Tuesday, April 10, 2007

End of a business model and an era

I did want to remark on an important milestone this month: the death of InfoWorld (dead tree edition). After nearly 30 years, the April 2 edition of the printed trade journal was its last.

During my career in the PC industry (1987-2002), the weekly InfoWorld newspaper was the industry bible. You went to Byte for an accurate picture of the technology, and InfoWorld for the breaking news. If it was a big enough story, you’d read the watered-down version in the Wall Street Journal and then wait for the full story (or more likely stories) in InfoWorld.

It was there almost from the beginning of the PC industry, founded in 1978 by Jim Warren (as Intelligent Machines Journal) — one year after Warren had produced the legendary West Coast Computer Faire where the Apple II made its debut. The next year it was absorbed into Pat McGovern’s then-nascent IDG empire, and given its current name in 1980.

[InfoWorld logo]The magazine attracted some of the best and the brightest in the industry, including some not normally found in trade journals. Bob Metcalfe (of Ethernet and 3Com fame) was publisher from 1991-1993 and columnist from 1992-2000. Stewart Alsop (who brought us the Whole Earth Catalog and the WELL — one of the first Internet-connected BBSes) was editor-in-chief from 1983-1984 and 1991-1996. I remember as a small business owner, I had to, er, get creative in filling out the subscription card so I could make sure that I (on the 2nd or 3rd try) would get my free weekly copy.

When I left journalism and went back to computers, I wondered whether I should have tried trade journalism (which then had 2nd tier status among journalism graduates). I got my chance 5 years later, when in 1988 I became a columnist for MacWEEK which, like its sister PC Week, was an InfoWorld knock-off published by Ziff-Davis.

I suppose what is amazing is that it lasted so long. The monthly Byte gave up the ghost in May 1998. The weeklies didn’t fare much better. With the expected death of the Mac, MacWEEK morphed into eWeek in 1999 (ironically exactly a year after Steve Jobs took over as iCEO). The paper PC Week died in May 2000, when it was folded into eWeek (which somehow remains in print).

The proximate cause of InfoWorld’s death is CNET, the best online IT industry news source for nearly a decade; it was aided by thousands of bloggers and discussion boards, and advertiser preferences. InfoWorld.com will continue to do battle with CNET, aided by a worldwide stable of IDG news service reporters (while CNET shares content with its former rival ZDNet).

There are still cases where print is more convenient (outside, on an airplane), but none where it is quicker or cheaper. This is happening first in the IT trade journals, but it’s certainly not a good omen for Sam Zell’s new $8 billion hobby. For most purposes, the days are numbered for dead tree business models in publishing.

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