Seybold Seminars No More: The End of an Era

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In a largely unpublicized move, the parent company of Seybold Seminars, MediaLive, has cancelled all Seybold Seminar events for the balance of 2005 and all of 2006. A visit to www.SeyboldSeminars.com reflects the Seybold Report and Seybold Bulletin publications, and makes no reference to events of any kind. On the MediaLive home page, a link to events reveals Comdex, Interop and some other miscellaneous shows, but has no reference at all to Seybold events, though there is a link to Seybold publications. That site references Seybold's 35-year run as an influential force in the printing and publishing world.

For those of us who have participated in Seybold events in one way or another over the years, this is a sad-though not unexpected-end of an era. From all reports, the Seybold conference held in conjunction with Print 05 was poorly attended and sponsored, and this, I am sure, was the death knell for the events. In fact, attendance has been steadily declining over the last several years as Seybold has seemingly lost its way, and after two Seybold San Francisco events in a row that were poorly attended and lacking the strong messaging and influential leadership of the past, I chose to take them off my personal trade show coverage list.

MediaLive, and its new leader, Drew Miller, have refused to comment on this turn of events, but I was able to get comments from a number of people who have long histories with Seybold. Their perspectives are shared here. As is often the case with dear friends in declining health, it is time to bid our old friend, Seybold Seminars, a fond farewell.

Craig E. Cline
(Former VP of Content for Seybold Seminars)

After reaching its zenith in 2000, Seybold Seminars officially crashed and burned following Print 05 when the company announced discontinuation of all remaining events. They evidently laid off the Program Director and General Manager as well, which means only the publications are left. I can't imagine they are long for this world. Seybold was done in by the company's refusal to change business models after 9/11, and this was exacerbated when the company got rid of its long-time Content Leader, namely me, and all of the editors in Media PA. All of us represented Seybold for so many people, and the brand-aside from the newsletter-never recovered from these blows. RIP.

Thad McIlroy
(Seybold's Program Director for 5 Years)

To understand the problems that brought Seybold down, you need to start with the various financial shenanigans that took place after Jonathan Seybold and family sold the business to Ziff-Davis in the early 90's. When Ziff sold to Softbank, the financial crisis was established. Seybold and its associated shows (Comdex and Networld & Interop) were saddled with an unbearable amount of debt through this transaction, and it was the debt as much as anything that eventually brought Seybold down. All of the huge management mistakes in one way or another related to attempts to try to manage an essentially bankrupt company.

George Alexander
(Formerly Executive Editor of Seybold Publications)

The period from 1975 to 1995 was a revolutionary time for printing and publishing, and I had the phenomenal good fortune to watch the action from a front-row seat inside the Seybold organization for most of that time. When I joined Seybold Publications in 1980, The Seybold Report was well established (having been launched in 1971), but the Seybold Seminars hadn't gotten started yet (the first, with a few hundred attendees and no associated trade show, was in 1981 in Los Angeles).

It was a heady time for the industry, since the potential of the computer was just beginning to be explored. Atex was revolutionizing the newspaper editorial process, Penta was turning the commercial typesetting business upside down, the first commercial WYSIWYG systems (Bedford for page layout and Camex for ad layout) were stunning the paste-up artists, Compugraphic was wresting galley-oriented typesetting from the clutches of the Linotype operators and moving it to an office environment, and Scitex was just about to computerize the work of the retouchers, dot-etchers, and color-separation scanner operators. Every trade show brought new breakthroughs.

The Seybold Report was well positioned to cover this activity, and we loved doing it. We weren't necessarily smarter than other people, but we all had some basic computer knowledge, some degree of printing and publishing background, endless curiosity, and an underlying faith that the computer would make it possible to do most things better than they had previously been done. The Seybold Seminars brought together a core group of attendees, most of them Seybold Report readers, who saw the world the same way we did and wanted to exploit the new technology in their own organizations.

Starting in the mid-1990s, something unprecedented happened: the technology slowed down. Yes, change was still going on in certain areas-plate imaging technology, XML, large-format printing, the Web-but the changes were fewer and farther between. The "cutting edge," which had been our habitat for so long, was disappearing.

We struggled mightily to find ways to respond to the slower pace of innovation, but it was a problem we never could solve. The newsletters and the Seminars went into a long and painful downhill slide. Analyzing change was the only thing we were really good at. Take away the change, and the reason for our existence was gone.

Seeing a great organization go through a slow-motion collapse certainly leaves a bitter taste. But as I look back on my many years as a Seybold employee, my overwhelming feeling is gratitude that I was able to go along for that wild, wonderful ride.

Andy Tribute
(Former contributor to Seybold Publications)

Seybold Seminars appears to have closed the door on its operations, even though the official position is it will hold no more seminars this year and has no schedule for 2006. Following a recent series of very poorly supported events, culminating in a cancelled European PDF event and a disastrous event at Print 05, it appears this is the end of the line for this operation. In my opinion, the company has been going downhill ever since it was sold by Jonathan Seybold to Ziff Davis. From that time, Seybold Seminars, while employing some great people, has been run by organizations who knew nothing about how to run seminars.

In its heyday, when Seybold was the most influential organization in the printing and publishing world, Seybold demonstrated its understanding of this business by a brilliant linking of Seybold Publications with Seybold Seminars. Unlike other event companies, Seybold used the influential strength of Seybold Publications to leverage its seminar business, and from that developed a great trade show business. Companies like Ziff Davis, Softbank and MediaLive viewed the business in the opposite direction-as a trade show company that operated seminars and which also published newsletters.

Through this approach, Seybold Seminars lost its way and lost its franchise as the influential opinion leader in the industry with a core base of followers. As it searched for a new area of influence, it ignored its core business and lost as its supporters. Seybold was perhaps the first publishing and event organization to realize the likely impact of electronic media on printing.

Unfortunately it largely abandoned printing to other organizations but then failed to establish itself as the brand of influence in electronic media. In recent years it has tried to re-establish itself in print publishing with its support for PDF, but that effort came too late and its supporters had long turned to new sources of information.

Seybold Seminars has had some great moments. The dramatic sessions in the 1990s when people like Bill Gates, John Warnock and Steve Jobs essentially changed the direction of their companies while under pressurized interviews from Jonathan Seybold, the finest conference moderator I have ever seen, will live in attendees' memories. Seybold Seminars working together with Seybold Publications, largely drove the switch of publishing to electronic technology, it helped start the desktop publishing revolution and the rise of PostScript and PDF.

It may perhaps be remembered for first identifying the potential of the World Wide Web and the Internet to change the face of printing, publishing and the media. The fact it failed itself to manage its transition from paper to electronic information delivery may be seen as its legacy as it becomes just one more casualty of change.

Michael Maziarka
(Director of the Dynamic Content Software Strategies Consulting Service, InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, and long-time contributor to Seybold Seminars content)

It's sad to see what has happened to Seybold. For so long, it had been a premier industry event-conference and trade show-that pulled in executives and practitioners from the professional publishing industry, printing industry, and the corporate world. To me, Seybold was always about "where the publishing industry was headed."

With the economic downtown, it was tough for them to pull in the audience that would make the vendor community happy. Consequently, they began to lose that financial support (as witnessed by the continuously decreasing exhibit space) and Seybold did not know how to respond. That, of course, forced the early retirement of the very knowledgeable staff (Craig Cline, Mark Walter, George Alexander, et al.). Soon thereafter, Seybold's edge, which had already been hurt by the economy, rapidly dissipated.

This is not to say that the programs following Craig's departure did not have quality sessions or speakers. I attended some presentations and found the content to be good. But, I don't think that the conference presented the larger vision of where the industry was headed, which had been what the brand was all about.

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