What you’re reading right now is an attempt at helpful information and advice about personal computers and the Internet. But the world of information technology is as varied as it is complex, and there are plenty of other places to seek out news and tips as well.
Computer magazines and their online kin are one such place. Hundreds of different computer publications—national and local, general-interest and specialized—crave your attention. Some are newsstand magazines that are available at your local bookstore and by subscription; others are “controlled circulation” publications that are available by subscription for free to industry professionals who buy computer products in quantity and meet other criteria.
Computer magazines, like many institutions, are useful but imperfect. Readers sometimes express concern that companies that advertise receive favorable mention in reviews and other articles. The best computer publications take pains to prevent advertising from influencing editorial, referring to this in terms such as the separation of church and state.
The biggest news recently about computer news was a stand that the editor-in-chief of the leading circulation general-interest computer magazine took in trying to preserve editorial independence. In early May, Harry McCracken resigned after 12 years at PC World because of alleged pressure from the magazine’s management to soften or avoid altogether articles and reviews critical of major advertisers.
PC World’s success has been due largely to its willingness to be brutally honest in its reviews and feature stories, regardless of whether it was being brutally honest toward a company that advertised in it. It consequently built a cadre of loyal readers who valued its honesty and integrity. This year the magazine won a Maggie award for best computer magazine, the latest of many such awards.
But PC World, like many other print publications, has been struggling in recent years to retain advertising revenue in an increasingly fragmented publishing world where the new kid on the block, the Internet, is giving new options to advertisers as well as to readers.
According to IntelliQuest’s latest surveys, the circulation base of PCWorld (www.pcworld.com) is 850,000, slightly higher than PC Magazine ’s 700,000 (www.pcmag.com). Both claim readership of 4.8 million, which includes those who don’t buy but pick up the magazine after someone else has read it. Both magazines have lost advertising and editorial pages (not to mention readers), since the year 2000.
PC World’s McCracken quit after the magazine’s new CEO killed an article titled “Ten Things We Hate About Apple.” When readers heard about this, they went ballistic, expressing their indignation in blogs, online discussion groups, and letters to the editor, with many threatening to cancel their subscriptions. The CEO then reportedly denied that advertiser pressure played a part in McCracken’s resignation.
In an email message to me during this time, McCracken told me he was asked to return as editor-in-chief, but he declined. Only days later, however, he changed his mind, and he was reinstated in his former position, reportedly earning a hero’s welcome among fellow editorial staffers back at the magazine. The new CEO was reassigned by the magazine’s parent company.
This is not to say that bias doesn’t exist at even the best computer magazines. Most computer publications, subtly or blatantly, encourage readers to buy the latest and greatest.
Part of this bias innocently stems from the fact that many people who write and edit computer magazines are gadget geeks, and their zeal for the latest tools and toys colors their buying recommendations. But part no doubt also results from a “Buy, buy, buy!” pro-industry boosterism that creates an overall climate attractive to advertisers.
The Internet remains tough competition for computer magazines. Blogs such as Engadget (www.engadget.com), founded by Peter Rojas and recently purchased by America Online, are good reads for gadgetgeeks. The same can be said for Web aficionados about the blog BuzzMachine (www.buzzmachine.com) from Jeff Jarvis.
It only follows that more and more people are using information technology to obtain news about information technology. Getting your computer and Internet news over the Web makes it easier to archive material for later retrieval, and it can’t be beat for breaking news.
For several years, traditional computer magazines have been paying attention, trying to leverage the Internet with free, advertising-supported online versions. Many also offer free email-based news alerts, which you can sign up for by filling out a form at the respective site, as well as RSS feeds for mobile devices.
CNET (www.cnet.com), an oldie-but-goodie online news and information service, is available only online, providing the same kind of content as the best computer magazines.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.