The beginning of our story – an interview with Drew Cullen

Situation Publishing has been going for over 25 years. The beginnings of publications that pre-date the Internet going mainstream can get lost in the mist of time. We sat down with Drew Cullen, who has been with Situation Publishing since its early days, and asked him a few questions.

How did Situation Publishing start?

Situation Publishing started life as an occasional newsletter for the semiconductor industry called “Chip Connection” in 1994. It was written by John Lettice and Mike Magee.

How did you come to get involved with Situation Publishing?

In the mid-nineties I had an idea for a paid-for newsletter aimed towards PC builders. There were more than 200 personal computer integrators in the UK at the time and there was a huge market for components and parts. In 1996 I approached Mike Magee about building my idea. He already had an email newsletter he called The Register and suggested I come on board. In 1997 we teamed up and launched the first version of the website. Situation Publishing was the publisher and The Register was our technology news site.

How did you make money in the early days?

We quickly built a very good reputation and in the early days made money with our newsfeeds – others would take our news and republish it. People needed content for their growing websites and it was a profitable business right up until the dot-com bust.

However, in the early years it was only a part-time occupation. Linus Birtles read The Register and contacted me in 1998 asking to invest. The investment finally allowed us to concentrate on it full-time. I had previously been writing for a publication that Linus owned called Computer Trade Only so knew him well. Linus had sold his publication to Trinity Mirror and was looking for a new challenge.

What happened after the dot-com bust?

We lost money. Companies didn’t believe in Internet advertising at the time and the newsfeed work dried up. It took us until 2004 to be profitable again – it was a tough few years for us.

How have you grown since?

We have always concentrated on quality editorial content. The business itself has steadily grown over the years to where it is now, with about 50 staff across London, San Francisco, New York and Australia. We’ve also formed an alliance with Heise Publishing – one of the largest publishers in Germany – to help our clients reach an important audience in German-speaking countries. This has also led to the launch of our events business.

How do you decide what to focus the editorial on?

We ask: what makes businesses run? Is there an information need or a gap? We’ve always played to our historic strengths of writing about IT infrastructure and IT security, but we’ve been early to pick up on new trends too. What interested our readers when we started doesn’t necessarily work today so we have evolved over time.

Do you just focus on technology?

We have expanded our horizons beyond technology. It’s best if you say: ‘these things interest us and we think they’ll interest you too.’ There are the IT stories of course, but our readers have varied interests outside of IT and we need to appeal to those interests.  The whole point about journalism is knowing what not to write. The soft things are what matter – the humour, the cartoons, the writers who the reader feels comfortable with. I’m talking about flavour, which takes years to develop. We have the patina of age – 25 years.  That’s several lifetimes in internet years, like dog years.

How do you achieve the right balance between journalism and sales/marketing?

Get the editorial right and everything else will follow. Innovation comes from journalists, not from sales. Creating editorial content for sales goes to our freelancers and not our in-house journalists. We don’t want them to get involved with sales, it’s unfair to journalists – we want them to be hungry, to go looking for stories.

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