When magazines lose their charm

Old-fashioned computer periodicals don't make much sense anymore. How much time do the new business journals have left?


Last month I let my subscription to PC Magazine lapse.

Subscriptions come and go, but this was no short-term dalliance. I’d been getting the magazine for about a decade and a half, since the days when a 386-processor-based system was unthinkably powerful (and expensive), a 20 MB hard drive was generous and ads for PCs were filled with references to “zero wait states.” In those days, a magazine could offer a floppy disk full of shareware utilities as a free bonus for new subscribers — and the offer seemed attractive.

PC Magazine had never been a beacon of fine writing (though it has long employed Auden scholar and Columbia University English professor Edward Mendelson to write product reviews), and for some time I’d been aware that its leading competitor, PC World, actually did a better job of covering what had once been known as the “IBM-compatible” computing world. PC Magazine had the most unfathomable publication schedule — some months it came out once, some twice — and toward the latter part of the calendar it fattened up with enough advertisements to make it uncomfortably heavy for lap reading.

But my geekier side had always gotten off on the exhaustive product comparisons emerging from the ZD testing labs. And those endless computer system ads from vendors now long forgotten (Zeos? Austin?) provided an indispensable encyclopedia of the state of the industry.

Like its competitors, PC Magazine did its best to keep up with the rise of the Web. Beginning in 1996 or so it seemed as if every other cover story was a compendium of the Best Web Sites for This or That.

But one of the things the Web did best was to make magazines like PC Mag useless. It offered deeper, timelier product information databases and direct lines to system manufacturers. Who needed the six-week-old Dell prices from the PC Mag ad when you could get today’s price from Dell’s site? If I wanted to take in the latest curmudgeonly rant from columnist John Dvorak I could always find it on ZDNet. The paper product that I’d consumed for so many years came to seem less a valuable service and more a bit of useless clutter.

So I woke up one day and asked myself: Why was I still killing trees?

The trees, alas, are not quite out of the woods. With the eclipse of the old-line computer magazines now well underway, a whole wave of new-economy business magazines is arriving on the scene to consume mass quantities of pulp.

When Business 2.0 and the Industry Standard came onto a field already occupied by Upside and the Red Herring, Wired and Fast Company — all targeting similar, though not identical, readers and advertisers — I assumed that a shakeout was imminent. But instead this market seems, for the moment, inexhaustible. ECompany Now has just joined the fray, and the Standard and Business 2.0 are both launching new supplements. Forget the April Net-stocks downturn; if you want to see what a bubble economy looks like, just take a gander at this groaning newsstand.

In this environment, the sheer volume of journalistic verbiage required to support the number of ad pages that technology companies and Net start-ups demand is dauntingly difficult to produce. A PC Magazine could always just go out and review 200 new computer systems instead of 100 if it needed to generate some more editorial matter to complement a bumper ad crop. But high-quality reporting and commentary on the technology business are not so easily churned out.

To be sure, there are a lot of smart writers and editors working at these magazines, and frequently good work is mixed in with the dross. But the talent supply is finite. Already, the Standard and Business 2.0, both of which launched with fairly high standards and ambitions, seem to be having a hard time maintaining a flow of must-read material.

I’m assuming that, as an executive at an Internet company and a columnist covering the field, I must be smack in the center of all these magazines’ target audiences. Yet there’s not a chance in the world that I could possibly keep up with most of them — even if they were tightly edited, heavily filtered publications that made every word count. As it is, they are increasingly bloated books in which you can’t find the two articles you might actually want to read because they are awash in a sea of full-page advertisements.

The cycles of the magazine industry — from start-up to hot to has-been — which used to operate over decades, have accelerated like everything else in business. It took 15 years for PC Magazine, once a novel window on a new world, to become superfluous. The new business magazines’ time in the sun is likely to last a fraction of that.

In the overcrowded pages of this overcrowded field, the ads and the content alike are blurring into so much new-economy background noise. It can’t be that much longer before the advertisers whose spending decisions are fueling this business-journalism bubble wise up — and realize just how fast their returns are diminishing. When that happens, don’t be surprised if the downturn that has already depressed the online world washes back over the print world that has been chronicling it.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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