The American Computer Magazine: 1957 to 2023

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Published on 27 April 2023 by Andrew Owen


Print is evolving but, after 66 years, the era of the mass-market printed computer magazine is over. The last two holdouts were MacLife (formerly MacAddict) and Maximum PC (formerly Boot). The current issues are their last. Because I started out in print media (with a little radio on the side) and have long been following trends in computing for nearly 40 years, I have some thoughts on this. Which means this won’t be a rehash of Harry McCracken’s excellent article on the subject on Technologizer.

McCracken notes that “2600: The Hacker Quarterly” is still going. During my brief internship at WBAI in New York, I got to sit in on an episode of Off the Hook with Eric Corley. He writes under the name Emmanuel Goldstein, a character from Orwell’s “1984” (also the year the magazine was founded). He told me about the time he drove Kevin Mitnick to jail. Later he would direct the “Freedom Downtime” documentary on the “Free Kevin” movement and the hacker world. I expect 2600 to be around for a long time to come, but it’s far from mainstream.

McCraken cites Byte as the first personal computer magazine. It ran from 1975 until 1998. But the first computer magazine of any kind in America was Datamation. Launched in 1957, it is perhaps fitting that it was among the first to go purely digital (also in 1998). It was founded by Donald Prell, then vice president of application engineering at a Los Angeles data processing company that needed somewhere besides Scientific American or Business Week to advertise. And therein lies the key to the decline of print.

The cover price of print media has always been a nominal fee. Humans don’t tend to value things they get for free. The bulk of the cost is paid for by advertising. This is how free newspapers existed. Classified adverts used to sustain local newspapers, providing enough income to fund a full editorial team. But in 1998 everything changed. Google was founded. AuctionWeb changed its name to eBay. Apple launched the iMac. And advertising began to migrate online.

One of the first writing gigs I had in the 1990s was as a one-day-a-week intern on Computing, which started out in 1973 as the official magazine of the British Computer Society. I mainly used to write short profile pieces for the High Flyers section, but once they gave me a full page feature to do on help desks. It was one of my first bylines. It was also while there that I rubbed shoulders with Peter Warren, who I credit with putting me off going into war reporting. He spoke well of the Amstrad PPC 512 and its ability to continue working after being hit by a stray bullet in Iraq. The print edition of Computing went from weekly to bi-weekly in 2010 and a few years later the print edition ceased.

By the time I completed my journalism degree in 1996, things were looking bleak for the Mac. Launching a new Mac magazine at that time was a bold move. Calling it MacAddict, even more so. A year later, Steve Jobs returned to the company and the rest is history. As a student, I did a couple of shifts as a researcher at the Independent on Sunday in London. It went digital in 2016. I spent the last part of the 20th century working full time as a newspaper reporter. The local newspapers I worked on still exist in print, but with reduced page count and smaller editorial teams. The last local newspaper I worked on went from daily to weekly publication.

On my last newspaper, I started at a regional office. I was promoted to the city office when one of my colleagues transferred to a newspaper in a different city. Her partner had been convicted of murder and she had become the story. I took over her news beat and eventually took on the role of business reporter (because no-one else wanted it). One of the editor’s initiatives was to host a weekly business speakers’ event with refreshments provided by the newspaper. At one such event, the finance director of the city’s rugby club dropped a bombshell about the coach’s future at the club. As this was a public forum, I was able to turn in a sports story that was the next day’s sports lead. Sadly, my news lead was bumped down to page three, or I would have had a byline on the front and back cover. I also remember a time when we got word of a house being robbed that was not on the police information file. I correctly deduced that it was the home of a former or serving police officer and was able to corroborate this with the police PR department, which was run by a former colleague at another paper I’d worked on.

Those were the days when advertising paid for large editorial teams. And deputy news editors would ask questions like: “Are you sure it’s not the ‘Magnificent Andersons’?” (it’s Ambersons). Those days are gone. Over the passing years, I’ve noticed a decline in the fact checking of news stories. But at least the newspapers are still trying. I still believe that you get the journalism you pay for, and I subscribe to a national newspaper (I used to get the print edition on Saturday, but I gave up because the delivery service was so unreliable). By contrast, I have spotted huge inaccuracies in factual content on YouTube. Individual creators working without editors simply don’t have the resources that were available in the pre-internet days.

But what about digital magazines? I bought a digital copy of the last edition of MacLife. To avoid people making unauthorized copies of the magazine, it is not possible to download it in its entirety as a PDF. It can be viewed in an app or in a web browser. There is no search. It doesn’t feel like a digital version of a magazine. It just feels inconvenient. However, I still have the complete collection of Your Spectrum and Mondo 2000. In both cases, eBay was essential in filling in the gaps. So I think there’s probably still an ongoing market for niche magazines that are effectively art objects. But I have my concerns for the writer.

I once pitched a feature idea to a magazine whose second publisher thankfully no longer exists. My union lawyer described the contract it offered me as pernicious. I walked away. The contract stripped the writer of their moral right to be identified as the author. It applied financial penalties on the writer under certain circumstances. It placed the burden of indemnifying the publisher from any legal action on the writer, even though under the other clauses, the publisher could introduce defamation into the article without the author’s consent. And the remuneration offered was miserable. In short, this is a form of vanity publishing where you risk losing your life’s possessions.

And finally, there’s the blog. One of my mantras in life is that you should never do for free something that you have previously been paid to do, unless it’s for a non-profit. This is why I declined the “opportunity” to work as an unpaid extra for the BBC during my time on the Endeavour replica. So I used to say that I’d never write a blog unless I was paid to do so. But it’s been quite some time since writing was my main function at work. When I stopped being a technical writer, I started keeping a daily journal. But I stopped that at the end of last year because of other pressures on my time. So at this point, this is one part knowledge base, one part industry commentary and one part memoir. But it keeps me writing. Based on the analytics, my reader numbers are in the hundreds. A far cry from the reach of my newspaper days. But you are all very welcome.