When I first lived in Chicago in the early 1970s, there were four daily newspapers: morning commuters could read the Tribune and Sun-Times, then take a copy of Chicago Today and The Daily News with them on the way home that evening.
By the time I got my first journalism job in 1975 at the Field Newspaper Syndicate, which was part of the Sun-Times and Daily News family, Chicago Today had ceased publishing. It was only a few years later, March 4, 1978, to be exact, that the Daily News went out of business, too.
This was particularly shocking to me because the Chicago Daily News – known as “the writers' newspaper” – represented such outstanding journalism. The staff – which included the brilliant columnist Mike Royko, gifted editorial cartoonist John Fischetti, and political reporting legend Peter Lisagor – won 15 Pulitzer Prizes and a boatload of other prestigious awards. As Royko wrote in his final Daily News column, “The Daily News was doing investigative reporting and sending politicians to jail when Woodward and Bernstein were toddlers.”
But even with all that excellence, dedication, and journalistic integrity, it wasn't enough. Here, in part, is what publisher Marshall Field wrote in the final edition. “Despite all our efforts, the economics of publishing, reader habits and life-styles have changed dramatically in the last two decades, making it impossible for The Daily News to earn the revenue needed for any healthy, sound business operation.”
The changes then were television, especially television news, and suburban growth outside of major cities like Chicago. Televised nightly news, both local and national, replaced the need for afternoon newspapers, and more commuters were driving home to the suburbs rather than taking trains or buses.
Fast forward 35 years and publishers are again facing changing reader habits and lifestyles.
When I first visited Lexington, Ky., in the summer of 1985, there were two weekly Thoroughbred publications, The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record. A couple of months later there would be a third weekly, the Thoroughbred Times, launched by Bloodstock Research Information Services founder Richard F. Broadbent III and former Thoroughbred Record writer and editor Mark Simon.
Thoroughbred breeding was going through a massive boom cycle in North America that would peak in 1985, when an all-time record number of mares were bred. The foal crop increased from 18,846 in 1965 to 28,271 in 1975, and an astounding 50,430 in 1985.
Stallion farms and accompanying advertising expanded dramatically. An account executive with Blood-Horse magazine during that era once told me all he had to do to sell ads was answer the phone and see if there was any space available.
Those good times didn't last forever. The commercial yearling market hit its dizzying peak in 1984 and '85 with averages of about $600,000 at the now-defunct Keeneland July Selected Yearling Sale – 10 times higher than it was a decade earlier.
Tax reform in 1986 and severe oversupply of bloodstock caused a market crash that lasted through 1992.
Publications saw advertising revenue fall just as fast as yearling prices and stud fees. Thoroughbred Record was the first to blink, going to a monthly format in 1986. In the autumn of 1988, it merged with the Thoroughbred Times and ceased publication altogether by May 1990.
Then there were two.
For the next 20-plus years, Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Times went head-to-head, essentially publishing the same information – news, race reports and features, statistics on racing, sales and breeding – on a weekly basis, each with a somewhat different editorial spin. It was not dissimilar to Time and Newsweek. (Disclosure: I worked at Thoroughbred Times from 1988-91, and at Blood-Horse from 1992-2007)
Then, just as nightly television news replaced afternoon newspapers for many people in the 1960s and ‘70s, fax and electronic newsletters and internet sites chipped away at the timeliness and relevance of weekly magazines.
This didn't just happen in the Thoroughbred industry. I grew up in the 1960s getting the weekly Sporting News, which covered all sports but especially baseball. It had the most comprehensive statistics and box scores you could find. From 1886 until 2008, the Sporting News was published every week. Then it went to bi-weekly until 2011, then monthly, then it stopped printing altogether and became an on-line product only. You don't have to wait a week for box scores: now you can see them online as a ballgame is being played.
Earlier this year, Thoroughbred Times announced it was getting out of the weekly newsmagazine business and going with a twice-monthly feature format starting July 1. It seemed like a good idea, inasmuch as the weekly advertising space in the Times (and Blood-Horse) was diminishing, and the magazines were getting thinner and thinner.
Then, last week, the owner of Thoroughbred Times filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, closing the operation completely and immediately, and notifying employees, including longtime editor Mark Simon, via an impersonal letter delivered by Federal Express. Reasons for the financial failure of the company are complex and may not be entirely related to whether or not it was turning a profit. Simon said the owner was using Thoroughbred Times revenue to pay expenses for other magazines owned by the publisher, Norman Ridker. In fact, Ridker and two of his companies are claiming to be owed about $4.7 million of the $5.3 million in debt listed on the bankruptcy filing.
What does the closing of Thoroughbred Times mean, and is it a publication that can, at least in part, be saved?
For starters, it means that 27 people who worked for the company are out of work, not even getting their final paychecks. It will not be easy for any of them. Free-lancers and photographers now have one less publication for which to contribute. It means there will be less work for advertising agencies that prepared ads for the magazine, its Thoroughbred Times Today daily newsletter, website, or statistical supplements. There is a trickle-down effect that hits multiple businesses.
Others may gain from the closing of the Times, particularly the Thoroughbred Daily News daily electronic newsletter and Blood-Horse weekly magazine. I suppose the Paulick Report could be one of those businesses that stands to gain, too. But believe me when I say there is no joy in any possible benefit from this kind of terrible loss, and I trust management and staff at the other Thoroughbred publications feel the same way.
Since Saturday, I have been exploring the wisdom of reaching out to investors in an effort to salvage the magazine or some of the company's other products, and I imagine I'm not the only one in the publishing business to do so. Thoroughbred Times has, since its inception, stood for high standards and excellence in all of its products, and that means there is value. But just as with the Chicago Daily News, I'm not sure that's enough.
Is a twice-monthly, monthly, or bi-monthly feature/lifestyle magazine on the horse racing industry something that can make it? Would there be enough support, from both readers and advertisers?
It's not as if this hasn't been tried before.
Spur magazine, originally known as Spur of Virginia, portrayed the lifestyle of horse people and horses in a well-produced glossy magazine. It lasted from 1966 until 1998, going through several transformations along the way but ultimately failing.
Classic magazine, a bi-monthly published from 1975-79, was a slick, well written and heavily financed publication run by horseman E. Barry Ryan and featuring such writers as Whitney Tower and Pete Axthelm. It had advertising support from companies like Hermes, Jaguar, BMW, Bulgari, and Johnny Walker scotch, but still ran out of funding after a few years.
The bi-monthly Backstretch magazine had a long run, folding in 2002 after publishing more than 40 years with various editorial focuses.
Derby magazine, published out of Oklahoma and featuring some very good writers, lasted from 1984-87.
A few years ago, a publication called Horse Society Magazine (The Lifestyle of Thoroughbred Racing) seemed to debut and fold almost simultaneously despite great fanfare and one heckuva launch party.
One horse lifestyle magazine survivor is Keeneland, a quarterly published in conjunction with Blood-Horse Publications, but its advertising support is not nearly what it was just a few years ago.
Nearly every one I've talked to, and I've talked with a lot of people since Saturday, about whether or not Thoroughbred Times can be saved as a non-news, feature magazine, have said, “No, it won't work.”
I hope they're wrong. I'm not giving up on the idea just yet, and I welcome your thoughts on the subject. The wheels of a bankruptcy move slowly, and there's plenty of time for a white knight to ride in and say, “This magazine deserves another chance.”
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