A rival’s misfortunes are the occasion for contemplation
The decision by Building Design’s owners to end the print edition in favour of an online future is not an occasion for gloating, writes Paul Finch
Journalism and publishing thrive in a competitive environment. The decision by Building Design’s (BD) owners to end the print edition in a few weeks’ time in favour of an online future is not, therefore, an occasion for gloating. There is, of course, an element of satisfaction that the AJ, a paid-for title founded in 1895, has resisted what many thought would be a successful predator publication when the aggressive trade publisher Morgan-Grampian launched BD in 1970.
Based on a free circulation and rising jobs market, BD was near-revolutionary in its approach to the world of architectural publishing as represented at the time by Architectural Press, which owned both the AJ and The Architectural Review. BD was a tabloid newspaper, rather than a glossy A4. It was newsy, gossipy and informal.
When I first worked on its news desk in spring 1972, BD had come through its time of trial: a postal strike, which prevented delivery for six weeks. Having survived that, subsequent hiccups, including the oil price crisis and three-day week in 1973-74, delayed the day when it would make some real money.
The big pay-off came in the second half of the 1980s, when a buoyant economy and growing demand for architects funded an increasingly confident publication, which I had the privilege of editing at the time. In a couple of golden years, we were turning over £6 million-plus (at 1988-89 prices), and making margins of a highly satisfactory 50 per cent.
We had conversations about becoming a paid-for title, but our owners couldn’t see the point. Why rock the boat? The answer became apparent in two ways. In the long term, new technology and internet job advertising changed the rationale for free publication. In the short term, the great ’80s jobs boom came to an end and BD’s pagination slumped with it. After editing the title for 11 happy years, I decided to move in 1994 - to the AJ, which was then losing £500,000 a year, but was backed by EMAP, a dynamic publishing empire with an expanding business-to-business division. Its architecture, engineering and construction division grew and grew.
BD ended up being owned by another major publisher, UBM, via the Builder Group, where it became a corporate bedfellow of the RIBA Journal (now back with the institute) and Building magazine. Quite a tangled world.
Whoever the owners were, competition between the AJ and BD continued throughout. As is often the case, this worked well for editors, journalists, contributors and columnists, because there was an alternative if a new publisher or editor didn’t like the cut of your jib. Staff crossovers between the titles included Sutherland Lyall, Martin Pawley and Peter Murray, all of whom edited BD, having spent time before and after with the AJ. Others included Cedric Price, Louis Hellman, Ian Martin, Neal Morris, Deyan Sudjic, Amanda Baillieu, Rory Olcayto, Will Hunter and your correspondent - the only person to edit both titles - and for whom the ending of the print title is saddening.
The AJ will observe BD’s fortunes as an online medium with professional interest, tempered by the same competitive spirit that informed our print relationship, especially since the AJ has an effective set of online platforms. We have benefited from an owner, Top Right Group, which has not only maintained the EMAP name for its magazine division, but more importantly has injected commitment into print publishing, as well as online platforms. This surely beats a defeatist approach in respect of what I believe will be a healthy future for architectural publishing - on both paper and screen.