The magazine that lived by the bubble

Michael A. Hiltzik writes the "Golden State" column for The Times.

In January 1999, at the Industry Standard's second annual Internet Summit trade conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, editor Jonathan Weber tried to recruit me to join his magazine with a promise of stock options that would kick in with its initial public offering, set to be floated by Goldman Sachs that spring.

The magazine was already a phenomenon at full sail, like the Internet craze it had been launched to cover. During that conference, I buttonholed an entrepreneurial CEO of my acquaintance and asked if he ever read the magazine. "Cover to cover, every week," he said. "We can't wait for it to come into the office."

In the end, I decided I couldn't afford the risk that it might all come to naught. Which it did, 2 1/2 years later.

How this disaster came to pass is the subject of James Ledbetter's "Starving to Death on $200 Million." As Silicon Valley's leading news organ during the technology bubble of 1999-2001, the Standard's rise and fall mirrored that of its subject. Ledbetter served the magazine as a writer and editor, and his book has numerous sterling qualities as a chronicle of the era. Unlike other authors who have tackled the subject, heavoids taunting Nasdaq stockholders for their gullibility or venture capitalists for their greed, nor does he claim to have foreseen the mushroom cloud lurking in the era of excess. His tone is that of a willing novitiate who learned the business of the Internet as he went along -- like all its other players, in fact.

The Industry Standard began as the brainchild of John Battelle, a young thruster who had recently left Wired, the monthly that served as the sole bible of youthful high-tech devotees until the Standard emerged as the "new testament." Financed initially by the Boston publisher International Data Group, Battelle's new publication was the antithesis of his old. Whereas Wired's layout looked like a Hawaiian shirt on LSD and its prose trended toward incoherent babble, the Standard's page design was resolutely square, its stories devoted chiefly to financial deals and the peregrinations of executives from one Silicon Valley start-up to the next. This trade-magazine approach reflected not so much Battelle's ambitions as the mind-set of IDG, which owned a string of, yes, trade magazines.

Ledbetter is wise to remind us that for nearly a year following its April 1998 introduction, the fate of the Industry Standard seemed anything but certain. No one at IDG was sure who its audience was; Battelle claimed to know, but his descriptions were often couched in a nebulous Wired-speak. Over the first few months, advertising was so scarce that publisher Battelle was heard to remark (according to Ledbetter): "It looks like we're going to miss our $2.2 million target by $1.75 million."

A year later the magazine suddenly bulked up to the point where each issue seemed to outweigh the June numbers of Bride's. The bubble was on. It was as though every start-up in the Valley was counting for credibility on a "branding" campaign to run in the Industry Standard. Goldman Sachs, perhaps the most important underwriter of dot-com IPOs, laid plans for the public offering that would sever the Standard's umbilical link to IDG. It would never take place.

The magazine mirrored the phenomenon unfolding on its news pages. The end-of-week shindigs on the rooftop of its San Francisco headquarters, designed at first as beer blasts for the exhausted staff to let off steam, morphed into Hollywood-style catered events for Silicon Valley's new industrial elite. Now and then, the Standard got trapped into soft-pedaling articles about high-tech executives who had become its partners in industry conferences and other such ancillary ventures.

Yet, as Ledbetter recounts, not even the onset of riches and renown could relieve the drudgery of the overworked staff's lives or, for that matter, turn the Standard into a first-class magazine. Staff hirings, to name just one problem, never caught up with the demand exerted by a mushrooming editorial news hole.

The "fat year," as Ledbetter calls it, lasted until roughly the beginning of 2001. When the high-tech market began to turn, the Standard had already committed itself to expanding into Europe, a project Ledbetter supervised. It's a measure of his myopia that he waxes indignant at IDG's decision to kill the European Standard a few months into its life even while he reproduces market data that show how misbegotten the venture was. When IDG subsequently refused to support efforts to find outside financing to keep the parent magazine alive, the Industry Standard itself disappeared. In August 2001, it breathed its last.

IDG's alleged complicity in the Standard's demise is a leading theme of this book, the story line still cherished by many former Standard employees. IDG turned out to have less patience than Battelle or Weber (or Ledbetter) expected, but the facts and figures Ledbetter provides tell their own story of a foreshortened destiny. Subscription renewals ceased, ad-page numbers shrank, much of the audience the Standard had finally identified as its own had landed on the unemployment line. Although Ledbetter does not say so, the $200 million revenue figure of his title was itself probably a myth, as some ad sales must have been financed by credit the magazine provided to companies that vanished before the bills got paid.

Whether IDG truly murdered the Standard for reasons of its own or was simply uncertain how to manage it through lean years Ledbetter never nails down. This reflects the fundamental flaw of his book: He wasat the periphery of the entire saga. Ledbetter's decision to structure "Starving to Death" as a personal memoir traps him into telling only what he saw with his own eyes, which is a mere fraction of the total. For the Internet boom in general and the Standard's history in particular, New York and London, where Ledbetter lived and worked, were never more than sideshows. As each crisis arrives in the Standard's life, the reader becomes desperate to learn more about the atmosphere at headquarters, where the nightmare of an intensifying struggle for survival was lived day by day. But Ledbetter rarely addresses this angle, for by his own admission his contact with headquarters came largely over the phone and via the occasional flight to the Bay Area.

Under these circumstances, painting a vivid picture of headquarters life would be difficult, but hardly impossible; most nonfiction writers, after all, face up to the need to reconstruct a time and place from long range. But it requires more reporting effort than Ledbetter evidently devoted to the job. Considering that his status as a member of the grieving family could have provided him unmatched access even to bit players, this is a shame. It's what keeps "Starving to Death," a readable and engaging memoir of the era, from being an important one as well.

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