2 min read

Things get ugly at Cygnus

There's some depressing news out of Cygnus Business Media. The B2B publisher is slashing workers' pay by 7.5 percent and cutting hours for hourly workers. Cygnus says senior executives will also have their pay cut. But the company -- seemingly deaf to the public-relations implications of not being transparent -- won't say how much of a cut the big boys will take.
The cost reductions may be related to debt covenants, according to Folio magazine. Cygnus, like many a B2B publisher these days, is controlled by a private equity firm. And as anyone who follows B2B publishing knows, such investors often find themselves owing more than they can pay.
And as we've seen before at Primedia, Ziff Davis and elsewhere -- it's the workers who bear the burden of poorly structured investment deals.

When I launched my consulting business several years ago, Cygnus was one of my first clients. And although I haven't done business with them for a few years now, the company retains a place in my heart. So when I heard the news about the salary cuts, it hit me sort of hard.
The story broke late on Friday as I ended a multiday trip in which I gave two presentations on the future of B2B publishing. And, as I often do, I suggested in both presentations that journalists would need to work harder than ever before to succeed in the fiercely competitive new world of new media.
But as I read the Folio article about Cygnus I was struck by three rather remarkable items that suggest that hard work -- perhaps even extraordinarily hard work -- may not be enough at some companies.

Consider this:
First, it appears Cygnus has seen online ad sales rise year-over-year by more than 50 percent.
Second, the co-CEOs of Cygnus told workers that a decline in print advertising"has accelerated and is significantly larger than we projected during our business reviews, held less than three months ago."
Third, one source expressed dismay that the company's management and owners would be "willing to make the company go through this trauma in order to avoid the modest costs and pain of a bank amendment."
Or in other words:
1. There is evidence that the staff at Cygnus is working harder online than before.
2. Senior management made an error in their projections.
3. The staff is being asked to cover the costs of senior management's mistake -- even though there is another option (reworking the bank agreements.)

I have little doubt that the situation at Cygnus is more complicated than I have portrayed it. Perhaps the debt covenants are unusually tough. Perhaps the creditors are unusually cruel. There are probably dozens of things that I know nothing about that contributed to the decision to cut wages.
Nonetheless, I'm comfortable agreeing with the source in the Folio story who called the salary cuts a "desperate and short-sighted move."
This isn't going to end well.

(Footnote: Speaking of working "harder than ever before to succeed in the fiercely competitive new world of new media," it's worth noting that Folio published its story after the close of business on Friday. But Folio's primary competitors -- BtoB Magazine and min -- still don't have anything on their sites some two days later. )

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