net.wars: Remembrance of magazines past

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 August 2002

Twenty years ago, when a sector of the magazine market crashed, probably people figured that fashions had changed and the sector had run its course. Now, when computer magazines crash, everyone wonders instead whether the death of print media is upon us. Not likely.

Wendy M Grossman

Tuesday, VNU announced it was closing PC Magazine  - which it bought from Ziff-Davis in 2000 - along with the 20-year-old title What PC? (formerly What Micro?), and the controlled circulation title Network News

Other casualties of the last year or two: some 20 titles at Future, the separate technology sections of the Times and the Telegraph, PC Direct, the European editions of Business 2.0 and The Industry Standard, Sky's dot.tv... To say nothing of the many magazines I remember - either writing for or reading - that went earlier: Windows User, PC Dealer, Personal Computer Magazine, Internet and Comms Today...you get the idea.

The US computer magazine market is faring no better. Ziff-Davis is said to be near bankruptcy, having closed most of its computing titles. Both markets now feature many fewer magazines, most aimed either at beginners or at specific niches. There are exceptions, titles aimed at computing professionals (such as PC Pro and PCW), but these ought to be the ones most threatened by the Internet. Professionals do not need "the comics" for news, reviews, or technical information; they get those better and faster and in greater depth from the Web and from each other in the small, trusted communities the Internet enables. Recruitment advertising, once the mainstay of Computing and Computer Weekly, is also gone to the Web.

We will never really know exactly how much the Internet's growth (which, ironically, was promoted by these very same magazines) has had to do with the crash in computer magazines over the last two years. We do know that the combination of the dot-com crash, the stock market plummet, and September 11 triple-witched the advertising market that supported them.

It's arguable that there are still too many, but you could say that of "women's" magazines, too. (I never get why they call them that: I'm a woman, and I read The New Yorker and Business Week.) Martin Banks used to pop up every so often in technology journalists' online discussions to remind us all that once upon a time there were three refrigerator magazines. They ran features on how best to arrange food, how long to keep it, storage techniques, and, I imagine, quirky little pieces about whether the light stays on when you close the door.

It always served as a frightening reminder of what could happen when computers finally went mainstream and became less the focus of intense interest and more just one of those things you have in your house that everyone knows how to live with.

We haven't really reached that stage. My doubles partner worriedly recounted to me a set of complex symptoms his computer was displaying. He knew, in detail, exactly when they started, too. It was the day when, after a week or two of wary doubt, he finally succumbed to curiosity and clicked on the attachment in a dubious-looking message... It seems likely he has the Klez.e worm, and I - as the closest thing to a geek he knows -  will shortly be called upon to go round and get rid of it for him. "Back up any files you want to be sure you can keep before I get there," I said. "Oh," he said, "usually does that for me." This is someone who could use a monthly dose of printed computer education. It's the last thing he wants. He's not interested in computers.

For those who are, computer magazines are like travel titles: filled with stuff to fantasie about as you sit in your living room next to your kludgy old P133.

Personally, I blame the publishers. Publishers have relentlessly hacked away at the quality of these magazines, dumping experienced people in favour of younger, cheaper writers. Most of these titles were understaffed, underbudgeted, and plagued with word counts such that a freelance reviewing printers couldn't afford to do more than wrestle it out of the box and print a page or two. Reviews and features have gotten shorter and shorter, with accordingly less meat to them. A favourite trick in the early 1990s was to raise the point size on the page; same number of pages, but shorter features (and therefore lower article fees for freelances). Photographers were cut, too, as instead of calling in professionals to do product photos and screen shots (literally: camera on a tripod pointing at the computer screen) magazines now rely on free-use PR-supplied photos and digital screen shots taken by the writer. It's not the Internet's fault if publishers have a death wish.

So I'm not convinced that the crash of computer magazines means much. It's certainly not the death of technology journalism. We've been hearing for at least eight years now that the Internet is going to kill off the need for journalists. You guys can all go out and read eBay's SEC filings for yourselves and call up Bill Gates for comments, can't you?

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).