S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 November 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Gettin' the Vanguard

 

[anyone a Jane's fan out there?]

In the late '70s and early '80s,

when half the garages in Silicon

Valley were doubling as start-up

R&D labs, all it took to

make millions in the high-tech

magazine industry was a

well-placed booth at the right

trade show, the resulting

subscription list, and a garage

of your own. Manufacturers were

plentiful and eager to alert

potential buyers to their new

products; by 1983, approximately

200 magazines, most of them now

long-forgotten, were providing

them with a place to do so. Then

came slumping computer sales and

the inevitable shake-out; the Hot

CoCos of the world disappeared

right along with the TRS-80s.

 

This consolidation eventually

meant the promotion of the

computer magazine from workplace

primer to lifestyle guide: In

the latter incarnation, it could

theoretically attract non-tech

advertisers too. PC Computing,

debuting in 1988, took a

half-hearted shrug at the

concept with contributors like

Paul Theroux and Edward Tufte in

addition to standard Ziff-Davis

plug-ins John Dvorak and Jim

Seymour; one early issue even

featured a short story from

future Amazon sentence provider

John Updike. A year later, Mondo

2000 added the crucial "cyber"

quotient to the equation with

editorial devoted to brain

machines and teledildonics. PC

Computing, alas, was just a

little too corporate; it may

have claimed to be a magazine

for "passionate computer users"

rather than "corporate buyers,"

but it looked just like ZD's

flagship product, PC Magazine,

and eventually it became little

more than a slightly dumbed-down

clone of that. And Mondo 2000,

with articles like "Cracking Mac

Software for Fun and Profit" was

just a little too rebellious to

secure a regular place on

venture capitalist coffee

tables. In 1993, however, Wired

created the killer app, a

cocktail of corporate rebellion and

catalog. It took a few issues to

really intoxicate the nation's

media planners, but soon enough,

tech companies, hip eyeware

manufacturers, luxury car

makers, and staid financial

services companies alike were

clamoring to advertise in it.

 

[i am wondering how any of their shows have been thus far]

While some malcontent providers

used the magazine's ad-saturated

pages as fodder for late-night

deconstructions, more ambitious

entrepreneurs recognized them as

a template for building (or

extending) their own publishing

empires. The content mix that

Wired popularized is its own

burgeoning magazine genre now,

with Forbes ASAP, Time Digital,

Fast Company, Upside, and Red

Herring all chasing the same

Absolut Microsoft ads. More

competition is on the way:

Former Wired editor John

Battelle will be debuting his

IDG-funded "Wired for Dummies"

magazine as soon as he can

think of a less descriptive name

for it; former Wired editor

James Daly is working on a

second take of The Net for

Imagine Publishing. Mainstream

magazines are also paying more

attention to the lucractive

tech/biz/culture vortex these

days, the best recent example

being The New Yorker's "Next"

issue. (Amongst email cartoons

and smart shoe speculations,

this issue also included a

"memo" on "The Dawn of

Technomania" from that

exponentially annoying Microsoft

belletrist, Nathan Myhrvold.

While it's true this particular

piece had an even higher

duh-factor than Myhrvold's Slate

eructations, and a prose style

just a little less plodding than

the Unabomber's, one can't help

but marvel at the deal The New

Yorker's advertising staff was

apparently able to exact for a

mere 900 words:

8 1/2 pages of color

advertising. Which, according to

annual ad-page and ad-revenue

estimates found in the 16 June

issue of Advertising Age,

amounts to something like

US$340,000. Nathan, any time you

want to write for Suck, just let

us know! We were only kidding

about that "exponentially

annoying" part.)

 

But with all the competition,

how long can the good times

last? Sooner or later, these

magazines will have to attract

more than just the "digital

vanguard" that Wired identified

as its target market in its

first media kit; to reach beyond

those vaunted few, most of the

magazines mentioned above offer

at least one winning twist on Wired's

formula. Fast Company, for

example, substitutes the

far-more-user-friendly Tom

Peters for Marshall McCluhan as

its patron saint. Time Digital

mostly forsakes politics and the

new economy to concentrate on

products; it's The Sharper Image

catalog minus the smug,

uncomfortably personal

disclosures of Richard

Thalheimer. We expect them to

add an 800 number soon.

 

[this saturday night baby - san francisco - the only bay area show]

With all the millions of people

using the Web and other digital

technologies these days, you'd

think there'd be a large

potential audience for these

magazines, but except for those

who have a significant financial

interest in Netscape's ability

to withstand the Microsoft

juggernaut, no one seems to care

that much. (This, at least, is

what The Site taught us.) Even

the magazines themselves are

expressing a remarkable ennui in

regard to their subject lately.

In the October issue of Time

Digital, for example, former Spy

writer Jamie Malanowski laments

the lack of ostentatious vanity

in Silicon Valley, and its

failure to produce the sort of

"extreme behavior" that made New

York in the '80s such ripe

territory for journalists in

search of a good story. And in

the November issue of Upside,

Michael S. Malone blusters

wearily that Silicon Valley is

"over." Bill Gates has won, he

exclaims, and the days of "great

new corporations streaking

across the sky like comets" are

gone, replaced by less

compelling plans to "start

at the middle and stay there."

 

Which isn't exactly the kind of

revelation that's likely to

inspire readers to resubscribe

any time soon.

 

[i heard the l.a. show rocked balls - if you like perry, check out his web site www.teeth.net   weeeeeird]

Ever the innovator, Wired

features a pair of interesting

solutions to this

dearth-of-stories problem in its

November issue. The first is a

13-page excerpt from Jim

Carlton's new book on Apple

strategic blunders of the

mid-1980s, i.e., a tale from the

time when Silicon Valley was not

yet over, and therefore, still

suffused with drama. It's a nice

editorial strategy; sometimes

the best stories are indeed the

old ones.

 

But there is only so much

history to be mined in an

industry whose roots start to

run thin after 1970 or so, which

may be why Wired has turned

to propagating

contemporary myths. In addition

to the Apple rerun, the November

Wired also includes a Po Bronson

piece about Silicon Valley

headhunters that's one of the most

entertaining and evocative

portraits of high tech's low

morals we've seen. While

facetious company names like

Nohital Systems and dialog that

resonates just a little too

neatly might alert readers who

aren't familiar with Bronson's

work as a novelist to the fact

that he's merely exercising the

privileges of his trade, the

piece itself appears with no

disclaimers identifying it as a

work of fiction. (Previous exercises

for Wired have been

more clearly marked.) That Bronson,

as is his habit, casts himself

in the role of

journalist-pursuing-a-story,

makes those lines between

fiction and New Journalism even

harder to spot, as does the fact

that he goes slightly easier

than usual on the satire this

time around. No doubt there are

readers out there who believe

that Hershey Keefer actually

exists. Of course, who really

cares, as long as readers are

reading? A decade earlier,

Updike's fiction did little to

build an audience for PC

Computing, but that effort was

probably just too far ahead of

its time. High-tech investors

have certainly been showing a

greater interest in fiction over

the last few years; maybe plain

old readers are ready to do the

same.




courtesy of St. Huck