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.
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.