The Industry Standard, a magazine that celebrated and symbolized the technology boom, closed Thursday. Barely 3 years old, the Standard rose rapidly with the "new economy" before falling victim to the old.
When tech stocks crested in the spring of 2000, the Standard boasted 360 pages. Its last issue this week had 90. A frantic search for a deep-pocketed buyer, and then $10 million in financing, proved unavailing.
"We may file for bankruptcy protection," Standard Editor in Chief Jonathan Weber said, adding that the search for a buyer would continue.
The Industry Standard, along with rivals Red Herring, Wired, Business 2.0 and other tech publications, rose to prominence as part of the Internet gold rush. The Standard also became a focal point of the Silicon Valley social scene, hosting parties and business conferences.
The magazine recorded the Internet boom as start-up firms were quickly bankrolled, then sold their stock to Wall Street and often experienced a sudden run-up in value. Headlines on Standard stories recorded this Internet frenzy: "Going Public, Everybody's Doing It" and "B-School, Skip Class Get Funded."
During its peak, the Standard had 184 advertisers filling an issue, many of them Internet firms that rode the dot-com boom, including DoubleClick, BizBuyer.com, CMGI and FlipDog.com.
"This has been a bit of a horse race here to a negative finish," said Andrew Leckey, director of the business reporting program at UC Berkeley. "The Standard was one of those skyrockets that took to the heavens--and came down twice as fast."
Although the Standard, like all the tech magazines, has been leading a precarious existence recently, the news of the shutdown was still startling.
"No! No way! Unbelievable!" said Jerry Borrell, editor in chief of Upside, a tech magazine that has been rumored to be near death's door.
He blamed the magazine's demise on management's cockiness. "They thought they were on top of the world, as opposed to those of us who have been around the magazine world for a long time and have seen ups and downs," he said.
The Standard was on vacation this week, an effort to save money as advertising dried up. But news of the shutdown started to leak out, and editors at the magazine tried to reach the 150 employees as quickly as they could.
Gary Rivlin, a writer, was out jogging. He came back to find a message from his editor, a message from a reporter and messages from colleagues.
"No one is surprised, but if you're on the receiving end of this, you're still a little shocked," he said.
In many ways, Rivlin reflected, the Standard was like the dot-coms it covered. "We are the people we write about. We were growing at this phenomenal rate, growing in every direction at once. Success was coming very easily. We had the hubris. We looked down on the established media. Then when it all turned, we were slow to trim back our sails, despite articles in our own magazine making fun of others for not trimming their sails."
Finally, like all too many dot-coms, there was the search for distressed financing. "We wrote about companies desperately trying to stay alive, and that became our story as well," the writer said.
The slowdown in fortunes for technology publications has been widespread. Magazine publisher Ziff Davis Media is halting publication in September of Family PC because of a sharp slowdown in ad sales. And Access magazine, a 3-year-old newspaper insert that focused on the Internet, stopped publication in June, again because of slowing advertising revenue. And the Toronto Star and Houston Chronicle killed their high-tech sections because of the ad slowdown.
When the Standard's first issue appeared April 27, 1998, the Nasdaq stock index stood at 1,820. Two years later Nasdaq peaked at 5,048. Thursday it closed at 1,930, having come full circle.
Jim Evans, a former Standard reporter, remembered the high times in a recent article for the Sacramento News and Review. "The Standard quickly became the center of the Internet world in San Francisco," he wrote. "Every Friday night, the company hosted an open bar on the roof of the building at 315 Pacific St. At first it was just a way for the staff to blow off steam after the magazine went to press. Soon, it became a happening. Internet industry types lined up around the block, waiting to get in."
Evans said in an interview Thursday that "in essence, the magazine became a little like the world on which it was reporting. The management of the company bought into the mode of the day in 1999 and early 2000, which was spend, promote, build the brand without thinking about the next day."
The Standard is expected to book only $40 million in revenue this year, a steep drop from $140 million last year. The magazine's majority owner is International Data Group, the Boston-based publisher of InfoWorld, PC World and many other specialized publications, but the Standard had other sources of financing. It had hoped during the boom times to have its own initial public offering, just like a real dot-com. Flatiron Partners, a venture capital firm, is also a part-owner.
Editor in Chief Weber said he felt "very sad, but very proud of what we did. We had a great group of people. It was very unexpected and unfortunate it ended in this way."
The reason it did, he said, was tied up in that hoped-for public offering. "We had a very aggressive high-growth strategy, and built up a large cost infrastructure. It was the kind of infrastructure you need to be a public company."
At its peak, the magazine employed more than 600 people, which led it to rent much more office space--at boom rates--than it ultimately needed. Once valued at $200 million, the company's liabilities are reportedly more than $50 million. Circulation is about 200,000, but 40% is "controlled"--i.e., given away.
"By the standards of the magazine business, we're a big successful magazine," said Weber, a technology editor and reporter at the Los Angeles Times before joining the Standard. "By the standards of what we were aiming to do, it's a totally different picture."
Weber and several Standard employees--none of whom will receive severance pay--were conducting an impromptu wake for the magazine Thursday night at a bar near their downtown offices. The mood seemed light, or maybe just shellshocked. "Hey, want to buy a magazine?" Weber yelled to someone at one point.
At their peak, many did want to buy these magazines. The collapse has been so quick that there is still the side of a building in San Francisco saluting Red Herring as "the No. 1 fastest-growing magazine in America."
That's no longer true of the Herring, but at least, like Upside, it's alive for the moment. Business 2.0 was sold to AOL Time Warner for $68 million in June. AOL folded the magazine into its own struggling tech title, eCompany Now, basically keeping only the Business 2.0 name and the subscriber list.
The Standard will be remembered as a pioneer, even if an ill-fated one, journalism professor Leckey said. "A lot of what they did was co-opted by other publications. Tech ceased to be just their turf. It became everyone's."
But the real problem was that suddenly, hardly anyone wanted to hear about the wonders of technology anymore.
"It became a bummer story," Leckey said. "Having the scoop on who's going to be laid off isn't nearly as exciting as tips on what's going to be terrific and make you rich."