April 20, 2024

M-Dudes

Your Partner in The Digital Era

The End of Computer Magazines in America

Maximum PC and MacLife

The April issues of Maximum PC and MacLife are currently on sale at a newsstand near you—assuming there is a newsstand near you. They’re the last print issues of these two venerable computer magazines, both of which date to 1996 (and were originally known, respectively, as Boot and MacAddict). Starting with their next editions, both publications will be available in digital form only.

But I’m not writing this article because the dead-tree versions of Maximum PC and MacLife are no more. I’m writing it because they were the last two extant U.S. computer magazines that had managed to cling to life until now. With their abandonment of print, the computer magazine era has officially ended.

The first issue of Byte, the first magazine about personal computers—and many people’s candidate for the best such publication, period..

It is possible to quibble with this assertion. 2600: The Hacker Quarterly has been around since 1984 and can accurately be described as a computer magazine, but the digest-sized publication has the production values of a fanzine and the content bears little resemblance to the slick, consumery computer mags of the past. Linux Magazine (originally the U.S. edition of a German publication) and its more technical sibling publication Admin also survive. Then again, if you want to quibble, Maximum PC and MacLife may barely have counted as U.S. magazines at the end; their editorial operations migrated from the Bay Area to the UK at some point in recent years when I wasn’t paying attention. (Both were owned by Future, a large British publishing firm.)

Still, I’m declaring the demise of these two dead-tree publications as the end of computer magazines in this country. Back when I was the editor-in-chief of IDG’s PC World, a position I left in 2008, we considered Maximum PC to be a significant competitor, especially on the newsstand. Our sister publication Macworld certainly kept an eye on MacLife. Even after I moved on to other types of tech journalism, I occasionally checked in on our erstwhile rivals, marveling that they somehow still existed after so many other computer magazines had gone away.

I take the loss personally, and not just because computer magazines kept me gainfully employed from 1991-2008. As a junior high student and Radio Shack TRS-80 fanatic, I bought my first computer magazine in late 1978, three years after Byte invented the category. It was an important enough moment in my life that I can tell you what it was (the November-December 1978 issue of Creative Computing) and where I got it (Harvard Square’s Out of Town News, the same newsstand that had played a critical role in the founding of Microsoft just four years earlier). Even before I purchased that Creative Computing, our mailman had misdelivered a neighbor’s copy of Byte to our house, an error I welcomed and did not attempt to correct. From the moment I discovered computer magazines, I loved them almost as much as I loved computers, which is why I ended up working in the field for so long.

A 1989 Wall Street Journal article on the big bucks being made in the computer magazine business. From the collection of David Bunnell, who cofounded PC Magazine, PC World, and Macworld, among other publications.

I spent most of that time at PC World, which I joined in late 1994 at almost precisely the moment it launched its first web presence. From the start, the web was a terrific way to keep tabs on tech news. Eventually, it would make the whole idea of a publication about computers that came out once a month feel more than a little silly. It also let merchants reach customers directly, a gut-punch to the ad business that had made PC World and its biggest rivals so profitable.

But the web didn’t render printed computer magazines obsolete overnight. PCW had some of its fattest, happiest years as a business in the late 1990s. Even in 2008, when I left, the print magazine was a profit center, not an albatross.

Indeed, the entire computer magazine category spent years in Wile E. Coyote mode. We’d blithely walked off a cliff—it’s just that gravity hadn’t kicked in yet. Here’s a slide from an internal PC World presentation charting our newsstand sales vs. our principal surviving competitors from 1996-2004. By this time, several major magazines had already failed: Byte in 1998 and PC Computing and Windows in 2002.

I should pause to acknowledge that newsstand sales weren’t the primary barometer of a computer magazine’s health. For one thing, about 90 percent of PC World issues were sold via subscription. For another, advertising was what kept us rolling in dough. Still, selling single issues at $6.99 a pop was a great little business in itself, so we put a lot of effort into creating a product that people would notice at the newsstand and choose to purchase. And I am ashamed to admit that I occasionally moved the PC Worlds in front of the PC Magazines when I encountered them for sale, though I wouldn’t be astounded if there were Ziff-Davis staffers who performed the same ploy in reverse.

Our point with the above chart was that PC World had become the newsstand leader. But it did so not by growing but by bumping along rather than nosediving. As you can see from the chart, Maximum PC was the only title that ticked steadily upward. It clearly cared about the newsstand as much as we did, and we worried that it might someday surpass us. (It never did, at least during my tenure.)

In the 1990s, Computer Shopper was so huge it teetered on the verge of being impractical to, you know, read.

Unless you worked at PC World in 2004, what’s most striking about this chart is Computer Shopper’s utter collapse—from something like 350,000 issues sold at the newsstand a month to fewer than 55,000. As the most catalog-like major computer magazine, it was the most vulnerable to being rendered obsolete by the web. Once a 1,000-page (!!!) monthly behemoth, it withered in more dramatic fashion than PC World or PC Magazine. When it didn’t feel like Computer Shopper anymore, readers lost interest.

Even PC World’s best newsstand seller of all time—our Windows 95 issue, seen below in another internal PowerPoint slide—didn’t match Shopper’s mid-1990s heyday. But we sold almost 200,000 copies, for a sell-through rate nearing 60 percent—figures that slipped out of the realm of possibility within a few years. Counting subscribers, we peaked in 1999 at a circulation of 1.25 million, the largest ever for a computer magazine.

Computer magazines had been such a robust business that they could spend years dwindling and remain viable. PC Mag didn’t abandon print until 2008, shortly after I left PC World. Shopper followed the next year. PCW held on until 2013, whereupon I wrote a piece for TIME asserting that the era of the computer magazine had ended. (In retrospect, that was a tad premature.) Macworld made it to 2014.

A Maximum PC cover from back when we at PC World were a little intimidated by their newsstand prowess. (It hasn’t aged well.)

Maximum PC and MacLife, meanwhile, pretty much ignored the internet. They even dismantled their web presences: MaximumPC.com now redirects to PCGamer.com, a sister brand, while MacLife.com simply spits out a string of garbage characters.

Pretending that the internet didn’t exist sounds like a preposterous strategy for keeping a print magazine alive, but it somehow worked. Maximum PC and MacLife survived—scrawny, but with a pulse—until 2023. Their final issues were 98-page weaklings that cost $9.99 apiece and seem to have a grand total of one page of paid advertising between them—plus an article sponsored by a mail-order computer dealer. MacLife has an editorial acknowledging it’s going digital-only; Maximum PC does not.

My local Barnes & Noble still has a sizable technology magazine section, but it’s dominated by British imports that aren’t quite computer magazines.

Should we mourn the end of computer publications printed on paper? No—and yes. What was great about the computer magazine age wasn’t that the information was printed on dead trees and delivered by truck once a month. In most respects that matter, the web is a far superior way to keep people informed about the technology in their lives.

But as timely and efficient a means of communication as online media is, the entire computer publishing industry failed to figure out how to turn it into a business that was remotely as vibrant as print had been. And those vast quantities of full-page ads paid for some amazingly ambitious service journalism.

PC World had a sprawling lab full of technicians benchmarking everything from laptops to TVs, and paid experts well to write how-to columns on products such as word processors and spreadsheets. When we wanted to compare the usability of Windows, OS/2, and Mac OS, we hired normal everyday people through a temp agency and shot video of them performing typical computing tasks. We invested an absurd amount of money on twice-yearly surveys that let our readers rate the reliability and customer service of major computer manufacturers. In 2000, I dropped everything to spend months flying around the country working with Dateline NBC on an investigation into PC repair shops.

Forty years ago, PC World published the most successful debut issue in magazine history.

PC World’s headcount over the last couple of decades tells a story in itself. In mid-2000—well into the web era—we had 80 journalists, product testers, and designers on staff. Seven years later, the figure was slightly over half that. Today, the masthead of the all-digital PCW carries 13 names. I’m unsure if they’re all full-time employees, and almost half are pulling double duty on Macworld.

There is still fine work being done at the online incarnations of former print publications and newer outlets that were digital from the start. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that today’s tech media spans the written word, video, audio, and community—and that it’s possible for an individual journalist to partake in all of the above without being employed by a giant company. Bottom line: If there was a magic switch that would let us ditch present-day computer journalism for what we had in, say, 1995, I wouldn’t flip it.

(Of course, I might feel differently if I’d owned a fabulously profitable computer magazine rather than merely working at one.)

I do remain grateful that computer magazines existed. I’m glad I got to help make them. It’s great that many vintage issues are available in scanned form at the Internet Archive, Google Books, and elsewhere. Their time has passed—but what a time it was.