Sad and mad at magazine’s demise…

A personal take on the imminent closure of UK trade magazine, Contract Journal.

Non-UK residents and those with no interest in the vagaries of the UK business-to-business publishing industry can skip this article altogether. But I have today heard of the sad demise of the UK construction magazine Contract Journal which is due to close its doors at the end of the month.

On the face of it, this has very little to do with the demolition industry. Aside from being the incumbent producer of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors’ Yearbook, the magazine generally paid little more than lip service to the demolition side of the business. But this was where I cut my journalistic teeth; the magazine where I first saw my name in a byline; the magazine that gave me my start in a career that I am still plying – to varying degrees of success – some 25 years later.

I joined Contract Journal in 1985/86 as a fledgling reporter, back at a time when we were still using typewriters….MANUAL typewriters! I was given my start in journalism by a guy called Jerry Gosney, the very antithesis of the hard-nosed, hard-bitten editor; but the sort of guy you’d work hard for because you knew it would please him if you did.

I cut my teeth on small, largely forgettable items until one fateful day when the then plant editor – a guy called Adrian Barker (more of him later) – told me that I was going to a Case press conference to report on their new range of skid steer loaders. I am sure he was less than impressed when I asked him what a skid steer loader was.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, when Contract Journal’s owners Reed Business Publishing (now Reed Business Information) bought Plant Managers Journal, I was invited to join the four man (seriously, FOUR) equipment team who did nothing but right about construction equipment, week in and week out.

Whether or not such a commitment to the construction equipment sector was economical never seemed to matter. Contract Journal was fighting a weekly battle for supremacy with its rival Construction News, while Plant Managers Journal (PMJ) was the undisputed market leader in the construction equipment sector.

Adrian Barker left Contract Journal and PMJ in July 1989 to pursue a career in PR, counting the mighty Caterpillar among his many clients. I was to leave exactly a year later, ultimately joining forces with Adrian, first as Adrian Barker Publicity and, latterly, as Advertising & Marketing Solutions. But we retained our links with our former employers, watching editors come and go, investment dwindle, and our dominant and respected equipment team whittled from four to just one.

I went back to PMJ as guest editor for a six month period back in 2007, 17 years after I’d left, and while I was delighted to finally see my name as editor, the PMJ I returned to was a shadow of its former self. And its big sister publication, Contract Journal, was perhaps worse. Even though the magazine’s annual SED exhibition seemed to be supporting them financially, the writing has been on the wall for both CJ and PMJ for quite some time now. And they have finally succumbed to a perfect storm of being part of a publishing group that is actively seeking a buyer, a paper-based printing business that is in terminal decline, and a domestic construction market lacking the advertising funds to keep the magazines afloat.

Contract Journal and PMJ gave the market they serve so much over the years. These magazines helped make SED the behemoth it is today; they brought us the dig-in machine comparisons; they were the first to seriously address the issue of plant theft. These magazines were home to some of the best, most-respected writers in their field: Jerry Gosney, Cathy Watson, Andrew Pring, John D’Arcy, Adrian Barker, Peter Anderson, Lawrie Tootell.

But, come the end of the month, Contract Journal, its online edition, and PMJ will go the way of Plant Hire Executive, MQR and a multitude of other magazines that failed to move with the times and which were ultimately overtaken and swallowed by a recession and a change in reading habits that was beyond their control.

Personally speaking, it’s been quite a while since I actually looked at a paper version of Contract Journal. The pace with which this industry moves just doesn’t suit “dead tree” publishing any longer. But the last time I did see a copy, I was struck by two things. The first was the lack of a big-name writer, a Gosney or a Barker; the type that had the respect (grudging at times) of the entire industry. The second thing that hit me was the size. When I was there, it wasn’t unusual for weekly issues to exceed 80 and even 100 tabloid pages; the equipment section alone would often run to 10 pages or more. The last one I saw was probably 36 little A4 pages in length; the equipment section a sad collection of press releases; the advertising all but gone.

At this point, I am tempted to go into a rant at the owners of the magazine for what they’ve done to the publications that were my babies. And I do believe that they should shoulder some of the responsibility for whittling staff levels to the barest minimum, under-investing online, and generally failing to support what were once market-leading magazines. But such a rant would achieve nothing and would go unheeded in the corridors of the publisher’s Sutton headquarters.

So, instead of anger, I am left merely with a feeling of deep sadness; sadness that all those years of work and dedication will be brought to an end by a memo from a bean counter that had never enjoyed the thrill of seeing their name in print; sadness for the journalists and ad sales staff that will find themselves unemployed in the run up to Christmas; and sadness for my former partner Adrian Barker who sadly died three years ago and who is probably turning in his grave at this news.

And above all, a deep personal sense of loss at what has become of the starting point of my writing career. It’s like watching your childhood home being demolished.