SpaceNews 25th Anniversary | Grand Launch Strategy Followed by Slow Burn
Added value. That was our ticket to success as we prepared for the launch of SpaceNews in the spring of 1988. Then as now, new publications were as common as taco stands and they seemed to fold up and disappear just as frequently. In the aerospace market as elsewhere, the supply of news and information exceeded demand. We had to deliver something different to readers or SpaceNews would end up in the boneyard of publications that had entered the market with a flash and quickly burned to ashes.
Our strategy was simple. We wouldn’t meet the competition head-on. We would execute an end run to our goal of attracting the readers and advertisers essential to our success. Virtually all of the reporting in the aerospace market — especially in the space sector — was about technology. Existing publications were brimming with technical nitty-gritty about emerging satellite technologies, new communications systems and comparisons of launchers sent aloft by Russia, France and the United States. We would relegate technology coverage to the back pages and highlight the political and business news vital to space decision-makers in government and industry. SpaceNews would focus on issues such as emerging requirements for space goods and services, barriers to export and the shifting political winds that meant boom or bust to space contractors. International coverage would enliven our blend of news and analysis.
In 1988, digital publishing seemed a distant dream and we would use our late Friday evening “close” to hammer the competition by scooping up late-breaking news unavailable to publications that had already gone to press.
SpaceNews was envisioned as a “comp-controlled” newspaper. Government decision-makers involved in buying space systems would receive a complimentary copy each week. That was not a charitable act. The buyers were the bait. The idea was they would read the paper, quote from it and demand that space companies respond to articles in SpaceNews, prompting sellers in the market to view the newspaper as a must-read. Subscription and advertising dollars would surely follow, or so the theory went. We would control the subscription list, limiting it to senior and mid-level people in industry and government.
SpaceNews would join the stable of tabloids owned by the Army Times Publishing Co., a privately owned company based in the Washington suburbs that had enjoyed decades of success with Army Times and other weeklies specializing in news for military personnel. The company recently had created Defense News, a business weekly for the defense world that turned a small profit in about three years, practically the speed of light for a newspaper. Henry Belber, the company president, had sparked the creation of Defense News and nurtured its development. He was itching for another success.
So was I. As executive editor of both newspapers, I knew that grand strategies would get us only so far. We needed talented people to breathe life into our new baby. As editor, we recruited Theresa Foley, a seasoned space journalist, to lead the paper through the launch and into its formative years. Articulate and assertive, Foley brought her experience to each news article and personified SpaceNews on the D.C. circuit — the hearings, conferences and receptions that are a basic staple of Washington insiders.
Other talented journalists signed on, including Lon Rains, Andrew Lawler, Dan Marcus and Vince Kiernen. Peter de Selding would report from Paris and anchor our foreign coverage for years to come.
Some staff members had experience in space coverage. Others had none. All valued good reporting and getting the story right. That meant hustling, checking facts and interviewing broadly. It meant lowering your head and plowing forward when doors were slammed in your face. Our editorial standards were tough and exacting. We put them in writing and followed them rigorously.
Everyone on the staff understood the challenge ahead. The readers we wanted were highly educated, knowledgeable about space subjects and enjoyed access to a broad array of news and information sources. They were busy people who worked under the pressure of deadlines to be met and goals to be achieved. Our toughest competition was not against other publications. It was to win a slice of readers’ time. That wouldn’t be easy.
We entered our introductory phase with four monthly issues beginning in September 1989. We would go weekly in January 1990. This gave us a chance to exercise the staff, cultivate sources and present SpaceNews to advertisers. Our recent experience in the defense market was a bit like riding a rocket to success. We expected nothing less from our latest creation.
We were naïve. The silence from advertisers was deafening. And there was no letup. Week after week, the lack of ads was disheartening. The red ink we generated eventually became a threat to the existence of SpaceNews.
Hindsight is always 20/20. We had based our expectations on our experience in the defense world rather than a thorough analysis of the much narrower space market. SpaceNews was underfunded from day one. Responsibility for ad sales was given to an existing staff already working feverishly on another newspaper. Forget the rocket ride. SpaceNews’ path to profitability would be a slow, painful uphill grind.
We found ways to cut some costs while broadening the paper’s appeal with coverage of intelligence satellites, India’s space programs and other topics. The paper was given a single dedicated sales rep. We cut our complimentary subscriptions to the bone, reducing printing costs and prompting some on the freebie list to buy a subscription. Over time, more people in government and industry turned to SpaceNews for news and information about their business. That led to more revenue from subscriptions and ad sales.
Ever so slowly, our balance sheet changed from red to black. It would be almost five years before we turned an annual profit.
I felt more relief than elation. And I felt a sense of redemption for all who worked fiercely to make the paper a success. I was thankful for a publisher who had the patience and pockets deep enough to stick with SpaceNews on its torturous climb to financial viability. Few would have done it.
The ensuing years have brought technology changes that contributed to a revolution in publishing. The space community has been transformed as governments questioned the value of human exploration of space, dealt with a crippling recession and pushed some government missions to the private sector. Along the way, the paper’s family-owned corporate parent was purchased by Gannett Co., one of the world’s largest publishers, which then sold SpaceNews to Lou Dobbs’ Internet startup Space.com, which itself became part of a larger holding company called Imaginova. In 2012, Imaginova sold SpaceNews to an investor group known as Pocket Ventures, which has focused on building a digital future for the publication.
Meanwhile, SpaceNews flourished. Foley moved on to other adventures and was succeeded by Lon Rains and then Warren Ferster, who expanded the paper’s appeal and solidified its reputation as the world’s foremost publication about the business and politics of space. That is a credit to many, including the journalists who over the years gathered the news with skill, tenacity and a passion for their work.
Rick Barnard was the founding executive editor of SpaceNews.