by John Schmittroth (Business Development Consultant)
One of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my reference publishing career was involvement in Gale Group’s acquisition of the “Ayer newspapers directory” (as we called it) in 1986. This transaction matched a relatively young reference company with one of the oldest continuously published directories in the Western Hemisphere. At the time, Gale had developed into a leading library publisher after its modest beginning as a home business in the 1950s. With a much longer history, the Ayer directory had been published annually since 1869 by (and for) advertising agencies to provide a consolidated national listing of newspapers.
The Ayer directory was Gale’s first major corporate acquisition and thus a big event for the company. During the integration process, Gale worked closely with a lively librarian advisory board to better understand the market needs for the product. In a decisive day-long meeting, the librarians substantially changed the proposed publishing plans for Ayer’s and defined a course for the decades to come. Following are recaps of Ayer’s and Gale publishing histories, and details on the post-acquisition strategy defined by the advisory board.
“The object of this annual is to assist an advertiser in making a selection of papers that will serve his purpose in territory he desires to cover.” — American Newspaper Annual, 1880
N.W. Ayer & Sons was a Philadelphia advertising agency that launched the American Newspaper Annual in 1880. This competed with the older Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory that first appeared in 1869, and both titles appeared for a number of years. N.W. Ayer subsequently acquired the Rowell’s title and merged the two directory products in 1910. This first combined annual edition listed more than 20,000 news publications in about 1,400 pages and was sold for a price of $5. (Library of Congress information and links to older Rowell and Ayer editions are at http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/news_research_tools/ayersdirectory.html.)
The Ayer directory was designed as a business tool for advertisers, providing details on title, publisher, format and size, circulation, ad rate, subscriber price, subject specialty (if any), etc. for the listed papers, which appeared geographically. As additional useful information for the advertiser, the directory included brief profiles on the newspapers’ local market areas (e.g., 11,000 towns in the 1910 edition), such as population, manufacturing/economic activity, geography, transportation, etc.
One can imagine that this content was extremely useful for advertisers in an American era of rapid westward expansion, economic growth, and related creation of new markets and customers to reach. Over time, looked at from a somewhat different perspective, the Ayer directory was recognized by the library community as an invaluable information guide since it comprehensively covers authoritative news sources about particular places and subjects, independent of its specific advertising-related details and uses.
N.W. Ayer & Sons continued to publish the directory for most of the 20th century. It began to emphasize the inclusion of periodicals in the 1930s by changing the title to Ayer Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals and later settled on the more general term Ayer Directory of Publications. During changes in its business in the 1980s, N.W. Ayer turned over its directory publishing operation to IMS Press, part of a pharmaceutical data company also in the Philadelphia area (as I recall).
Gale originated in the 1950s in the home of automotive marketer Frederick G. Ruffner where work on the first edition of Encyclopedia of Associations was begun. This publication found great traction in the library market and in the years to follow Ruffner proceeded along a very successful path of organic development of additional products such as Research Centers Directory, Contemporary Authors, and numerous other reference publications.
After three decades of assiduously building Gale, Ruffner decided to sell the company. In 1985, Gale was purchased by International Thomson, an international, decentralized collection of specialty publishers. A Thomson strategy was to acquire a leading company in a sector of interest, maintain its brand and operations, and fund additional fold-in acquisitions for the acquired company.
Gale Acquires the Ayer Directory
In 1986, just a year after Thomson acquired Gale, it acquired the Ayer directory from IMS Press to fold into Gale operations. Gale immediately set about creating a strategic publishing plan for the future editions it would publish. At the time, the directory contained nearly 25,000 listings, about evenly split between newspapers and magazines carrying advertising. This was considered to be definitive coverage of newspapers, a first place to look. The coverage of magazines on the other hand was considered selective, especially compared to the leading periodicals directories of the time, which reported many more titles.
Gale developed plans to aggressively grow the numbers of periodicals listed so that over time, the Ayer directory would come to serve as a one-stop source for BOTH newspapers and periodicals. The production of new editions of the work would be carried out by an established Gale directory publishing team under the veteran leadership of Kay Gill. The team was pumped for the challenge of growing the directory, especially since initial anecdotal market research (e.g., conference conversations) about Ayer’s revealed the sentiment that, “yes, more periodicals would be great!”
On the sales and marketing side, Gale’s new directory very naturally plugged into the well-established and effective direct mail and telemarketing channels for other Gale products. Once the publishing plan was set, the improved product features could be incorporated into the market messaging for future editions.
Librarian Advisors Speak
To formally vet and finalize its plans for the Ayer directory, Gale convened a day-long advisory board meeting. This involved a small panel of proven advisors from public, academic, and corporate libraries. These librarians were “thought leaders” with whom Gale had ongoing and frank dialogues on various aspects of reference publishing for libraries. Present for Gale at the meeting would be key executives plus operational representatives from various departments including editorial, sales, and marketing, so all could hear the same conversation first hand.
In the meeting, Gale reviewed its plan to greatly increase the periodicals coverage, along with the associated compilation details and milestones. In response, and unanimously, panel members asserted that they use Ayer’s for NEWSPAPERS rather than periodicals (except as a last resort). With their experience and the plan details provided, the librarians recognized the plan’s trade-off that may not have been apparent in more casual conversations. That is, any efforts to increase periodicals coverage would necessarily come at the expense of further enhancing newspaper coverage (no coverage ever being perfect). The librarians already had periodicals directories in their collections and didn’t need this content duplicated inside of Ayer’s.
Instead, the advisors reported they would dearly like to see continuous improvement of newspapers coverage. Areas for attention might be small town newspapers, newer towns and suburban papers, ethnic and minority publications, free and alternative publications, etc. When adding magazines, and considering the geographic orientation of Ayer’s, a priority could be local sources such as city business journals or regional local history magazines. The types of sources recommended were not necessarily significant advertising carriers of great interest to the ad industry, but they did represent enrichment and diversification of local news and information coverage, better aligning the directory with general library interests. In public libraries, for example, besides having advertising and PR users, the source might be consulted by relocators, genealogy and local history researchers, business suppliers, job seekers, freelance writers and illustrators, media researchers, students, etc.
The meeting’s detailed and passionate discussion was in general surprising and very informative to the Gale team!
New Publishing Strategy Implemented
Gale heeded the advice. The publishing plan was substantially changed to focus on the addition of newspapers and related geographic information sources as a top priority, while more gradually expanding general periodicals listings. Gale published its first full edition under the title Gale Directory of Publications (GDOP) and included many hundreds of additional newspaper listings as advised, a growth process that would continue cumulatively in subsequent editions.
In following years, additional market feedback including specific customer requests resulted in the further expansion of GDOP to include TV and radio stations listed in the same familiar geographic arrangement. While this was not specifically envisioned at the time of the kickoff advisory board meeting, the expansion aligned with the publication’s defined mission to focus on local news, information, and advertising sources, rather than attempt to cover the universe of periodical sources.
Today, the 2016 (152nd) edition of Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media provides a curated compilation of some 60,000 media listings, and is published in multiple print and electronic formats.
John Schmittroth is a business development consultant serving reference content publishers and providers. He previously worked for Gale as director of the directories division among other positions.