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Profile: Rob Bates

JCK Magazine

Aug 21, 2013 6:12 AM   By Rapaport News
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JCK magazine is a leading trade publication for the jewelry industry, providing in-depth coverage of the latest developments in jewelry manufacturing, design and retail.

Name: Rob Bates
From: USA
Company and title: JCK magazine/JCKonline – Senior Editor

1. What prompted you to pursue a career in the diamond and jewelry industry?

Happenstance, really. When I graduated from college, I was looking for a job where I could write. I saw an ad for a reporter for Martin Rapaport’s newsletter, which was just then getting off the ground. (I remember it was a big deal when it sold its first ad). My grandfather was a diamond dealer on 47th Street, so when I came to the interview, I talked about how I had a long family history in the diamond business. Of course, I really didn’t know that much about it—but I guess Martin pitied me, and here I am 20 years later. Now I can say I really do enjoy covering the industry.

2. What has been the most exciting story that you have covered over the course of your career?

Trying to track down exactly what happened with the 2005 GIA scandal was a fascinating experience. I don’t think the whole truth ever really came out, but it remains a subject of great interest to me, and it’s a shame the trade never found out exactly what happened there.

In addition, watching all the changes in the business—from the end of the cartel structure to the establishment of the Kimberley Process—has been fascinating. I know the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to ethical issues and modern business practices, but when I look at how it functioned when I first started, it really is impressive how far it’s come.

3. What is the best professional advice you have received?

Many years ago, I read a roundtable with political journalists, and one said (I’m paraphrasing), “I want my subjects to say that, while they may not agree with everything I wrote, I was at least fair to them and their point of view.” So that’s the standard I aspire to. I probably fall short of it quite a bit, and I’ve had people tell me that I’m too fair—that I should go after people more. But to me, that is the ideal.

I will add that working for Martin Rapaport early in my career was crucial in letting me see the possibilities involved in covering the diamond business. When I first worked for him in the early 1990s, I was 25, and didn’t necessarily care if Zale went bankrupt (that was the big story at the time). But he would get so passionate about the industry, it helped instill that passion in me.

4. How has the sector’s publishing landscape changed over the years and why?

Obviously, there are a lot fewer magazines now—at one point, not that long ago, there were five jewelry trade books—and a lot fewer people working for them. When I started, the magazines separated their reporters by beat. One person would cover diamonds, another would cover gems, etc. And it was great because you got to really specialize and understand what you were writing about. Now, you generally have one person covering news in all the sectors, and there are aspects of the business—like gems and watches—that don’t get covered as much. And that’s a loss. I also feel having less magazines means less information and fewer divergent voices, and that’s a loss as well. Of course, none of this is unique to the jewelry trade; it’s happening throughout journalism and publishing, mostly due to the rise of the web. In a strange way, the web has meant both more information and less of it.

5. How significant a role does the web play in obtaining information and marketing products?

Obviously, the web is huge for reporting and information. It’s hard to believe that I once did my job without it. It used to be that if say, you wanted to find out for a story, say, how many married women there are in the United States, you would have to call a bunch of people, until you found someone who could give you the right stat. (411 was really big back then.) If you were persistent, you’d eventually find out what you needed to know, but it would take a while. Now you can find out information like that in seconds. It is so much easier.

For me professionally, the web has been great. When I first started my blog in 2007, I was relatively well-known in the business; I had been writing about it for about over a decade. But having a blog and having my name out there every day online really took it to another level, and gave me a far more direct and personal relationship with the people I write about. It’s also great to get immediate feedback on my articles, and I love the immediacy of being able to find out something at 11:00 a.m. and get it on the web by noon. When I think of how I used to write a news story that wouldn’t come out until three weeks later, it is just amazing to me.

6. Is video changing the landscape for writers and if so, how?

That’s a great question. We don’t do a lot with video, at least on a regular basis, though we have a series called JCKTV that we do at the Vegas show, and I think at some point we will do more. There are people who prefer to process information that way, and of course this is a very visual business.

I think, and this really goes beyond the diamond business, that video is making newsgathering more transparent. By that I mean, it used to be you would read in the newspaper that “the President of the United States reacted angrily today …” And if you didn’t catch the clip on television, you would have to take the reporter’s word for it that the President did indeed react angrily. Now, you can read the story and judge for yourself just how angry he was. So it is kind of a check that wasn’t there before.

7. What are the toughest challenges facing the diamond and jewelry industry at this point in time?

Sometimes, in my pessimistic moments, I think the diamond industry could face a death by a thousand cuts. It’s dealing with so much now: a mixed consumer reputation; synthetics; the end of the cartel structure; comparison-shopping on the Internet; and reduced access to financing. Someone said to me the other day, “This industry is still realizing that De Beers isn’t taking care of them anymore.” And that’s true, but also kind of striking, because De Beers hasn’t been the “industry guardian” for over a decade. So the business is still adjusting to its new circumstances, as well as a very different world all around it.

And yet, the long-term supply-demand projections for diamonds are extremely healthy, and there are still people making money out there. So there are plenty of challenges, but also opportunities for fresh thinkers and smart businesspeople to seize the moment.

8. What current trends are bound to transform the diamond and jewelry industry in the future?

The biggest is the new generation of consumers, who are more socially responsible, more tech-savvy, and independent enough that they won’t necessarily buy or wear something just because their parents did. They don’t necessarily have the same desire for fine jewelry or diamonds that previous generations did; many have never even seen a De Beers commercial. So the industry needs to think about how to engage them, while realizing that a lot of the old ways of selling and marketing won’t necessarily work on them.
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