Opinion

‘Chooks come home to roost’: What happened to Australia’s biggest B2B publisher?

Five years ago it was Australia’s leading business publisher milking a digital directories cash cow, but under private equity owners the business has been stripped out and sold-off. In this special report, Steve Jones charts the dramatic transformation at the publisher once known as Reed Business Information.

rbi

For some years now, publishing companies large and small have been grappling with one fundamental issue: how to replace dwindling advertising dollars with new revenue streams. No-one has been immune.

And in the B2B space, few have undergone such a dramatic transformation, or epitomised the quest to find digital answers to the publishing conundrum, as Reed Business Information (RBI), the once-dominant force of trade magazine publishing in Australia.

It is a little over three years since private equity firm Catalyst Investment Managers, together with a handful of senior RBI management, acquired the business from its then parent Reed Elsevier, now known as RELX.

Since then, it has gradually broken up and, with one or two flagship titles aside, is unrecognisable from the business publishing company that grew to become Australia’s largest in the 1990s and 2000s.

So what happened to RBI Australia?

Catalyst

The sale to Catalyst, announced at the very start of 2013, had been long planned by the Dutch-Anglo conglomerate which had first attempted to offload its entire RBI global publishing division as a job lot in 2008, a process it abandoned following the collapse of Lehman Brothers later the same year amid the onset of the Global Financial Crisis.

Reed Elsevier, as it was then, subsequently adopted a piecemeal divestment of many of its print assets.

The sale of entertainment publication Variety in late 2012 for $25m – a title which commanded offers of $200m in 2008 – completed its staggered exit from the US trade magazine market before RBI Australia changed hands a few months later for a reported $40m.

RBI France and Italy soon followed as Reed Elsevier concentrated its efforts on paid content and data services.

It was in these areas, rather than traditional magazine publishing, where Reed Elsevier saw a future, a direction partially rooted in the mid-2000s following the advertising collapse at Computer Weekly, one of its flagship UK titles.

RBI, its owners concluded, was too reliant on ad sales revenue and titles just too susceptible to market dynamics to be a reliable, consistent and key growth driver for the wider Reed Elsevier business.

“Computer Weekly was a red flag for them,” one former UK executive said. “The publication did £22m and two years later is took £5m. They started freaking out.”

It wasn’t too long before Reed’s entire trade magazine publishing arm was on the market.

Advertising downturn

RBI UK was not alone in seeing its advertising revenue begin to stumble.

Publications within the Australian arm, which had grown rapidly in the 1990s following a series of acquisitions, also suffered with Travel Weekly and media title B&T under particular pressure.

Talk of closing both titles “was not infrequent”, according to one former RBI staffer familiar with both publications.

Largely, however, RBI Australia’s collective print business had performed well, led by the powerhouse divisions of financial services and healthcare of which Australian Doctor was its flagship.

Susie_Newham

Susie Newham

Former RBI publishing director Susie Newham, who oversaw financial services, a group which included Money Management magazine, said the signs of a wider global downturn in advertising revenue became evident in 2007 as the money markets began to crumble and the GFC kicked in.

“We knew in financial services that in advertising revenue terms, across all media, the wheels were about to fall off,” Newham said. “Frankly, no one knew how bad it was going to get. And I am not pretending that I knew it was going to get as bad as it did.

“There was an understanding it was going to be rocky. But there was then a realisation it was not just rocky, it was almost catastrophic. Anyone who relied on advertising revenue was struggling. It was insane, and it was across the board.”

Yet while advertising dollars dried up RBI Australia’s total revenues remained surprisingly healthy as digital products began to emerge.

Digital innovations

The foundation of RBI’s online strategy had been laid by Dutchman Lex Rozenbroek, who led the business from 1999 to 2002.

But it was during the stewardship of his successor, Jeremy Knibbs, when RBI’s online ventures took off and, despite dire market conditions, maintained growth for RBI.

The key drivers to this growth – understood to be 20% even through the GFC – were its online directories division, Catch, which launched in 2006, and Hotfrog, an international business directory which had launched the previous year.

Catch, initially under the leadership of straight-talking Brit Andrew Dent, had been created to separate online directories from RBIs print titles, newsletters and websites.

It comprised a number of verticals including Ferret, which serviced the industrial and mining sector, Fat Cow, geared towards the agricultural industry, and Infolink, which targeted businesses in the building, architecture and design industries.

From a near standing start, Catch revenues climbed to an estimated $10m-$12m, generated by a 75-strong team.

Yet that performance was dwarfed by Hotfrog.

The brainchild of systems architect Phil Robinson, Hotfrog was essentially a start-up incubated, unusually, within the corporate walls of a traditional publishing company.

Hotfrog

It became a river of gold for RBI Australia between 2006 and 2011 and, at its peak, was reported to have produced annualised revenues of up to $40m.

Its business model was built around piling business listings and content on the web – much of it scraped from around the world – in a bid to generate traffic. It was ground-breaking and a spectacular success.

“Google was hungry for data and loved it and, through Google Ad Sense, started placing adverts against the content,” one senior executive explained. “They loved it because no one else was doing what Hotfrog was doing. It went ballistic.

“From 2002 to 2010, digital at RBI Australia went from 1% of revenue to 60%. And that was largely down to Catch and Hotfrog.”

A significant chunk of profit generated by Hotfrog was ploughed back into the business which, as it grew, needed constant reinvestment in technology.

Catterall

David Catterall

“We were spending substantial amounts on data,” said former Catch managing director David Catterall, who led the Catch and Hotfrog business between 2009 and 2011. “For the product to remain viable you had to keep spending, but the spending was well and truly justified because it was incredibly profitable.

“We saw that product go from annualised monthly revenue of $18m to around $40m over 18 months.”

Yet Andrew Dent, whose remit to build an internet business for RBI in 2000 had been put on hold following the burst of the dot com bubble, said senior management initially baulked at the idea.

“They did not want to invest and did not have the appetite for it because Hotfrog had no bearing on any business model within Reed’s portfolio,” he claimed.

After pitching the concept to potential external investors, Dent said RBI relented – but only if the business could support itself.

“Hotfrog caught on like wildfire and from a team of three we grew to 180 full-time staff within three years, with revenues that were more than doubling month-on-month,” he said.

“It went live in 38 countries and 14 languages and was one of the faster-growing internet businesses in Australia.”

But it had one major problem: About 90% of its revenue came from just one customer. Google.

The decline of the cash cow

As fast as it had grown, Hotfrog’s decline was equally as rapid.

While Google had been updating its algorithm for years, in early 2011 the search giant released Google Panda, the first in a series of sweeping changes to reward websites with high quality, unique data.

It elevated sites with such content towards the top of search results and penalised those that didn’t.

Panda“It was a constant dance with Google,” Catterall recalled. “Google changed the algorithm and we worked out what the algorithm was targeting. We had to be pretty nimble. You’d get a fairly rapid understanding of what triggered the revenue glitch and you’d address it. So you’d go down, then back up; down, then up again.

“But overall it was a strong upward trend, albeit with sharp glitches.

“My focus was on getting masses of unique data and user-generated content and constantly refreshing and cleaning it. And that’s an expensive process; you have to keep investing otherwise you lose momentum and the algorithmic changes catch up with you.

“But as soon as you start to harvest it too aggressively by pulling back on what you are spending on the product, it gets difficult.

“It’s a game where you have to keep running to stand still. You can milk it for a period of time but the chooks are always going to come home to roost.”

And the chickens did just that, post-2011.

Google Panda – which pumped out 24 updates over a two-year period – was a huge blow for Hotfrog and Catch, as a whole.

Its data was increasingly considered of poor quality, or dirty – some scraped, as it was, from around the world – and revenue from Ad Sense plummeted. Competition had also intensified which further impacted Hotfrog’s profitability.

One senior RBI executive closely associated with the product said warning signs about the sustainability of Hotfrog became apparent as early as 2008.

“We already knew it was a fragile business model. More and more data was coming online with new competitors, and Google was becoming sensitive about poor quality or stolen data making money out of Ad Sense.

“Google was also encouraging businesses to build their own websites and to use their own data. They began to think ‘we don’t need these middlemen’ [such as Hotfrog].

“Everyone knew that at some point Hotfrog was fucked unless it changed its business model. It was just too reliant on Google Ad Sense.”

Dent, a fierce proponent of Catch and Hotfrog and one of the founding directors, had left RBI in acrimony in 2009 yet returned soon after in a consultancy role.

“It was the ultimate cash cow but I told them that if you don’t de-risk Hotfrog you are going to get screwed,” he said.

“When I left [the consultancy role] in 2010 the strategy was being executed to rapidly build the global business and with clear plans to de-risk the reliance on Google.

Andrew Dent

Andrew Dent

“But I believe the priorities changed for Reed Elsevier and they wanted to divest RBI Australia in 2012. The energy of the management team went into preparing to sell the business. It’s tough to keep investing in uncharted waters whilst trying to sell.”

Dent revealed he tried to buy Hotfrog “as I could see its potential” but said any deal was scuppered by Reed Elsevier’s desire to sell all of RBI Australia – print and online – to a single buyer.

“He could never have afforded it anyway,” one of Dent’s former colleagues observed.

Sources said the pressing need to change Hotfrog’s business model also coincided with a management restructure at RBI global head office in London, which saw David Israel – now CEO and president of media at Playboy Enterprises – leave the business with Peter de Monnink installed as the new head of RBI International.

The reshuffle precipitated a change in approach. In the aftermath of the GFC, the need became apparent to “plug holes in the RBI network”, as one UK-based manager put it.

To that end, profit started to be sucked from Hotfrog, which by this stage had been singled out for mention in Reed Elsevier’s annual reports, and reinvestment in the product decreased, which left it even more vulnerable to Google Panda updates.

“Hotfrog may well have been a victim of its own success,” one former manager said. “It initially flew under the radar, separate as it was from the core print business, but then the suits from London became interested.”

Nevertheless, after the downturn in 2011, revenue stabilised in 2012 – but then fell off a cliff just as private equity firm, Catalyst, entered the final stages of its due diligence with RBI.

“Catalyst would naturally have seen the figures and known Hotfrog was not the business it once had been. But during the second half of 2012, revenue had stabilised to some degree,” said one insider. “But from October 2012 to December, in the final stages of negotiation, revenue halved following another Google Panda update.”

Unconfirmed reports suggest Reed Elsevier, panicked by the collapse in revenue, gave Hotfrog to a spooked Catalyst to get the deal across the line.

When Catalyst offloaded Hotfrog last year, a sales prospectus showed the division employed nine full-time staff, generated revenue of $4m in 2014 and $2m in 2015 and was forecast to have an EBITDA of $1m and $740,000 respectively.

An operation which once employed 180 staff, raked in annualised revenues of $40m and was the key growth driver for RBI Australia, was finally sold for a paltry $700,000, and even that was regarded as expensive.

Internal tension

The emergence of Catch, while positive for RBI’s revenues, led to what many described as an almost confrontational atmosphere between the sales teams of the core print business and the online verticals.

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Located in a separate building from the print titles in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, Catch was considered brash, abrasive and arrogant by the print division, an image which its young, male-dominated work force, many of them British, did little to dispel.

On the flip-side, print was regarded as a relic by Catch, dinosaurs trying to hold back the tide.

Both were effectively chasing the same advertisers and there was little love lost between the divisions.

One senior member of staff said Catch was given carte blanche to aggressively compete with their print counterparts, which they did, with relish.

“The divisiveness came largely from the online side rather than print. They were told that if you end up eating the print business and you’re the only ones left, then so be it,” the source said.

“It was felt it was better another division of RBI destroyed print than someone else. That’s why Catch was put in a separate office; there is no way they could have co-existed.

“Catch and Hotfrog had a disruptive, start-up mentality that would have been impossible for a corporation to launch from within, so it was treated and handled as a completely stand-alone enterprise. They were virtually left alone.”

Newham, the Financial Services group publisher, said the cultivation of a “them and us” environment was hard to comprehend.

“I get why you would set up two businesses. I understood that. But what I couldn’t understand was the antagonistic approach,” she said. “It was utterly counter-productive and it used to aggravate me. It was beyond comprehension for the core business sales teams.

“I felt it was a strange way to run a business – to have people butting heads for no apparent reason. It was an energy waster.

“We should have been presenting a united front to the market and showcasing this amazing cross section of products. Instead it became us against them.”

Another former RBI editor, who asked not to be named, blamed the culture squarely on Dent, whose view on print was known to everyone.

“It was the right thing to look for digital revenue, no question. Print titles had expensive overheads. They made good money when they were cooking and while a couple were more than holding their own, most were declining,” the editor said.

“But a culture arrived with Andrew Dent that was a shock. Jeremy [Knibbs], like everyone, was under pressure and grappling with the online problem, and he stood up for the local operation. For example, he pushed back against the closure of (Australian) Mining, which then performed really well.

“But I didn’t have a lot of respect for him towards the end of my time as he had allowed a culture to develop within the organisation that was quite ugly. The culture became very disrespectful.”

One former member of the Catch sales team admitted: “It was an aggressive, money-making machine. The team was conditioned to think of print as muppets. It created a division between the core business and Catch and there was absolute conflict.

“There was no integration or holistic solutions between the two, but it had to be that way.

“Had there been that compromise and collaboration I don’t believe there would have been that desire to drive revenue.”

To illustrate the level of competition, Catch is said to have hacked into the sales database of the print division, contacted clients who had made bookings and urged them to switch their advertising to the verticals.

Dent also defended the fiercely competitive nature of the online division, arguing it was the only way to operate.

“Many in the print business talked of ‘us and them’ and that it was a wrong way to run a business. I completely disagree with this point. The only way for a disruptive business to excel is to stand by itself,” he told Mumbrella.

“The models of a traditional business and an emerging growth business are very different. The Catch products brought in thousands of new clients that the print people could never reach with their advertising/editorial ratio business model and high overheads.

“At Catch we didn’t have the costs associated with print mastheads and this allowed us to attack a broader range of clients in the marketplace with a distinct return on investment. We provided hard leads that generated sales for our clients.”

Further online projects

After Catch established itself, RBI turned its attention to another online project under a strategy known as “1000 ships”, headed by Ben Sole, one of the executives who later invested in Cirrus Media.

The plan was to use a system called Common Code Base to create a plethora of cookie cutter verticals.

After limited success early on, the plug was pulled, partly due to an instruction from London to cut costs but also due to a lack of resources.

“That failed not because of technical issues but because there just wasn’t enough people to create the required amount of content,” said a source who worked on the project. “It was mostly designed to get search traffic, but it just got too hard.”

In addition, the quality of much of the content – largely rehashed press releases, and poorly written at that – failed to rank well on Google.

“It didn’t work from a revenue point of view and it didn’t work from a traffic point of view,” said a former IT staffer. “One or two took off during the mining boom but in the end they were consolidated back in to the main print mastheads.”

Amid the ongoing focus on digital products, the performance of the print division remained mixed, with Australian Mining the “poster child” for a period, as it cashed in on the mining boom while financial and healthcare remained strong.

The sale to Catalyst and disagreement over strategy

cirrus media

In the three years since private equity took control of RBI, now Cirrus Media, those print assets have been progressively sold, with the acquisition of FST Media, an events business in the financial sector, the purchase of Medical Observer in the health sector and the company’s focus on content marketing signalling the new direction of the company.

Significantly, all the disposals came after the departure of long-standing CEO Jeremy Knibbs, one of four executives who invested in the business back in 2013.

Of the other three – HR boss Gloria Madden, digital publishing specialist Ben Sole, and chief operating officer Peter Smal – only Madden remains with the company.

Other senior staff were invited to invest but few did.

Many other senior staff also departed, including publishing directors John Nuutinen and Suzanne Coutinho, the latter in acrimony after a 12-year stint with the company.

One former colleague described the axing of Coutinho as “gutless”.

As time went by, and on his own admission, Knibbs did not see eye to eye with the board, telling staff in a farewell email in mid-2014 – 18 months after the acquisition – there had been a “reasonable level of disagreement” about how to take the business forward.

Knibbs, who had a 20-year career at RBI having moved across with Thomson, which Reed acquired in the mid-1990s, also said he was “becoming uncomfortable with the reasons I was here”.

He was replaced by John King, CEO of UK-based Trader Media Group, where he oversaw the transition of a largely print-based business to one where 95% of revenues were generated digitally.

It was suggested to Mumbrella by a number of senior staffers that Knibbs, who is believed to have retained his Cirrus stake, pushed back against the wholesale disposal of mastheads – the majority of which still had valuable communities, clients and readers.

Some within the senior ranks also favoured a more sustainable, longer-term view to generating new revenue, a view that was not necessarily shared by the board.

Bain Consulting was also brought in to thrash out a strategy which, according to one attendee, was well received but not acted upon.

“They spent a shit-load of money with Bain to develop a new strategy, and that was all pretty positive,” said the source.

“But we came back to the office and very quickly it was ‘Ah, don’t worry about it guys, you don’t have to do it; you’re all too busy’.

“The opportunity to have a strategy and something aspirational to work towards got killed straight away.”

The source said the Bain study identified which were the good markets and which weren’t “with a view to focusing on and dominating those markets”.

“But nothing ever came of it because there was a view that ‘we can’t get rid of agriculture because it’s bringing in $2.50 and we need that to meet our numbers’.”

Three months after Knibbs departed by mutual consent, Travel Weekly and B&T were sold to existing management, with both titles now operated by the Misfits Media Company, which last year also launched Medical Republic – with Knibbs as publisher.

Travel Weekly and B&T were followed out of the door – a revolving one at that – by Lawyers Weekly and Hospitality, acquired by Sterling Publishing and Intermedia Group, respectively.

And late last year Cirrus sold its industrial, mining, manufacturing and agricultural titles to Prime Creative Media. On the print side, it left Cirrus with Architecture and Design, Franchise Business and the powerhouse titles in healthcare and finance, spearheaded by Money Management and Australian Doctor, the latter of which has long been the company’s golden child.

The strategy under John King

It didn’t take long for King to conclude that Cirrus was fighting on too many fronts, telling Mumbrella the company “very quickly” began to focus on “areas we could win”.

John King

John King

The industrial division in particular was “structurally challenged”, underpinned as it was by directories and search through Hotfrog.

“The search market has changed dramatically. Essentially Google owns search and destroyed a lot of those value propositions,” he said. “We could have played around with Hotfrog and spent a heap of time optimising it….but I am not a big believer in directories. It was great at the time but that business model has really challenged.

“If you were going to do something with Hotfrog you would have done it five or six years ago. It was under-invested and strategically they didn’t adapt when they had the chance. If we had hung on to Hotfrog it would have been seriously problematic.”

He continued: “We changed our approach pretty quickly when I joined to focus on where we could create the most value and I was pretty clear on what needed to happen,” King said.

“Cirrus was a company with 14 different businesses…..but you can’t win in every vertical. You can successfully transform two or three but you can’t save them all.

“You have to back a few winners and look at where you have a market-leading position, where you have engaged audience, and invest in them.

“You just don’t have the management time or resources to put the same energy into all of them so we decided to dispose of what we saw as non-core assets that, quite frankly, we were never going to spend time and effort on. They would be better off with new owners.

“I think Catalyst always had the view that some assets were more valuable than others. That is what underpinned their investment case in the first place.”

Unsurprisingly, health and financial services were identified as the most valuable assets, while it has also held on to Franchise Business and Architecture and Design, which had been two of the other better-performing titles, according to King.

Apart from the structurally challenged nature of the industrials division, the trade publishing environments of travel and media were weak, King said.

“Apart from one [of the disposals], they were still making money but I guess if you are not going to spend money on them, or transform them, they would probably quickly start to become loss-making,” he said.

“We have been able to dispose of them so everyone has won. New owners have won as it strengthens their position in some markets, our people transitioned across on the same entitlements and we reduced our liabilities.”

Former Lawyers Weekly editor, Justin Whealing, said it was clear early on under private equity ownership that several publications within the print portfolio had no long-term future within Cirrus.

“We felt a little unloved and neglected and not part of the long-term plan and that was borne out by the fact we were sold,” he said.

“It was a place where you were looking over your shoulder and wondering what your future was, and that created its own tension.

Whealing

Justin Whealing

“There was a move to do more content marketing but no one goes into journalism to write those sorts of piece – it’s not what fires people up, but it was very much the Catalyst business model and, of course, they are not alone in following that strategy.

“It was all about the bottom line rather than breaking stories and more about running awards and running advertorials for clients. I understood the commercial realities but I also put forward strategies based on driving revenue on the back of a really strong, reputable publication. Those ideas were left on the shelf to gather dust.

“It was like ‘thanks Justin, now what about content marketing’?”

In addition, staff who left, both in editorial and sales, were not replaced, making it increasingly tough to increase revenue.

“You can’t increase revenue when your head count is reduced so much,” Whealing said. “And there were other publications in a similar situation.”

Former RBI and Cirrus publishing director, John Nuutinen, added: “It was clear they thought the future of the business was in financial services and healthcare so it has panned out pretty much as I expected.

“That’s where the investment was going. Their priority was obviously going to be where they saw the best return on investment and that was health and wealth.”

Looking at the wider business performance, Nuutinen said: “Traditional business was proving to be pretty tough and we were looking to migrate our revenues into new areas and that was predominantly digital.

“But contrary to what you hear in the market, revenue never fell off a cliff face. It was a slow process over time. The businesses were still profitable. It’s just when a business like Catalyst comes in they look at where the best place is to get the return on their investment, and it’s probably not in a portfolio that’s returning small, single-digit growth.

“They will look at a portfolio that’s delivering that double-digit high return.”

Not that health and financial services were exempt from significant change, King said.

“We have backed and invested in health and grown revenue for the first time in a long time,” he said. “And in financial services we had a good position but it required a hell of a lot of work to develop new digital and content products.

“Health is now doing very well but wealth is more of a challenge. We have bought Money Management together with FST Media because they are much stronger together than they were individually.

King said the revenue mix for Cirrus is changing, with less generated from print but more flowing from digital channels, events, online education and content marketing.

Such a diversified revenue stream creates “a stronger, more sustainable business”, he said.

The latter two – education and content marketing – were growing “extremely quickly” in health, King added.

“Doctors are spending more time online and being able to provide them with educational content is really important,” he said. “I am a really big believer that content marketing is all about engagement. It’s not advertorials or sponsored slots.

“If you want to do commoditised content marketing it probably is [an advertorial] but not if you want to build a proper content program or asset that a brand owns and engages with.

“The most successful content marketing campaigns we have been delivering are very much about education and not hard-push, call-to-action stuff.

“The most effective campaigns are building brand attributes over a period of time.”

Despite the increasing emphasis on paid-for content, King insisted independently-produced journalism remains critical.

“Absolutely [we value it],” he told Mumbrella. “Our greatest strength is that of our editorial teams.”

King also suggested print continues to play an important role in some sectors, particularly healthcare.

“There is a lot of variation in terms of GPs, and print in healthcare will continue long after I’m gone,” he said. “But that may be less so in financial services; so much of that content now is online.

“We will probably try to reinvigorate the print products and maybe do less of them in the next year in financial services. That market is more vulnerable to a print-free existence.”

prime

Prime Creative Media managing director, John Murphy, who picked up a number of Cirrus Media titles and associated online assets, also insisted the value in print remains strong, describing mastheads as a publisher’s “business card”.

“I think people have underestimated the importance of print. Readers respect the title, it’s hitting people directly and there is tremendous value in the databases,” he said.

“But of course you need to have a product that suits [the market]. So you need print, e-newsletters and websites. You need to supply the information in different formats, to be multi-channeled and multi-faceted.

“But print remains our main revenue stream. Events are also strong and digital is growing at a tremendous rate. But it’s still got a long way to catch up with print.”

Murphy’s view is shared by Megan Brownlow, editor of the Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook at PwC.

She told Mumbrella the answer for B2B publishers is not simply to “try to replace physical dollars with digital cents”.

“We know that won’t ever be an adequate substitution so the only answer is to diversify your business model, look at your core capabilities and your core assets,” she said. “Publishers should also not forget that the core asset can actually sit outside your business, it might be your community. That is what we have been advising for a number of years.”

Further divestments?

Observers are split over whether Catalyst is satisfied with its investment or whether its return will hit expectations.

One executive questioned whether the business had been positioned correctly to Catalyst, arguing the strategy did not appear to take the nuances of different markets into account.

“There seemed to be an overall strategy for the business but all the markets are different. You cannot cookie-cut markets.

“I’d be gobsmacked if they are pleased with how things have panned out.”

But another commentator suggested the sale price had been weighted in their favour, so keen was Reed Elsevier to offload the business.

Further divestment was not ruled out by King, who acknowledged that under private equity ownership “everything will be for sale at some point”.

“The two assets in what was the old industrial portfolio [franchising and architecture and design] were two of the best businesses they had. They have strong positions and were more valuable than some of the other assets we disposed of so I will not be rushing out to sell those unless we get the right price,” King said.

“We are owned by private equity so, at some point, everything will be for sale. It’s as simple as that. But I don’t have a timeframe I am working on.

“From my perspective, the day-to-day management don’t talk about returns. We are very much focused on building and engaging audiences and if you get the underlying parts of your business working then the value looks after itself.”

But he refused to be drawn on an exit timeframe for Catalyst.

“That is a question for them,” he said. “Our focus now is to build our product development in health, build our digital education and content products and keep that going. That is going to be the highest priority.

“We are also focused on building deeper content in financial services and using that to cross-promote events. So we are not where we want to be get. There is plenty more to do.”

Whatever the return Catalyst makes on its foray into B2B publishing, what is clear is that Australia’s largest trade publisher has been systematically dismantled in the pursuit of a leaner business model free of the costly overheads associated with print mastheads in sectors in which it saw little growth potential.

As one retired ex-RBI journalist said: “It is unrecognisable from the business I worked for in the 1990s. But then the entire publishing world is unrecognisable.”

Steve Jones is chief reporter for Mumbrella

Disclaimer: Steve Jones is a former employee of Reed Business Information and Cirrus Media

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