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ComputerUser: then and now

A look back with ComputerUser founding editor Dale Archibald.

This past August, our 20th-anniversary issue passed without fanfare. Frankly, we were too busy working to improve the magazine and looking forward to the next issue to give it much notice. But Dale Archibald, the founding editor of COMPUTERUSER, wanted to make sure we celebrated the achievement in some way. So I sat down with him and we interviewed each other about our respective concepts of the publication. The discussion, which shows just how little the publication has really changed in 20 years, follows.

JM: Tell us about the magazine’s origins. What were you thinking when you decided to start the magazine? Why this type of publication?

DA: I had been writing a column on computers and software on a freelance basis for the old afternoon Minneapolis Star, until the evening traffic got so bad they couldn’t deliver it any more and folded it into the Star-Tribune. I called the Tribune’s business editor to pitch it to him. He told me, “There’s no interest in computing in the Twin Cities.”

I had seen evidence to the contrary. Technology shoppers would lament, “I want to ask intelligent questions, but I don’t even know what questions to ask.” My vision was, if retailers want to sell to people, let them pay to educate the buyers. The four main facets were:

— Keep it local–this would appeal to the readers, and advertisers wouldn’t have to compete with mail-order firms; thus, the heavy dose of local coverage, such as the user groups, calendar, BBS listings, etc.

— Keep it free–why charge people for a periodical they would have to work to understand?

— Keep it simple–the technology was difficult enough. Why add to it by showing off that we knew big words?

— Keep it entertaining–why would people read it if it’s not?

As for the three markets, my partner Steve Bianucci was a Chicago native and had just graduated from Harvard, so Boston and Chicago seemed like wonderful opportunities. Of course, this was 1982, and I hadn’t been exposed to the wonders of venture capital: I started the business with what I had in my bank account, under $1,000, and got small loans from friends.

Distribution is always a problem. I wanted to be able to offer a large base, so I ordered 100,000 eight-page Twin Cities tabloids the first issue, then had to scramble to buy racks and rack signs, while getting permission to place them in heavily-traveled locations. Meanwhile, Steve was responsible for the Boston and Chicago markets. Those were short-lived [initially], unfortunately, because of a lack of resources.

JM: What was your target audience in the beginning? How did that evolve in the first couple of years?

DA: Initially, it was an advertiser-supported local publication targeted toward anyone who was interested in any aspect of computing, from schoolkids to retirees. I was looking for volume distribution, after all. Soon, however, it became apparent that the business market was the primary interest of most of our advertisers. I thought that if we wrote clear articles, the information would help anyone who was interested, whether a businessperson or not. Our covers always touted “Business Solutions” as a nod toward the advertisers. This also dictated our slant toward the IBM PC world, since that was the business machine. I tried not to ignore the Mac, but I didn’t want to get into the “My computer is bigger/faster/better” name-calling. Who cares, as long as it does what you need it to do?

JM: What was your primary advertising base in the beginning?

DA: Local retailers were the base. They would get co-op advertising dollars from the various manufacturers. We made a conscious decision not to chase mail-order firms. Naturally, advertisers were reluctant to trust their hard-earned dollars to a fledgling periodical, especially one that was as rough around the edges as we were, with our dot-matrix type and graphics-package headlines. We didn’t have money to hire typesetting, so I tried to portray that shortcoming as a virtue, touting the fact we created each issue totally on a personal computer. The ad salespeople were just as adamant that we had to look good, look professional. Soon we had evolved to sending files to a local typesetter over the modem, and I had to teach that firm how to set up their equipment to change those files into type. Later, we became such a useful instrument, one man trudged through a snowstorm to pay his bill so we’d run his ad.

JM: To my knowledge, COMPUTERUSER is the only publication that covers small local organizations such as user groups and, at one time, independent BBS operations. Why did you choose to cover them?

DA: Information is information. Computing at the time was a passionate grassroots movement, and the local user groups and BBSs were in the forefront of it. Where else should listings and calendars for that type of local resource be available but in a local computer periodical? We had those listings in the very first issue, and often invited user groups to share our booth at computer shows.

JM: At a certain point, you decided to sell the publication to MSP Communications. Why did you decide to sell? What was it like editing the publication after the sale?

DA: I always joke that I was overpartnered and undercapitalized. In fact, I was tired. My wife and I were living in the first-floor apartment of an ancient rented duplex, and I wrote there. Every spare penny had to go back into the periodical, and even then there weren’t enough pennies. The printer–Shakopee Valley Printing–allowed us credit, which is almost unheard-of in the publishing business. The stresses built up, and then MSP made an attractive offer for the property.

After the sale, MSP offered resources I’d never enjoyed. That took some of the pressure off. The management was much more serious and businesslike, immediately cutting the press run in half. We could try to open up again in other markets. When my managing editor, Terry Hansen, moved to Seattle, I persuaded him, with my law columnist Stan Kehl, to buy a franchise for Puget Sound COMPUTERUSER.

JM: You left COMPUTERUSER in 1986, and you kept tabs on the publications from afar. What are your impressions of the changes in the publication since you left? How would you grade how the editors balanced keeping true to the original mission while adjusting the content to the marketplace?

DA: Some of the editors after I left seemed to think they had all the answers. They would issue proclamations from the mount. How many computer gurus does it take to screw in a light bulb? Besides, they were often boring, sometimes wrong, and good publications can be anything except boring and wrong.

As for keeping true to the original mission of educating and amusing, that’s much tougher today. I read through a recent Twin Cities COMPUTERUSER and there was very little from Twin Cities people in the features, for example. The passion level of the user has almost disappeared. There isn’t the original local grass-roots flavor; but to be fair, the grass roots have become pretty well clipped and orderly–except for some rowdy areas of the Internet, of course. Compare BBS listings, where people had their own computer and software you could dial up: There were 14 listed in the first issue in 1982. In the early 1990s there were hundreds. Then the Internet hit in 1994, making international Web sites available to anyone who had an account, and today there aren’t any BBSs listed. How do you plan for such a change?

The early COMPUTERUSER (the “Dummies’ Guide to Computing Overall”) has evolved to compete with the specialist’s 1800-page Microsoft XP manuals-not to mention the instant access to technical answers through the Internet.

Trading places

DA: You’re the future of COMPUTERUSER, James. At present you’re in 18 markets, balancing many more plates than I had to, satisfying many more constituencies. How do you see it evolving?

JM: We are trying to retain as much of the folksy, approachable aspects of the publication while evolving with the market. In 20 years, the PC has matured from a hobbyist platform to something everyone needs to learn how to use. But there’s no shortage of people trying to figure out how to get more out of their PCs. Mostly, that involves helping users add the right gadgets that extend its functionality, such as cameras, printers, palm devices, and the like. It also involves a lot of training advice, and our publication reflects that. While COMPUTERUSER once was primarily a source of how-to advice, we now point people to the resources they will need to learn the skills. There are so many good training-materials providers in so many new and exciting media that we simply cannot duplicate. Nor would we want to–why reinvent the wheel? So we’re much more of a metaresource now than we were when you edited the book. We still find people the answers, just at one level removed.

Also, we are evolving more toward the business audience, both in our content and our distribution. We find that business people like no-nonsense information as much as users on the street. They just need resources on business hardware and software–servers, databases, back-end applications, e-business, etc.–and we provide much more of that now than we ever have.

DA: What’s the future of magazines in the Internet age?

JM: Obviously, the Internet has changed the very nature of magazine publishing and we’re still trying to utilize all it offers while not losing our shirts on Internet production. The key is finding out how the two media are used and making your print and Web publications complement each other in those ways. When I took over the Web site, I naively thought I had to produce something like a daily magazine’s worth of information. I found out the hard way that that is simply not sustainable, either for our editors or for our readers. All we did was burn out our editor (me) and add to our readers’ growing sense of information overload. Now we offer just the information the average user needs on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. We also try to take advantage of the Web’s unique capabilities to give the magazine content fresh resources (linked definitions and such). It’s still a work in progress, but we’re doing much better with it than we ever have and we’re no longer making money with one hand and losing it with the other. Looking at other magazine sites, I see a lot of similar maturity.

DA: How can COMPUTERUSER best serve the communities it’s in?

JM: Ideally, each article would be locally focused, but that is not a sustainable model. There just is not enough information in many of our markets to make that work. And much of the information our users need is not market-specific. For example, Microsoft’s new CRM push is rolling out in all markets. Regionalizing that push just wastes resources. So I try to strike a balance between local focus (news, profiles, calendars, meetings) and national scope. The articles we print in all markets do have some regional flavor, as we quote individuals from most of the markets we are in (and some we are not in). And the majority of our advertising still is local, which serves as a good buyers’ resource for our readers. I think the balance we have struck is sustainable and strong.

As far as new initiatives, I would like to do much more coverage of regional conferences. Looking at the trends in conferences, I see the big national shows like Comdex dwindling and the small regional shows growing (if only slightly in this tough market). Right now, we simply place a calendar entry for regional and national conferences. I would like to partner with regional conference organizers to share resources and cross-promote our mutual resources. I would like to produce their show previews and offer them our experts for conference seminars. This would help local users meet our national columnists in the flesh. I would also like to do some local radio.

We are also planning on rolling out a new gaming section. It may seem odd to say that after saying that we are becoming more business-focused, but it is not a contradiction. The truth is, we have always had a strong, loyal consumer audience, and we don’t want to forsake that while we do more business coverage. So we’re also going to cover gaming, which is the big growth engine for the entire consumer PC market. And we’ll continue to cover consumer gadgets for digital imaging and the like as well.

It’s a delicate balancing act between business and consumer, national and local. But it works and it’s unique. Ultimately, we give the readers what they need. That’s all anyone can ask of us.

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