Starving to Death on $200 Million: The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard

James Ledbetter dissects the collapse of the late, great "Industry Standard"

By James Ledbetter

PublicAffairs/HarperCollins, (2003), $26

Nearly everybody in town has some kind of "I told you so" story about the now-defunct technology business magazine The Industry Standard. And can you blame them? During the dot-com boom, the San Francisco-based publication came to symbolize the era's decadence -- free top-of-the-line booze on its roof every Friday, unlimited expense accounts for reporters, conferences in Barcelona and Telluride. Ah, the good old days.

My old Industry Standard AmEx account still a painful memory, I picked up former Standard staffer James Ledbetter's new book with great eagerness. Through the lens of his own fun-then-frustrating experience as an editor at the Standard, Ledbetter tries to explain why the magazine, launched in 1998 and once the fastest-growing mag in history, died merely three years later.

The best thing by far about Starving to Death is its hilarious characterization of the Standard's tanned, surfing, Wunderkind CEO, John Battelle. Skewered in the opening chapters as "a frat boy," Battelle goes on to steal the rest of the book. Few will want to miss anecdotes like Battelle hiring the CFO of a bankrupt company simply because he "looked like a CFO" in his dorky pin-striped shirts. Or a sockless Battelle, onstage during a Standardconference in Spain, getting weird looks from European business leaders for giving them impromptu props on their ability to "party."

As the business case study it strives to be, however, Starving to Death is rather anemic. The reason the Standarddied (no secret to anybody) is that its parent company, International Data Group, turned off the financial spigot when the magazine ran out of money. Ledbetter guesses at reasons for this, besides the obvious one about the Standard's advertisers going belly up. He suggests, for instance, that IDG chiefs may have been sore that the Standard execs (there's that darn Battelle again) refused to kiss their parent-company asses. But since Ledbetter wasn't present at any of the Standard's nail-biting final meetings with IDG, and quotes from IDG's top brass are conspicuously absent from his book, Starving to Death fails in its attempt to dramatize the pathos of the magazine's final days.

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