Defence media in flux

The latest news that US information company IHS, which owns Jane’s, is merging with its UK rival Markit, followed by the announcement that venture capital firm Regent Equity Partners has acquired Defense News, has sent some shockwaves through the defence media establishment.

That the two largest free standing defence media outlets are going through such changes shows that no company is immune to the general trends in media and journalism overall, but also raises questions about whether new owners truly understand the value of what defence publishing can offer.

First of all there are concerns that further skilled journalists and editors will be laid off. In defence media, more than in other sectors, the real value of the company lies with the knowledgeable people it has in its employ – although we would say that.

However, somewhat uniquely defence programmes and acquisitions can drag on for years, even decades, so a deep knowledge is often critical, and this kind of detailed understanding of the defence sector is only built up through years writing the news, attending the trade shows and developing the contacts.

Most national newspapers and media outlets no longer have a specialist defence correspondent. Even if they do it is combined with another role, or seen as a transitional post before moving to something more high profile in their organisation after a couple of years. This makes the knowledge of a specialist defence journalist on trade publications even more important.

This is something that Regent Equity Partners should understand and take into consideration for its future plans.

This has happened before. In the case of Jane’s Information Group, when it was first bought out by IHS in 2007 there was a news reporter on each of the land, sea and air desks to accompany the editor. But resources were reprioritised and these posts slipped away.

In recent years that neglect has become a factor for all of us as the older generation of journalists have begun to retire without passing on their knowledge, and the pool of trainees that Jane’s used to provide has dried up.

Fewer in-house journalists covering day-to-day news puts more pressure on time-starved editors and forces them to rely more heavily on freelance journalists, who aren’t always specialists or native English speakers, leading to loss of deeper reporting.

The new IHS/Markit merger aims to slash $125 million of costs within three years, which raises legitimate concerns about where the axe will fall. Cost control was also probably a factor in the letting go of so many of the experienced journalists from Defense News.

Journalists are at the front line of information gathering, the daily news and reports that are written for online and magazines form a huge part of the base material from which the consultants and information analysts are able to make their judgements, which they sell on to business at a price. I hope that both the publications and their staff survive the cost analysis.

If they don’t it will be a poorer landscape for us all with less friendly competition. Other players, in defence publishing, such as Shephard Media, have over the past few years had to act more nimbly as the environment has changed.

There are now fewer individual standalone publications run by a single editor, than there once were. This is due to the changing nature of the media and the need to develop a quality online presence and provide more material through different mediums such as video, blogs and podcasts.

There have also been a crop of new online-only defence media outlets, particularly in the US, eschewing print completely. That hasn’t been our take on things where we see the need for a balance of the two.

You have to change with the times and adapt to a new environment. Some have struggled to adapt to the new defence climate since the end of the Cold War and the later drawn down of international involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Countries are just not spending as much on defence as they once were and that has reduced the flow of advertising and subscription revenues from the industry.

If the national media has cut defence correspondents with alacrity, the impact on trade media has been delayed.

For our part, Shephard Media – which has its 35th anniversary this year – has made the difficult transition from being recognised as a niche events company with associated magazines, to being solely a publishing outfit with its own range of handbooks, growing portfolio of specialist magazines – recently acquiring Military Training and Simulation News (MTSN) and Military Logistics Forum (MLF) – and a growing stable of editorial staff across the US, Europe and Asia.

There has been some consolidation in the defence publishing sector over recent years, but it still remains competitive. The smaller organisations have been able to adapt faster to the changing marketplace and remain focussed on their core activity – publishing magazines and providing news online.

But the larger firms with a more established presence and which have more resources are now coming under pressure.

That they are owned by companies that are not traditional publishers risks a lack of understanding of the importance of the assets they have – both in staff and the brand – and if the priority is cost cutting then a further breakup of defence publishing is not far off on the horizon, which would be a detriment to the industry and damaging to accountability.

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