 2003, p271

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