Commentary: Time for a computer magazine comeback?

COMMENTARY--About two years ago, I wrote a controversial column entitled "Are computer magazines dead?"

COMMENTARY--About two years ago, I wrote a controversial column entitled "Are computer magazines dead?"

At the time, traditional tech advertisers were fleeing to more mainstream pastures, new economy magazines like Red Herring and the Industry Standard were fattening to almost obscene proportions with dot-com advertising.

And online tech sites like CNET and ZDNet could publish reviews 24 hours a day without a print and distribution schedule to slow them down, and PC prices began falling to the point where the intricate lab testing provided by the top computer magazines seemed like overkill. All of these factors in my book spelled doom for a publishing niche that virtually minted money since the PC first appeared.

Shooting the messenger
The column unfortunately drew a collection of angry e-mails from print journalists accusing me of being self-serving (I worked for CNET at the time) and for bashing print. But as each new issue of my trusted magazines grew thinner, the situation became impossible to ignore. No one was pointing out what was painfully obvious--computer magazines were withering before our eyes, and something had to be done.

That's why I'm cautiously pleased to toss out a new twist to the saga--one that might spell a happy ending for the genre after all. Assuming this downturn, or whatever we're calling or not calling the current situation continues for the rest of the year--consider the following:

Targeted advertising wins
When times are great and companies are flush with cash, advertising tends to gets fancier and even a little riskier. Nowhere was this more true than the tech industry. Companies like Gateway for example, began doing the unthinkable: scrapping ad campaigns in Computer Shopper--the direct magazine that essentially launched Gateway's success early on, and opting instead for more mainstream fare like Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and television.

Even I remember feeling pride over the fact that CNET had ads in Business Week and the New Yorker magazine. Why? Because it just felt more "real" to be in mainstream magazine than in a nerdy computer book. Tech was finally going mainstream, corporate coffers were bulging, and that meant shelling out big bucks on TV and radio and fancy magazine titles. Why bother with computer books where those readers already knew your brand?

But guess what? When ad dollars are tight, where do you want to put your money? In an expensive national magazine that will drive up your customer acquisition costs, or in a magazine where you know that the reader is actually interested in buying a computer or gadget? This is not to say that computer magazines will automatically be fat with ads once again, but when tight advertising purse strings are finally opened, you can bet the dollars will go first to where the most buyers are and not to some place where people may or may not want a PC to begin with. When IT spending began grounding to a halt, you could feel the entire industry lurch and stumble. Lavish IT budgets meant eye-popping orders, but now that spending is expected to stay miniscule for the next few years, you can bet that the few dollars floating around will need some justification before any sale is made. Computer magazines have traditionally been an IT tool, because a coveted Editor's Choice seal and reams of outstanding lab data meant you could place a safer bet on a particular brand or model with your hard-earned company dollars.

This doesn't mean that computer magazines will fly off the stands overnight, but if IT spending continues to shrink, you can bet that companies will question every new purchase--and that is some pretty fertile soil for the computer magazines and their languishing testing labs.

What about online? In many ways, I would expect the online tech media world to enjoy a similar situation were it not for one simple fact: advertiser is incredibly gun shy right now about the effectiveness of online advertising. While the jury is still out on whether or not new ad sizes and other methods will improve the climate, I do believe that there is no reason for online to not enjoy the same benefits on this category if the downturn continues.

Bottom line: It has always been interesting to me to watch industries that can make the most of bad conditions. Home improvement for example, is a category that booms during good times and bad but for very different reasons. If tech pulls back from the mainstream, here's hoping the computer magazine publishers and the online publishers are ready to take advantage of the changes. And if they play their cards right, computer magazines especially, may find the next few years to be better than anyone imagined. Go figure.

Alice Hill was the vice president of development and editorial director for CNET and is EVP of Cornerhardware.com. She covers technology every other week for ZDNet News, pondering everything from the wireless Web to why geeks love motor scooters and the twillight of the LCD display. She welcomes your comments and e-mails.

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