Starving to Death on $200 Million: The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard, by James Ledbetter, New York: PublicAffairs, 272 pages, $26
Early in Starving to Death on $200 Million, his memoir of the short-lived Industry Standard magazine, James Ledbetter raises a question about the difference between trade and general interest magazines: "Would people read this magazine if they didn't have to as part of their job?"
This litmus test was essential to the Standard, a slick, Business Week-style "bible" of the Internet industry, which positioned itself as the red-hot opposite of a dull trade paper but whose fate was controlled by IDG Publishing, a tech trade empire and former publisher of the For Dummies books. The question also applies to Ledbetter's book. I worked at four different dot-com start-ups and am still making a living on the Web. Yet even I am not sure I want to read about The Industry Standard.
It's to Ledbetter's credit that he manages to make his narrative breezy, readable, and (partly) convincing. Ledbetter, who made his name with the excellent "Press Clips" column in The Village Voice, joined the Standard soon after its 1998 launch, quickly working his way up from New York bureau chief to editor of the magazine's short-lived European edition. His talent for making a succinct story out of conflicting narratives, his understanding of the personalities and money troubles that shaped his subject, and his journalistic decency all help make this one of the more engaging "what I saw at the dot-com revolution" chronicles. But the question is whether the subject matter rises to the level of Ledbetter's talents. In arguing for his subject's uniqueness, he misses the archetypal qualities that make the Standard a model tale of the late '90s.
I was never involved with The Industry Standard, having pissed away whatever work opportunities I may have had first by telling Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Weber at a party how much I liked the way his magazine smelled (It's true! Early issues of the Standard emitted a pleasing new-car odor), then by writing a negative article about Standard columnist Michael Wolff, author of the early (1998) dot-bomb diary Burn Rate. But the magazine's hullabaloo was inescapable for a year or so. While most of that excitement was just the Gatsbyesque sizzle of a fat, ad-rich magazine, the Standard also displayed a high degree of professionalism and a bracing skepticism about the tech boom that made it unique in its genre. If nothing else, the magazine boasted a sharp editorial team.
That team's behavior makes for an interesting denouement in a book that is in some respects all denouement. As the Standard went belly-up, principal players such as Weber and John Battelle, the magazine's visionary founder, worked hard to guarantee themselves a range of golden parachute deals. Ledbetter, while he acknowledges this as unseemly behavior, understands the impulse. Having been screwed several times in start-up bust-ups, I do too. (Somewhere out there in cyberspace floats a $25,000 signing bonus that never found its way into my bank account.)
More troublesome is the behavior of IDG, which funded and maintained a controlling interest in The Industry Standard. IDG's decision to pull the plug on the magazine in the summer of 2001 is the book's climax. It's also a business mystery: Why would a bottom-line-driven publisher terminate a magazine that, in Ledbetter's telling, had sold 1,000 more ad pages than Fortune in the previous year and had been valued by a guesstimating outsider at $300 million to $450 million?
The easy explanation is a culture clash: The blinkered suits at IDG failed to appreciate what a valuable property they had, while the Standard staff intoxicated itself with visions of galactic business transformation and seemingly limitless growth. If you are unfamiliar with the sort of oracular notions circulating about the "New Economy" in the late 1990s, there is no room to go into it here; suffice it to say that believing e-commerce had fundamentally altered the principles of economics even down to the basics of supply and demand did not seem entirely crazy at the time. It's easy to see why a company populated by trade paper drones would not accept that vision. At the first sign of trouble, IDG chose to suck the marrow from the Standard's bones rather than keep the magazine alive.
Ledbetter, with some qualifications (he prides himself on being hard-headed about matters of dollars and cents), accepts this version. I'm not so sure. While I'm ready to accept IDG as the villain in this particular story, I came away more sympathetic to the corporate suits than I had expected. Not because I don't believe in the Internet vision, but because I don't believe in The Industry Standard.
This is a brutal judgment, because the Standard really was the best in its class. But the class in question—Internet business magazines—was exceedingly large. Without taxing my memory, I can name Fast Company, Business 2.0, Upside, eCompany Now, Red Herring, and a few lesser lights like Smart Business and Context. If we throw in hybrid business/consumer books published as subsidiaries of larger magazines, we get oddities like Time Digital (renamed ON) and Forbes Digital Tool, the Web-only adjunct of Forbes that deserves praise for bearing not only the worst title of any Internet publication but the worst title of anything ever in the history of the universe. At the far reaches we find general interest Internet mags like Yahoo! Internet Life (whose circulation at one time reached well into the trillions), Shift, and a host of others I remember now not by name but by typeface.
It may seem a left-handed compliment to say The Industry Standard was by far the best and most professional of this lot, but I mean it sincerely. The problem is that this still doesn't mean the Standard ever really mattered.
Ledbetter early on rejects the analogy between the Standard and the average failed Web start-up, contending that the Standard had a viable and (for a while) extremely lucrative business plan. This is a variation on the joke that it's a slowdown when your neighbor's out of work but a recession when you're out of work. A well-laid business plan is no guarantee against the disappearance of the industry on which the plan is based. This is nowhere more apparent than in an advertising-driven business. (I also question, based on some chronological assumptions in the book, whether Ledbetter even now fully understands when and how the New Economy, or at least the dot-com version of it, peaked—and when it really died.) The author doesn't even make the obvious joke that, by going down the toilet when it did, the magazine proved itself the standard of its particular industry.
Lacking business intrigue, we're left with what venture capitalists used to call "the story." The Standard's story isn't a particularly bad one, but the dot-com saga overall is lacking in the kind of outsize characters who make for a great business narrative. The odious Michael Wolff served as his own villain in Burn Rate, but that's not the same thing. A handful of e-commerce giants—Earthlink's soulful founder Sky Dayton and Amazon's always-game Jeff Bezos among them—spring to mind as compelling Internet eccentrics. Ironically, the most convincing visionary-cum-impresario was another magazine publisher: Wired's Louis Rossetto.
This is important not just because The Industry Standard and its cousins were epiphenomena of Wired but because the two define differing approaches to the digital revolution. By any normal yardstick, the Standard's business plan was more sensible, quantifiable, and logical than Wired's tissue of vatic statements and whirling-dervish enthusiasms. But as the smoke settles, it turns out Wired (whose own story will be told this summer in Gary Wolf's Wired: A Romance) wasn't just more inspiring; it was more accurate.
To be fair, this accuracy was partly a result of Wired's tendency to traffic in unfalsifiable pronouncements. But it's also a function of that magazine's refusal to pin itself to any particular technology or industry, instead selling the story of a "long boom," of a full-scale transformation of finance, politics, medicine, media, warfare, philosophy—essentially, of every conceivable aspect of society. The Standard, intentionally or not, was anchored to the notion that a particular industry—the dot-coms—would be the main engine of transformation. That bet turned out to be wrong, at least for now. But it's no exaggeration to say that the last 10 years have seen a revolution very much on the lines Wired's early issues laid out, and that we're still far closer to the beginning than the end of that revolution. It was this absolute rightness on the big picture that allowed Wired to be so often spectacularly wrong on the details. (For instance, I'm still waiting for America Online's death, predicted with some regularity in Wired's pages, to come true.)
We shouldn't condemn the Standard for not being another magazine, but the magazine it actually was may not tell us much about the recent past or the digital future. The history James Ledbetter tells—of absurd buzzwords, squabbles over work stations, sky-high domain-name purchases, office break-ins with stolen computers (a ubiquitous though unremarked phenomenon of the dot-com experience)—ultimately tells us more about the era than did The Industry Standard itself.