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A time for reflection

Rays of hope shine through the dust of The Longest Year. Insights hed: A time for reflection dek: rays of hope shine through the dust of The Longest Year. by James Mathewson

Every year we use this issue to take stock in the events of the preceding 12 months, and to read the trends for clues on how to go forward in the coming year. In my tenure, these review/preview issues have been upbeat. Until 2001, I have been editor in a time of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity, especially for the industry that this publication serves. A look at our cover reveals that the survivors of Sept. 11 serve as a poignant metaphor for what 2001 means to the computing industry. Like Ed Fine on our cover, people and companies that survived 2001 will thrive in 2002-of that we are very confident.

Personally and professionally, 2001 was like falling off a cliff and hoping to land in a deep pool. As one who has survived literally falling off a cliff, I have quiet confidence that we will thrive after our dip in the drink. For years to come, The Longest Year will serve as a profound reminder of our fragility. The year was like ritual cleansing. Fasting in sweat lodges is never a pleasant experience, but it always leads to growth and renewal. I will emerge from the ice water bath after the sauna that was The Longest Year with keener insight and stronger resolve to make the most out of this issue and as many issues as I can muster after that.

In Decembers past, I have used this space to look at how I thought the computer press did in the preceding year. That all seemed so appropriate before 2001, when technology publishing was thriving like never before. It should come as no surprise that this past year was, by some measures, the worst-ever year for the tech publishing industry. I have eulogized more than a few publications this past year that were going strong at the end of 2000 (e.g., The Industry Standard). In this environment, it seems more appropriate to use this column to look within, as countless other companies and individuals are doing in preparation for 2002, and to take stock of how ComputerUser did in 2001.

My colleague Michael Finley, whose subsistence depends on a solid tech publishing industry, perhaps said it best in a recent e-mail. “I am hurt by several factors, [including a] recession in the tech sector, which everyone talks about; [and] a depression in newspaper journalism that no one talks about.” As a computer magazine that is often confused for a newspaper, by all rights ComputerUser should have stayed underwater after it fell with the economy. The fact that we bobbed to the surface and made our way to shore speaks volumes about our resilience-a quality that will buoy us as tech publishing rebounds in 2002.

The other day, I looked at the masthead from January 2001 and recalled how difficult it was to squeeze all those names in there. This issue’s masthead poses a different design challenge: what to do with all the white space. Our organization in general and my staff in particular have been cut in half this past year. Yet, in the midst of this, I firmly believe our content has been the best it has ever been in the 20 years of publishing under the ComputerUser brand. I also believe that had our content slipped as a result of the necessary cost cutting, we may have succumbed to the downturn. My department has done its part to keep this brand afloat, and we take pride in that.

I had to let some fine people go this past year, and those people have all had to find work in a very tough climate. I started the year by saying goodbye to my car pool buddy, Senior Editor Phil Davies, who was gracious enough to continue working for us on a freelance basis. In that capacity, he wrote some of the best cover stories in ComputerUser’s history. In fact, his September cover (“Broadband Dogfight”) on the state of broadband is the best feature in the history of this magazine, in my estimation. I wish to confer ComputerUser’s second annual John Heilemann memorial award for outstanding journalism to Phil for this timely and strong feature. I look forward to many more cover stories from Phil in the coming year.

In the middle of the year, I had to let Sara Aase go. She will be remembered for her excellent writing. In fact, her April cover story “Wireless Liftoff?” led the entire industry on the topic of wireless Web usage in its breath and depth of coverage. Fortunately, she also agreed to write for us from a distance, and she will continue to set the standard for our On Time writers with her monthly Sites column.

And I end the year by downsizing Steve Mathewson, the art director who will be remembered for the best year of covers in ComputerUser’s history. I’m not just saying that because he’s my brother. I have never had so much positive feedback about our covers as I have this past year. Fortunately, he landed on his feet with our sister company, MSP Communications, and will bring his considerable skills with him. He will be replaced by Kurt Guthmueller, who designed this book as art director in 1999/2000 and who Steve replaced when Kurt left for engineering school. While he continues his studies, Kurt will work for us part-time and keep up the positive momentum established by Steve.

The irony in all three staff cuts is that the people who have elevated our content to new heights in 2001 are the very people who have been most affected by the downturn in tech publishing. In this respect, ComputerUser is a microcosm of the industry. I have been deluged with requests for writing assignments from people at the very top of the tech journalism food chain. People like Jim Thompson, Brian O’Connell, and Robert McGarvey who had their pick of assignments in years past are needing to increase their volume to to make ends meet now. These people will grace our pages in 2002, making 2001 a springboard for even better content in 2002.

And that is the crucial ray of hope for myself and my remaining staff, who now wear many more hats and work way longer hours than we did last year at this time. Surviving 2001 means thriving, if not dominating, when a better market for tech publishing comes around. And it will come around in 2002-perhaps not in the first quarter, but certainly before the fourth quarter. Regardless of the pace of economic growth in our industry, ComputerUser will continue to improve incrementally because it survived 2001. Not only has some of our competition gone away, most notably MicroTimes, but the talent left behind will enrich our content. And 2001 will only strengthen our sense of determination to continue to improve month by month and year over year.

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