Death of the Computer Press

As a transplanted Yankee in Georgia, I’m careful when referring to the Civil War (that’s the War Between the States, suh!), calling it “The Recent Unpleasantness.” It was said during that conflict that some old men who had been born before the nation’s founding might live to see its end.

I feel the same way today about the computer press, except I’m the old man.

I got my start in the computer press in 1983, as a hungry young freelancer doing business as Have Modem, Will Travel. My first bylines appeared in a magazine called Computer Merchandising, and I eventually reported for a ton of (now-defunct) publications. (The bankruptcy petitions of Interface Age, in particular, gave me years of entertaining legal mailings in exchange for the $300 fee I never got.)

A turning point was reached in 1994, when I launched the “Interactive Age Daily” for CMP Media. It was the first daily news feed on the web, about the web, and some months later it won me a long secret plane flight and an interview for the managing editor position at a news start-up called C|NET. (Jai Singh of Infoworld got the job. It was among the first of many sound decisions by C|Net founder Halsey Minor.)

Over lunch that day, Minor told me, with some excitement, that he saw a day when C|Net (or sites like it) could entirely replace the computer press, at that time the richest niche in all publishing. It seemed far-fetched at the time, but time proved Minor right. It was confirmed this week when C|Net announced it would buy the bulk of Ziff Davis, once the 500-pound gorilla of the space, for stock worth $1.6 billion.

The numbers on this deal are fascinating.

C|Net is paying nearly twice as much for ZDNet, an online-only company, as it did for Ziff-Davis, which includes Computer Shopper magazine. The online company is also being bought with a hefty premium, while the print assets are being bought at a discount.

Ziff’s trade show and conference businesses (which include Comdex) are being spun out separately, and the company had previously placed the rest of its publications, like PC Magazine, with the Wall Street buyout firm Willis Stein & Partners for $780 million.

In analyzing the deal, Wired noted that C|Net and ZDNet are both profitable and that they dominate their online space. But I’m also old enough to remember when Bill Ziff sold his computer magazines to Ted Forstmann for $1.5 billion. The value of that business is declining. The old PC Week magazine, which once dominated its market, is now called eWeek and is thinner than Lance Armstrong after completing a mountain stage.

More important, the deal reflects the fact that our relationship with technology has changed. I remember when men tinkered with motherboards the way their fathers did with car engines. Today programming is a career, and computers come from consumer electronic stores when they break, you buy another one. Tips are out; cell phones without manuals are in. It’s all point-and-click, and computing is integrated so deeply into our lives we no longer think about it.

Matthew Brady took thousands of pictures during the war of 1861 to 1865, but when the fighting was over, no one wanted to look at them. Some of his original glass plates were turned into greenhouses, and their images were allowed to fade slowly away. That’s the danger the new C|Net faces. The PC revolution is over does anyone care?

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