A Master Course in Computer Magazine Ad Salesmanship Circa 1996

More than a quarter century later, PC World associate publisher Jeff Edman's 90-minute presentation on the state of the ad market in the mid-1990s is a piece of publishing history.

When I wrote my rumination on the end of computer magazines in America a couple of weeks ago, I suspected that other people would care about the sad death of a once-mighty medium. But I wouldn’t have guessed the piece would stoke as much conversation as it did, from Reddit to Slashdot to Hacker News to Daring Fireball to Boing Boing to Six Colors and beyond. I even got plagiarized.

So if you’ll indulge me, I plan to continue to write about the computer-magazine era from time to time. And I’d like to start by sharing an internal presentation about the nuts and bolts of ad sales given at PC World‘s San Francisco headquarters in a large conference room we called CR-1, apparently in the fall of 1996 or thereabouts. Through the miracle of the Internet, it has been sitting on YouTube since 2015, where hardly anyone has watched it. If nothing else, I hope writing about it here raises its visibility. If you care at all about the history of computer magazines, it’s pure gold.

Here it is, in three acts. The presentation is in progress as the first chunk begins, and people are still asking questions when the last one ends. I don’t expect most of you to watch the whole thing in one sitting, but just dipping in here and there is worth your time.

The guy doing the presenting—using an overhead projector and transparencies!—is Jeff Edman. I believe he was PC World‘s associate publisher at the time, having spent a decade rising through the ranks of its sales organization. The well-coiffed, mustachioed gent who occasionally interjects is Rich Marino, the magazine’s CEO. Others in the room are my PC World coworkers, though I worked in the Boston office then and am reasonably confident I didn’t attend this meeting even via speakerphone.

In about 90 minutes, Jeff explains the magazine’s value proposition as a marketing tool, which involved reaching “PC-proficient managers” who (we declared) did most of the purchasing of computers and related goods. He delves into the competition between PC World and its principal competitors, which included several magazines from Ziff-Davis (PC Magazine, PC Computing, and Windows Sources) as well as Byte and Windows. (A little over five years later, only PC World and PC Mag survived.) He touches on topics such as how the publication handled advertisers unhappy with negative editorial content about their products, and even addresses the potential impact of the web on print advertising.

Jeff and Rich also look a little forlorn as they discuss how hardscrabble the market has gotten, which is funny in retrospect, as PC World was still growing more corpulent with ads. (The December 1997 issue was a 456-page behemoth, which might have been the all-time record.)

Throughout the presentation, there are reminders that 1996 was still relatively early in the personal technology revolution. “Computers have become so mainstream in America,” Jeff says at about 2:48 in the first video chunk. “Forty percent of adults use a computer. About 20 percent of all adults use one at home and at the office. That’s a lot!” Maybe so, but it also meant that 60 percent of people still hadn’t touched a PC at the time.

Jeff and me mind-melding at a PC World party. One of the few things he was really serious about was the importance of wearing our PC World name tags at such events.

You don’t have to watch Jeff’s show for very long to tell that he was very good at selling advertising space. Not too long after this video seems to have been shot, he became PC World‘s publisher—the person with overall responsibility for sales. A few years after that, he was promoted to CEO. And then, when PC World needed a new editor-in-chief, he appointed me to the position.

For obvious reasons, magazine CEOs who come up through the sales side don’t necessarily understand the editorial aspect of the business. Some may even see it as a nuisance they can tamper with at will. Jeff was not like that at all. He let PC World be PC World, allowed me to have the final say on edit matters, and never suggested we should mess with the product because it had ticked off a potential advertiser. I can still remember him casually telling me that a story we published rightly trashing Microsoft’s dismal “SPOT” smartwatch had prompted the company to tell us it was pulling all its ads for consumer products for a year—a threat I don’t think it followed through on.

On top of everything else, Jeff was remarkably self-aware. He once told me “What I don’t know could fill a warehouse”—a sentiment that I try to remember is also true about myself.

I’m sorry to say that Jeff passed away in 2020. He’ll always occupy a special spot in my brain, but I’m glad to have this video to remember him by, and hope that at least some of you get to know him by watching it.


The End of Computer Magazines in America

With Maximum PC and MacLife’s abandonment of print, the dead-tree era of computer journalism is officially over. It lasted almost half a century—and was quite a run.

Maximum PC and MacLife

The April issues of Maximum PC and MacLife are currently on sale at a newsstand near you—assuming there is a newsstand near you. They’re the last print issues of these two venerable computer magazines, both of which date to 1996 (and were originally known, respectively, as Boot and MacAddict). Starting with their next editions, both publications will be available in digital form only.

But I’m not writing this article because the dead-tree versions of Maximum PC and MacLife are no more. I’m writing it because they were the last two extant U.S. computer magazines that had managed to cling to life until now. With their abandonment of print, the computer magazine era has officially ended.

The first issue of Byte, the first magazine about personal computers—and many people’s candidate for the best such publication, period..

It is possible to quibble with this assertion. 2600: The Hacker Quarterly has been around since 1984 and can accurately be described as a computer magazine, but the digest-sized publication has the production values of a fanzine and the content bears little resemblance to the slick, consumery computer mags of the past. Linux Magazine (originally the U.S. edition of a German publication) and its more technical sibling publication Admin also survive. Then again, if you want to quibble, Maximum PC and MacLife may barely have counted as U.S. magazines at the end; their editorial operations migrated from the Bay Area to the UK at some point in recent years when I wasn’t paying attention. (Both were owned by Future, a large British publishing firm.)

Still, I’m declaring the demise of these two dead-tree publications as the end of computer magazines in this country. Back when I was the editor-in-chief of IDG’s PC World, a position I left in 2008, we considered Maximum PC to be a significant competitor, especially on the newsstand. Our sister publication Macworld certainly kept an eye on MacLife. Even after I moved on to other types of tech journalism, I occasionally checked in on our erstwhile rivals, marveling that they somehow still existed after so many other computer magazines had gone away.

I take the loss personally, and not just because computer magazines kept me gainfully employed from 1991-2008. As a junior high student and Radio Shack TRS-80 fanatic, I bought my first computer magazine in late 1978, three years after Byte invented the category. It was an important enough moment in my life that I can tell you what it was (the November-December 1978 issue of Creative Computing) and where I got it (Harvard Square’s Out of Town News, the same newsstand that had played a critical role in the founding of Microsoft just four years earlier). Even before I purchased that Creative Computing, our mailman had misdelivered a neighbor’s copy of Byte to our house, an error I welcomed and did not attempt to correct. From the moment I discovered computer magazines, I loved them almost as much as I loved computers, which is why I ended up working in the field for so long.

A 1989 Wall Street Journal article on the big bucks being made in the computer magazine business. From the collection of David Bunnell, who cofounded PC Magazine, PC World, and Macworld, among other publications.

I spent most of that time at PC World, which I joined in late 1994 at almost precisely the moment it launched its first web presence. From the start, the web was a terrific way to keep tabs on tech news. Eventually, it would make the whole idea of a publication about computers that came out once a month feel more than a little silly. It also let merchants reach customers directly, a gut-punch to the ad business that had made PC World and its biggest rivals so profitable.

But the web didn’t render printed computer magazines obsolete overnight. PCW had some of its fattest, happiest years as a business in the late 1990s. Even in 2008, when I left, the print magazine was a profit center, not an albatross.

Indeed, the entire computer magazine category spent years in Wile E. Coyote mode. We’d blithely walked off a cliff—it’s just that gravity hadn’t kicked in yet. Here’s a slide from an internal PC World presentation charting our newsstand sales vs. our principal surviving competitors from 1996-2004. By this time, several major magazines had already failed: Byte in 1998 and PC Computing and Windows in 2002.

I should pause to acknowledge that newsstand sales weren’t the primary barometer of a computer magazine’s health. For one thing, about 90 percent of PC World issues were sold via subscription. For another, advertising was what kept us rolling in dough. Still, selling single issues at $6.99 a pop was a great little business in itself, so we put a lot of effort into creating a product that people would notice at the newsstand and choose to purchase. And I am ashamed to admit that I occasionally moved the PC Worlds in front of the PC Magazines when I encountered them for sale, though I wouldn’t be astounded if there were Ziff-Davis staffers who performed the same ploy in reverse.

Our point with the above chart was that PC World had become the newsstand leader. But it did so not by growing but by bumping along rather than nosediving. As you can see from the chart, Maximum PC was the only title that ticked steadily upward. It clearly cared about the newsstand as much as we did, and we worried that it might someday surpass us. (It never did, at least during my tenure.)

In the 1990s, Computer Shopper was so huge it teetered on the verge of being impractical to, you know, read.

Unless you worked at PC World in 2004, what’s most striking about this chart is Computer Shopper’s utter collapse—from something like 350,000 issues sold at the newsstand a month to fewer than 55,000. As the most catalog-like major computer magazine, it was the most vulnerable to being rendered obsolete by the web. Once a 1,000-page (!!!) monthly behemoth, it withered in more dramatic fashion than PC World or PC Magazine. When it didn’t feel like Computer Shopper anymore, readers lost interest.

Even PC World’s best newsstand seller of all time—our Windows 95 issue, seen below in another internal PowerPoint slide—didn’t match Shopper’s mid-1990s heyday. But we sold almost 200,000 copies, for a sell-through rate nearing 60 percent—figures that slipped out of the realm of possibility within a few years. Counting subscribers, we peaked in 1999 at a circulation of 1.25 million, the largest ever for a computer magazine.

Computer magazines had been such a robust business that they could spend years dwindling and remain viable. PC Mag didn’t abandon print until 2008, shortly after I left PC World. Shopper followed the next year. PCW held on until 2013, whereupon I wrote a piece for TIME asserting that the era of the computer magazine had ended. (In retrospect, that was a tad premature.) Macworld made it to 2014.

A Maximum PC cover from back when we at PC World were a little intimidated by their newsstand prowess. (It hasn’t aged well.)

Maximum PC and MacLife, meanwhile, pretty much ignored the internet. They even dismantled their web presences: MaximumPC.com now redirects to PCGamer.com, a sister brand, while MacLife.com simply spits out a string of garbage characters.

Pretending that the internet didn’t exist sounds like a preposterous strategy for keeping a print magazine alive, but it somehow worked. Maximum PC and MacLife survived—scrawny, but with a pulse—until 2023. Their final issues were 98-page weaklings that cost $9.99 apiece and seem to have a grand total of one page of paid advertising between them—plus an article sponsored by a mail-order computer dealer. MacLife has an editorial acknowledging it’s going digital-only; Maximum PC does not.

My local Barnes & Noble still has a sizable technology magazine section, but it’s dominated by British imports that aren’t quite computer magazines.

Should we mourn the end of computer publications printed on paper? No—and yes. What was great about the computer magazine age wasn’t that the information was printed on dead trees and delivered by truck once a month. In most respects that matter, the web is a far superior way to keep people informed about the technology in their lives.

But as timely and efficient a means of communication as online media is, the entire computer publishing industry failed to figure out how to turn it into a business that was remotely as vibrant as print had been. And those vast quantities of full-page ads paid for some amazingly ambitious service journalism.

PC World had a sprawling lab full of technicians benchmarking everything from laptops to TVs, and paid experts well to write how-to columns on products such as word processors and spreadsheets. When we wanted to compare the usability of Windows, OS/2, and Mac OS, we hired normal everyday people through a temp agency and shot video of them performing typical computing tasks. We invested an absurd amount of money on twice-yearly surveys that let our readers rate the reliability and customer service of major computer manufacturers. In 2000, I dropped everything to spend months flying around the country working with Dateline NBC on an investigation into PC repair shops.

Forty years ago, PC World published the most successful debut issue in magazine history.

PC World’s headcount over the last couple of decades tells a story in itself. In mid-2000—well into the web era—we had 80 journalists, product testers, and designers on staff. Seven years later, the figure was slightly over half that. Today, the masthead of the all-digital PCW carries 13 names. I’m unsure if they’re all full-time employees, and almost half are pulling double duty on Macworld.

There is still fine work being done at the online incarnations of former print publications and newer outlets that were digital from the start. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that today’s tech media spans the written word, video, audio, and community—and that it’s possible for an individual journalist to partake in all of the above without being employed by a giant company. Bottom line: If there was a magic switch that would let us ditch present-day computer journalism for what we had in, say, 1995, I wouldn’t flip it.

(Of course, I might feel differently if I’d owned a fabulously profitable computer magazine rather than merely working at one.)

I do remain grateful that computer magazines existed. I’m glad I got to help make them. It’s great that many vintage issues are available in scanned form at the Internet Archive, Google Books, and elsewhere. Their time has passed—but what a time it was.


It’s 2018. Maybe Technologizer Should Be a Newsletter

Next month, it will have been a decade since I started Technologizer, a blog which later became part of TIME but has been largely dormant since I joined Fast Company. The whole notion of a “tech blog” now seems very 2008.

But some of the things that made tech blogging fun–the freewheeling informality, the ability to experiment, the direct connection to an audience–have lately shown up again in a new package: tech newsletters with a bloggy, personal feel. Last week, I was editing an article by JR Raphael about newsletters as a publishing medium–and particularly those created using a platform called Revue–when it dawned on me: Why not revive Technologizer in newsletter form?

So here we go. Over at newsletter.technologizer.com, you’ll find a signup form for Technologizer the newsletter. Issue #1 will go out on Sunday. (At the moment, someone still has the opportunity to be subscriber #1.) [UPDATE: Thank you, first 22 charter subscribers!]

I plan to send it out a few times a week and use it for stuff that’s meatier than a tweet yet doesn’t feel like it should be a Fast Company article. I’ll share what I’m working on, link to what I’m reading, and indulge in a certain amount of tech nostalgia. And I hope you’ll join me.

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Hello Again

Back in early 2016, as an experiment, I redirected the Technologizer.com homepage to my Flipboard magazine. The goal was to have something called Technologizer that I could update easily without writing anything. It worked! But lately, I’ve found that I miss having Technologizer as an outlet. So I’ve turned off Flipboard and intend to blog here at least occasionally.
Fast Company Satya Nadella
Don’t expect too much. My day job at Fast Company keeps me plenty busy, and mostly, I’ll probably just point you to stuff I’m working on there. For starters, I wrote the cover story for our October issue. It’s a profile of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and it’s unique among my pieces for our dead-tree edition in that it is primarily a profile of a person–rather than something about a company that touches on the people who run it as a secondary matter.

My relationship with Microsoft is longer than any other I have with a technology company, dating back to 1978 (I think), when I was a junior high student and Microsoft was a three-year-old purveyor of BASIC for PCs such as my father’s TRS-80. So getting the chance to spend a significant chunk of the past few months working on this story, which involved three trips to Redmond and supplementary interviews with everyone from Sun Microsystems cofounder Scott McNealy to Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota, was particularly meaningful.

That’s all for now. See you at FastCo and on Twitter–and back here before too long, I hope.


Technologizer: The Flipboard Edition


Back in 2014, when I became technology editor for Fast Company, I said I was keeping Technologizer open and reserved the right to write here if I had anything to say that didn’t fit into Fast Company. As it turned out, Fast Company is a wonderful place to write about nearly anything. I’ve only posted on Technologizer twice, both times because I wanted to write about someone who’d passed away.

That tended to make the Technologizer homepage look abandoned. So I’ve flipped a switch to redirect it to my Technologizer magazine on Flipboard, which I update frequently with my own articles and worthwhile reads from around the web. If anything, knowing that it’s what people see when they go to Technologizer.com will induce me to share even more stuff.

This change doesn’t impact all the existing Technologizer posts–they’re all there, just as I published them. And I can still write new Technologizer posts–such as this one–if the mood strikes. This site has been part of my life for almost eight years now, and even if it’s not my bread and butter, it’s nice to know it’s here if I need it.

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That Time I Interviewed Click and Clack

RIP, Tom Magliozzi--and thanks for the memories

Back in the summer of 1997, I got my one and only assignment for a magazine called The Web, back when it seemed like it made sense to publish reviews and profiles relating to websites on dead trees. It turned out to be one of the most entertaining projects I ever worked on: I profiled Tom and Ray Magliozzi, better known as Click and Clack of public radio’s Car Talk.

When I saw the sad news today that Tom had passed away at 77, the memories came flooding back.

I made contact with the Car Talk team by getting the phone number of their production company. In 1997, you did that by calling directory assistance. I still remember the pleasure I took in asking for the number for Dewey Cheetham & Howe.

At least back then, snagging an interview with the brothers was tougher than you might think. They didn’t particularly like publicizing their show, and rarely talked to the press. But my timing was good: My editor, Dan Miller, had asked me to write about them because they were launching their first website. That they were willing to promote.

I conducted the interview one afternoon when they were taping their show at the studios of Boston’s WBUR. They were a little impatient with being interviewed, but smart, warm, and funny. I learned that even though the show felt like it was live–the Magliozzis’ mom sometimes called in after supposedly hearing another call on the radio–the handful of people who made it onto the program were actually chosen from 10,000 prospects a week who left recorded messages. That explained why so many of the on-air callers seemed so similar in personality and car problems. (There was a certain sort of female caller who pretty much made it onto the air several times a week.)

And I was startled to see that the Magliozzis sometimes worked from material written by others. That seemed to happen during the bridging sequences, and I don’t think it’s scandalous, since much of their funniest moments did appear to be ad-libbed–or at least not read off a script. But I see that I didn’t mention it in my story.

The best part of the assignment was that it finally taught me to tell the difference between the brothers, who I’d never bothered to think about as separate individuals before. Tom, the older brother, was a wacko who pretty much seemed to say whatever came into his head. Ray was far more low key, and prevented the proceedings from careening completely off course. From then on, I never had the least bit of trouble keeping track of who was who.

When I’d finished my interview and was ready to leave, the producer handed me a cassette of me chatting with Tom and Ray. It sounded like an episode of Car Talk which I had mysteriously wandered into. I still have it somewhere–but I don’t think I have a tape player anymore.

Anyhow, here’s the story, which I just scanned in from the September 1997 issue of The Web. As far as I can tell, it’s not otherwise available online.

Car Talk


I’m Over at Fast Company. Join Me, Won’t You?

Just a quick reminder: I’m now happily ensconced in my new gig as technology editor for Fast Company. That means that the vast majority of my tech writing will appear on FastCompany.com. To see what I’ve been up to so far, you can check out my author page.

I do reserve the write to blog here occasionally if I have something to say which doesn’t feel like a good fit for FC. And I’m updating the Technologizer Flipboard magazine with my own work as well as interesting stuff I’m reading elsewhere. But mostly, I’m over at Fast Company–and I hope you’ll hang out with me there.


RIP, Jim Frederick

Jim FrederickJim Frederick, the first editor I had during my time as a tech writer for TIME, died unexpectedly on Thursday night. He was only 42, and I’m still in shock.

The loss would be incalculable no matter what the circumstances, but it feels especially jarring and surreal given the bright future Jim was building for himself. Along with his wife Charlotte, he’d just switched coasts from New York to San Francisco in order to start a media consultancy. (I got the LinkedIn notification formally announcing the news just yesterday morning.)

Jim’s most obvious legacy will be his work as a globe-trotting journalist–the author of an important book on the Iraq war and a reporter for TIME in Tokyo and London who eventually oversaw all of the magazine’s international editions. But to me, he was my editor, one of the best I ever had.

If you were making a movie about a TIME-like newsmagazine and wanted to cast the role of a smart, capable, sympathetic editor, you’d try to find someone exactly like Jim. He was tall, good-looking, a little gangly, and, above all, unflappable. The expression on his face in the photo here, which I stole from his Twitter profile, captures him perfectly–those eyebrows, as far as I knew, were permanently arched.

Digging around his recent tweets, I just learned that he had an interest in transcendental meditation. Given his preternaturally unstressed air, it makes perfect sense: Maybe the media business would be in better shape if all of us gave it a try.

As the editor of TIME.com, he remained remarkably calm when I pushed my deadlines to the limit (and beyond). Every change he made to my copy was a carefully-considered improvement. He was good at checking in, offering compliments, imparting wisdom, and admitting mistakes. I trusted him, in part because I knew he trusted me.

Not too long after I began writing for TIME, I met Jim in person for the first time. He took me out for a drink at a bar near the Time & Life Building in Rockefeller Center, and in about 45 minutes, he told me everything I needed to know about TIME–a primer which, in retrospect, gave me as clear and canny an understanding of the institution as I’d ever get.

I last saw him in June, when we met for a beer at a restaurant in the Inter-Continental Hotel in San Francisco called Luce. (When I suggested the venue, I forgot the establishment’s name, but the reference to TIME’s founder was probably Freudian on my part.) I’d just resigned from TIME and filled him in on my plans; he let me know about his intention to come west in search of new opportunities.

He’d already visited a few startups in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and told me that he was struck by the atmosphere. By and large, people seemed to be happy to be at work. They were energized, excited about trying new things, and not overly worried about the possibility of failure. (The vibe at big New York-based media companies can be radically different, for reasons I don’t have to explain.)

Jim asked me: Was the optimism he noticed normal in the Bay Area? Yes, I said, it was. He was so much looking forward to being part of it, and I still can’t believe that he won’t be.

The New York Observer’s Ken Kurson, who worked with Jim during an earlier part of his Time Inc. career at Money magazine, has written a wonderful remembrance of the man. I’m sure there will be many more to come.


I’m Going to Want a Car With Built-In LTE…Eventually

GM equips new vehicles with broadband and hotspot capability
Buick 4G LTE

Buick owners enjoying their car’s built-in LTE in a photo provided by GM

Last week, General Motors invited me to a press event at which it showed off some new Buicks. Normally, such events involve driving new cars. But when we hit the road during this one, I willingly sat in the back seat and fooled around with my phone and tablet–because the primary purpose of the event was to demonstrate the 4G LTE broadband and Wi-Fi hotspot features built into the cars.

Across its brands, GM is being particularly aggressive about rolling out in-vehicle LTE connectivity. Most Buick models, for instance, are getting it now; all of them will have it by the 2016 model year. No other company has announced plans to put LTE into so many vehicles so soon.

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A Celebration of James Garner’s Polaroid Commercials

James GarnerThey weren’t the best thing he ever did, or the one which we’ll cherish the most. But with the sad news of the passing of James Garner, it’s worth pausing to remember the commercials he did in the late 1970s and early 1980s for Polaroid. And–this being Technologizer–it’s how we’ll memorialize him here.

When it came to celebrity spokespeople, Polaroid wasn’t stingy: Laurence Olivier did the first ad for the SX-70 camera, and Danny Kaye touted the ill-fated Polavision instant movie system. Hiring James Garner was a similarly classy move, but the ads he appeared in weren’t like anything which Polaroid had done before. Or anyone else, really.

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