IDG’s Chairman Sees Brighter Future Online

When I read the story in the New York Times last week about International Data Group’s (IDG) successful transition from a print to an online model, I immediately fired off a congratulatory note to Pat McGovern, IDG’s chairman. I worked for IDG for 15 years and was privileged to get to know him a little during that time, so I took the liberty of inviting him to appear on the weekly MediaBlather podcast (formerly Tech PR War Stories) that I co-host with David Strom.

It didn’t surprise me at all when the chairman of a $3 billion global company immediately agreed. That’s the kind of person McGovern is. With all of the weighty issues that he must deal with every day, he is never too busy to chat with a colleague, whether current or past. In fact, McGovern still visits every IDG operation in the U.S. each December to distribute bonuses individually to every employee.

Our interview was about bigger business issues, notably IDG’s transition from a print powerhouse to an online specialty publisher. I think you’ll find McGovern’s perspective to be inspiring. While the print industry collectively moans about the pain of transitioning from print to online, IDG has quietly gone ahead and done it. Today, the company derives less than half its revenue from print titles, and McGovern expects online business to make up 70% of sales by 2012.

At InfoWorld, which was spotlighted in the Times article, the closure of the print edition and shift to a wholly online model actually increased margins from a small net loss to a 37% net profit. “Not only is there survival after going online, but it’s a much better environment,” McGovern told us.

IDG’s strategy is now to launch all new titles online first, build an audience and then take the business to print if the market demands it. “That way, we already have the audience and we can show the advertisers who’s asking for [the print title] and who’s going to read it,” McGovern said. “It takes away the risk.”

What works in the U.S. doesn’t work the same way globally, of course. Scandinavia and Korea are among the regions of the world that are innovating most successfully in online publishing, McGovern told us. In contrast, India is still a healthy print market but with a budding cell phone culture that may make it the first major economy to jump from paper to mobile devices without an intermediate PC stage.

There are some other gems in this interview. One is about IDG’s flirtation with a public offering through its books division a decade ago. McGovern, who has always taken a dim view of the public markets, relates how the experience distracted the group from its traditional market into ancillary businesses where it had no expertise. “If they had stayed private, I think they’d be a larger and more successful company today,” he commented.

We also talked about IDG’s phenomenal success in China, where it publishes a host of consumer titles in addition to its big technology brands. IDG’s venture capital arm now makes more money for the company from investing in Chinese businesses than the rest of the company does from publishing.

If you want to hear an optimistic perspective on the future of media from someone who is leading the charge, listen to this podcast. I think you’ll find it to be 25 minutes well spent.

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