International Business Media: Life after Forbes

Was it controversy over survey results that killed off Forbes Global, or was its demise part of a fundamental shift in the market?

Believe the figures and Europe's international business press is not doing so badly. EMS puts growth over the past year at 1.7 per cent, or 585,000 readers, while Ipsos UK's Europe 2005 has average issue readership of all international business magazines lifting slightly from 24.6 to 24.7 per cent of people in the top 4 per cent of earners.

While this is hardly enough to set the Champagne corks popping, any sign of an upward trend is welcome in a market that has suffered badly since 2000. Publishers are more upbeat than they have been for a long while.

But if Europe's elite is indeed returning to the business press, why has Forbes closed its global edition?

Since July, European subscribers have had to make do with the US version.

When their subscriptions run out, they will be offered the American Forbes at a premium over their former read, to cover the costs of shipping the publication over the Atlantic.

Reasons cited for the global edition's demise range from it coming late to a crowded market to its right-wing editorial line being unpalatable for some European audiences. One of the most sensational claims, however, was that the magazine tried to manipulate survey results by marketing heavily around the times that Ipsos' European Business Readership Survey interviews were carried out.

One observer thinks: "The worst-kept secret in media is that Forbes was swamping potential respondents with Forbes-related paraphernalia so the title would always show up high on recall figures."

Bob Crozier, Forbes' managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is naturally having none of it. "We market our magazine like everyone else," he says. "Our strategy now is to licence local-language versions of the magazine, and we couldn't have a pan-regional English-language version because the minute you sign up a licence in a key market such as the UK or Germany, you knock out a major source of its revenue."

Whether or not Forbes managed to manipulate the data, has the reputation of surveys such as EBRS been irreversibly tainted? And what is the true state of Europe's international business press?

Many in the industry have a simple answer for the first question: move EBRS to a rolling survey basis and it becomes impossible to influence results by marketing heavily around polling times. It looks almost certain that this is the way the survey will go.

Even Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, the senior vice-president at the International Herald Tribune, which is rumoured to have used similar survey-skewing marketing tactics to Forbes, says: "I'm not against EBRS being on a rolling basis."

However, a debate on the value of surveys in general seems to have opened up. "EMS involves calling people at home. But how many serious decision-makers will be at home when you call and how many will want to respond to a survey?" Angus Urquhart, USA Today's ad sales director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, asks.

Jason Hayford, Starcom's international investment manager, concurs: "There's lies, damn lies and statistics. But it is a currency. It adds a quantitative dimension to what we do."

EBRS aside, some think research generally should go further. Dunbar-Johnson says: "It's more a question of going beyond average issue readership and asking deeper questions."

So far, though, the figures seem to back up a mood of conservative optimism among publishers. Alan Dunachie, The Economist's director of operations, says: "Things are looking quite good. The IT business is growing. Financial deals are being done. The travel business is better than after September 11."

Fortune's publishing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Andy Bush, adds: "What's been impressive has been activity in August, traditionally a slow month."

But a return to the late 90s heyday of the international business press seems unlikely in light of what many see as a fundamental shift in the market.

In response to the changing mood, the Wall Street Journal Europe is next week launching a compact edition that highlights web content. Karen Mullis, Dow Jones International's European managing director, sales and marketing, says it has attracted "a record number of ad bookings".

"What we have found our readers want is the immediacy and deep research potential of the internet, plus the portability and convenience of a compact," Penelope Abernathy, the senior vice-president of international and development at the WSJ, says.

BusinessWeek's international publisher, Paul Maraviglia, says: "The challenge is to be platform-agnostic, offer people stuff on a PDA, online and through print. We now reach more people through our website than through our magazine. In a sense, the Forbes thing is symptomatic of a need for change."

A BRIEF HISTORY OF FORBES

September 1917: The financial journalist BC Forbes launches the first issue of his eponymously titled magazine, which is "devoted to doers and doings" of the business world. "History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. There were lessons for all in the retelling of those trials, tribulations and successes," he said.

1998: An international edition, Forbes Global, launches with a circulation of 50,000.

2002: Forbes Global's ad pages grow by 10 per cent.

2003: Forbes China is launched, adding to editions in Korea and Japan. Forbes Arabia, Russia, Israel and Poland follow.

2003: Forbes Global celebrates its fifth anniversary. Circulation has grown to 137,500.

2004: EBRS survey reveals Forbes' European audience has grown by 5,300 readers.

July 2005: Forbes Global closes and transfers staff to a new edition, Forbes Asia. Steve Forbes, the company president and chief executive, said: "The time for broad international editions of North American magazines in English has passed."