I shouldn’t be shocked by publications closing: there have been so many good titles fall by the wayside recently. But Dr. Dobbs? How can UBM possibly have made the decision to close it? (If you’ve never been involved in software development, just ask an engineer to find out how highly this publication is valued).

Dr. Dobbs has been the software development publication for a long time. The title started 38 years ago, and I remember the fights over who got to read the magazine when I first began work as an engineer. It is clearly still well-loved, with over 10 million page views a month and more than 10% traffic growth year-on-year, yet UBM has decided that it won’t be able to make money from the site in the future (although according to the announcement about the closure it is still profitable).

So who is to blame? Andrew Binstock, editor in chief of Dr. Dobbs lays the blame firmly at the door of the advertisers:

Four years ago, when I came to Dr. Dobb’s, we had healthy profits and revenue, almost all of it from advertising. Despite our excellent growth on the editorial side, our revenue declined such that today it’s barely 30% of what it was when I started. While some of this drop is undoubtedly due to turnover in our sales staff, even if the staff had been stable and executed perfectly, revenue would be much the same and future prospects would surely point to upcoming losses.

Andrew then seems to dismiss all online advertising, saying that:

This is because in the last 18 months, there has been a marked shift in how vendors value website advertising. They’ve come to realize that website ads tend to be less effective than they once were. Given that I’ve never bought a single item by clicking on an ad on a website, this conclusion seems correct in the small.

Whilst the effectiveness of online display advertising has clearly waned in recent years, there are obviously many cases of people buying after clicking a banner. And don’t forget that one of the main reasons for the fall in click-through rates is the proliferation of adverts on every page, as publishers try to maximise the revenue they can achieve using their familiar cost-per-impression model, rather than trying to deliver value to advertisers. To be fair, the page announcing the closure of Dr. Dobbs has a rather modest three display slots, although it also features 10 paid-for links to content (with a link explaining they are advertising), six links to pages that allow you to register for more paid-for content, and so many links to other content on the side that I couldn’t face trying to count them.

Of course it’s not just an issue of advertising spend – competition from other publications has eaten into the total budget. Stack overflow, which has proved that user-generated content can be both low cost and high quality seems to be going from strength to strength.

Despite the reality of the situation, one major frustration remains. Why does UBM insist on closing this much-loved publication? Dr. Dobbs is profitable. Andrew even outlines a business plan he believes will ensure the long-term profitability of the title. But UBM doesn’t want to run the small events that would ensure profitability and doesn’t want anyone else to make a success of the publication. Whilst it’s not clear that this will be the case, it must be inevitable that good journalists will lose their jobs because of this decision. Of course UBM, and other publishers, have every right to do what they want with the publications they own. It would be fabulous, however, if large publishers could find a way to allow titles that could be profitable to continue publishing by selling them to smaller publishers who can build a business model that works. Reed managed to do this recently with Electronics Weekly, which seems to be thriving within Metropolis, although sadly it’s not just UBM who closes titles: Reed chose not to sell EPN, despite there being interested buyers.

Perhaps the reality of the situation is that large publishers are simply not the right place for B2B trade titles to thrive. It’s true that for a company the size of UBM, a site with 10M page views a month is not a significant part of their business. Let’s hope that some of the smaller, leaner and more entrepreneurial publishers will see this as an opportunity, and will launch sites that not only fill the gap left by Dr. Dobbs, but also make a decent profit.