Information Today
Volume 17, Issue 11 • December 2000
IT Interview •
Forecasting a Bright Future
Kiplinger organization president Knight Kiplinger discusses what lies ahead
by Paula J. Hane

For almost 80 years, scores of readers have relied on the advice and forecasting in The Kiplinger Letter. Many of us grew up with Changing Times magazine on the coffee table. Knight Kiplinger, president of the Kiplinger organization and editor in chief of The Kiplinger Letter, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, and, talked with us about the company’s recent product developments, including its latest initiative to create a single, searchable database of the entire organization’s output. This third-generation member of the family-owned publishing company has led the successful transformation from print to the Web.
Q I know that Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine has been searchable through a number of standard databases and vendors, such as IAC, DIALOG, Nexis, etc. But your other content, like The Kiplinger Letter, wasn’t previously accessible electronically before your recent Web initiatives. Is that correct?

A Yes, that’s right. The back issues of our business-forecasting periodicals have never been searchable by anyone outside our organization until very recently, with the launch of Kiplinger Business Forecasts (KBF) a few months ago. This is a new, Web-based subscription service that includes daily updates of our forecasts, and also an archive of our past articles.

Q KBF grew out of a previous Internet product, Kiplinger Special Service (KSS), as I recall. Can you discuss this development?

A Yes, it did. About 2 years ago, we began developing an online business-forecasting service for the corporate library market and corporate research market called Kiplinger Special Service. Kiplinger Business Forecasts is the latest incarnation of this, with a new, more descriptive name. We redesigned the home page, and we began posting stories more frequently—as they are written, rather than holding them for weekly publication.

Q Was the extra forecasting information in KSS/KBF derived from the print newsletters?

A Our online content is derived from the same staff as The Kiplinger Letter, but it is unique to our Web service. It is not the same text as we are publishing for our print subscribers. The weekly Kiplinger Letter, famous for its very terse, condensed style—two or three lines of forecast on a complex subject—has evolved into an executive summary, a briefer version of the fuller information now published online at the KBF site. KBF has stories that are longer, somewhat more detailed, that cite and quote sources, which The Kiplinger Letter doesn’t do at all.

It’s quite a different market. The Kiplinger Letter is read each week by 225,000 subscribers in senior management. It’s an inexpensive publication, at just $78 a year. KBF is deeper, richer, and enhanced with a lot of background information and a lot of special tables and charts that we created for our online users.

It’s important for publishers to remember that print and online are different markets. There are people who are enthusiastic about each medium, but they’re not necessarily the same people. We’re not just taking the same words from print and putting it online and calling it an interactive online community. The online user expects a significantly enhanced service, and that’s what we’re trying to give them.

Q When I looked at it, I saw that you have a free trial for 14 days, and the yearly subscription is $479 for a single user, with site licenses available. What markets, specifically, are you aiming at with KBF?

A We are aiming at the corporate market—medium-size to large companies, which have corporate libraries, “power search” teams, a CIO’s office, a strategic planning staff. Our KBF clients seem to be using it in two ways. In some corporations, executives are enthusiastic users of Web information services, and when they discover a site as friendly and easy to use as KBF, they access it themselves. In other corporations, all research is done in the corporate library. The librarians visit KBF each day, and they disperse our forecasts to users within the company: the general counsel’s office, the CFO’s office, or the chairman’s.

Q Let’s move on to discuss your new product, Kiplinger Finance and Forecasts, and its timing and potential markets.

A Kiplinger Finance and Forecasts (KFF), unlike KBF, is not a Web site with a carefully selected group of stories we publish each day. It’s not a site to be visited by our subscribers seeking Kiplinger’s latest judgment on major trends. Instead, KFF is a database—a large and easily searched database of the entire editorial output of the Kiplinger organization, with both business forecasts and personal-finance guidance, going back 5 years on the business forecasts and eventually going back 10 years with the content of our personal-finance magazine. It will be used for searching on a particular subject.

What we’re most proud of is the thesaurus and the indexing that we are doing in a very labor-intensive way. We examined all of the fully automated, computerized indexing technologies and discovered that they don’t have the sophistication and the sensitivity that we were looking for. Kiplinger periodicals use a lot of colloquial English, a lot of slang, and we use many different terms that are related to the same subject. We had to create a thesaurus in which words like “jobless,” “unemployment,” “slack labor,” and “labor surplus” would be joined together for a search. We think this will give our users more relevant hits.

Q Who worked on the thesaurus for you, and are you doing manual, people-based indexing?

A Our head lexicographer and indexer is Barbara Booth, out in the L.A. area. She has deep experience in library science and also in business content like ours. We have found it’s important that the thesaurus builders and indexers are conversant in the subjects we cover. That’s a no-brainer in medical research or in chemistry or physics, but we’ve found it to be equally important in business.

Every week when we publish new articles, we manually tag every item with the relevant terminology. We know there are computer programs that do this, and we compared their accuracy and versatility with human indexing. We found that smart human beings beat the machines.

Q This works, perhaps, because you are creating the content. It’s not like an aggregator that gets in massive amounts of content from others.

A That’s a very good point. I think that, in the higher-volume world of the aggregators, they have to rely on computers.

Q But your new KFF is very expansive, isn’t it?

A Yes, this new database contains every-thing we publish in every medium: our monthly magazine, our four newsletters (the weekly business outlook letter and our biweekly letters on taxes, agriculture, and the economy of California), our [Kiplinger’s] Retirement Report, and our line of books on business management and personal-finance subjects. That’s a lot of content, but not the massive volume of a publishing conglomerate like McGraw-Hill or Dow Jones. As a matter of fact, at Kiplinger we pride ourselves on the leanness of our content—its brevity and clarity—rather than sheer volume.

Q You talked about coming to KFF to search for information. Would a corporate site want to have both KFF and also KBF?

A Yes, indeed, because they are quite different in function. The forecast stories from KBF will be included in the KFF database, but the KFF user does not get the full Kiplinger subscriber relationship—the query privileges, the ability to ask our staff for research assistance, and original reporting. This is the unique feature of Kiplinger Business Forecasts.

Q So, what about the corporate setting that wants both? Will you cut them a deal?

A We expect that some of our current KBF subscribers, especially large corporations, will want the new database, too, and we will have various packages to accommodate that.

KFF was created with the aggregator market in mind—firms like EBSCO, Northern Light, Gale, LEXIS-NEXIS, etc.—and we’re very honored by their strong interest in this new product. We expect to have the KFF database completed by January. Negotiations and sales are going on now, and it’s fully functional for testing.

We’ve also had some interesting meetings with people in the corporate research market. We are getting good feedback from recent demonstrations. People are happy that we’ll be offering alerts. A number of companies, especially consulting firms, want a way to track who is using the material so they can do charge-backs to departments or client accounts. We’ve gotten positive remarks on the fact that we are tagging items by their new NAIC [North American Industry Classification] codes and also cross-linking with old SIC [Standard Industrial Classification] codes.

Q In Kiplinger Special Service you had outside content included—I think Reuters news was there. Is that available in KBF as well?

A Yes, we have some outside content, too. Our users told us, “We know you’re not in the breaking-news business, but we would like the convenience of financial news wires on your site.” We quickly grasped that there is no good reason to send our subscribers elsewhere for something as simple as stock prices or breaking financial and political news, so we buy these outside news services and give them to our subscribers on, as a utility, a convenience.

In addition, throughout our own Kip-linger forecast articles, we have live links to useful external sites that we have carefully vetted. Many of them are governmental. Here’s an example: If you look up what we’ve written about the outlook for changes in the allowable IRS deductions for business automobile use, we give you the highlights. But for the excruciating details, we link you directly to the IRS documents. That’s an enormous service to our subscribers. If we’re writing about a new commercial technology, after we describe it with journalistic dispassion, we have no problem about linking to the company’s site for more information about their products and services. Our subscribers understand they are leaving the realm of our journalism and moving into the realm of commerce.

Q Recently you announced the choice of Qpass to enable your online transactions. What will this allow you to do?

A It will enable us to sell our Kip-linger content piecemeal, conveniently, and for small sums. We have long felt that pay-per-read, or “a la carte,” information would not really take off until some major companies emerged with simple electronic wallets for the easy purchasing of information. I envision that someday the consumer market will follow the business market in recognizing the value of purchasing information online—information that is not commercially tainted, and which is accurate and dispassionate. But this has been slow in coming.

Now a Web visitor, whether at work or home, can establish one master account with someone like Qpass and not have to re-enter information at many different sites. We looked at a number of fine companies in this field, and we liked the Qpass model and think it has a bright future. They have created a niche in publishing. There are other automatic billing companies that have created beachheads in other areas, such as the online auction world and merchandise for the industrial B2B markets. Qpass is clearly serious about the online sale of information.

Q So, in addition to having subscriptions, KFF will offer the ability for individuals to buy discreet pieces of information.

A Yes, that’s right. We are also looking at our free, open-access personal finance site,, to move some of our free content into a pay-per-read model. Here we are taking a leaf from the newspaper model. The content of most newspapers is available free for a week or 14 days, but costs $2 or $3 an article if purchased thereafter from their archive. Some of the other personal finance sites are now charging for back articles, and we will probably join them in doing this within the next year.

Q Now that you have the database built, what about the possibilities for additional packaging and distribution of your products, slicing the content in different ways for different markets?

A This is something we are exploring. Some of our prospective customers have asked if they can buy a subset of KFF, and the answer is “yes.” They can either do it themselves, by what they choose to search, or we can tailor it for them.

Q You mentioned your line of books. Do you have any e-book plans?

A At present, no. We will continue to publish our books for the retail book trade and the library community. We don’t now contemplate publishing a book online with-out paper production. We don’t rule it out, but we don’t have any plans.

Q Your grandfather founded the company back in the ’20s and your father took over in the ’60s. You joined the Kiplinger organization in 1983 and eventually became president. Tell us about the developments.

A We Kiplingers have a long tradition of first working outside the family business. We are all journalists. My father worked in newspaper and broadcast journalism for a number of years in the ’40s and ’50s. I worked for 13 years in newspaper journalism, mostly with a division of Dow Jones called Ottaway Newspapers, as their Washington bureau chief. I’ve now been here at Kiplinger for over half my career, about 17 years. My father is still active in the company and is chairman of our board. What we love best is the reporting and editing, the news gathering and analysis, and it’s how I spend most of my day.

Q There are a few family-owned publishing companies that have withstood the test of time and the challenges of the Internet. Forbes comes to mind. It seems to me that what you faced at the time you took over the company was the task of transforming a traditional family publishing company into one that took advantage of the Web and became a provider of electronic products.

A That’s very well put. The important thing for us to remember is that we’re in the business of informing, guiding, and advising our subscribers. The medium is less important than the content. We have subscribers who love mail delivery of a paper product, and we will continue to serve them. We have other subscribers who love the immediacy, convenience, and speed of online delivery. Our mission is advising people on what lies ahead, so they can turn those changes to their advantage and adapt to what is coming. The medium is unimportant, but we are passionate about the content.

Back at the turn of the century, a carriage maker who thought of himself just as a carriage maker was doomed to be out of business in about 10 years. But the carriage maker who defined his mission as providing transportation, he did not go out of business. As transportation shifted from horse-drawn carriages to motorized vehicles, he went into the automobile business.

Q Recent technological developments have allowed us to extend our reach and look for new ways to deliver products. Are there any trends or developments you are watching, and where are you headed next?

A Since we’re not in the business of breaking news, and we aim to advise people in a calmer way, we’re not as concerned with speed of delivery as a news organization is. Our work doesn’t require that we deliver it to their beeper or telephone while they are mountain climbing. For now, the wired world of the Internet suffices for us.

Q When I heard you speak a few weeks ago in Dallas, I was impressed with your description of how Kiplinger does its research and gets the pulse of what’s happening. Can you tell our readers a bit about your methods?

A Our editorial staff has big Rolo-dexes of editorial sources, experts in many fields, whom they have found to be reliable and foresighted. Our best sources are not necessarily the highest-placed person in a government agency, congressional committee, corporation, or association. The best source might be at a lower level, where they might be less defensive and gun-shy about talking to reporters. We protect our sources, offering them confidentiality if they wish it.

Q In addition to your personal contacts, you back that up with a solid research staff, I believe.

A Yes, in addition to our journalists, we have people who are like the corporate librarians we serve—research specialists very adept at using secondary research materials and the Web to provide resources to our journalists and our clients.

Q The Kiplinger organization has managed to achieve an amazing record of accuracy in its forecasting.

A Yes, it’s pretty good. We’re often asked if we keep score, and the answer is “no, we don’t,” at least, not in a formal way. But our annual renewal rate, which is quite high, is like a yearly referendum on how well we are serving our readers. They know that we don’t have a crystal ball. The essence of good forecasting is careful, thorough reporting. We talk to as many of the most knowledgeable people as we can find, and then put their observations through the prism of our own vast experience—the institutional memory of our organization.

We obviously miss the mark occasionally, because we are human. But our readers know that on the big trends—interest rates, inflation, the growth or contraction of the economy, the general direction of the stock market—we’ve been very accurate over the years, and that’s why we’re still in business after 80 years.

For more information about Kiplinger, visit or

Paula J. Hane, co-editor with Barbara Quint for NewsBreaks, is contributing editor of Information Today, a former reference librarian, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is

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