We are very sad to report the death of Bill Ziff, who died on Saturday at the age of 76. As the owner of US publishing giant Ziff Davis, he was responsible for many more print phenomena than there's room for here. It was his role in the creation of ZDNet UK that we'd like to remember.
Bill Ziff started up the European operations of Ziff Davis in 1991, bringing over a unique style and approach to publishing. He was relentlessly commercial, but with a single-minded dedication to the power of editorial that set him apart from UK technology publishers of the time. He had a simple way of operating: do whatever it takes to get the best, most useful content for the readers on the subjects that most matter. When combined with a clinical focus on the market, that produced publications unmatched in their independence and thoroughness, which in turn attracted a knowledgeable, active readership and — eventually — advertisers who found a serious audience.
Nobody who was present in the early days of Ziff Davis UK will forget Bill Ziff's visits to enthuse the troops. "Never smoke your own dope" and "Religious overspend on editorial" went down well with the journalists — perhaps less so with the marketing and sales teams. Exciting times. Difficult, too, in a European market more used to computing magazines where the articles were mostly there to keep the adverts apart. Such commitment took considerable investment — million-pound labs, editorial staff two or three times larger than the opposition, presence in depth across the industry — and steel nerves.
It worked, though. As well as producing magazines such as PC Magazine, PC Direct and IT Week, the company was an early and enthusiastic adopter of online publishing, from dial-up bulletin boards through CompuServe forums to the Web and ZDNet. Always, though, Bill Ziff's approach was followed: give the readers what they need in the areas they need it, and the rest will follow.
After Bill Ziff handed control of the company to his sons, they decided they preferred banking to publishing and sold it on. That was our first chance to learn a first-hand lesson in corporate politics and international finance; during the late 1990s and early 2000s, we learned many more. At one point during the storm, ZDNet became detached from Ziff Davis and lashed its raft to CNET Networks. We're a long way from the world of PC Magazine: all the rules of publishing are being rewritten as online engulfs everything in its path.
All the rules? Not quite. We still start with a Z, we still remember Bill Ziff, and we will always remember that doing right by the readers is the reason we're here. We're sure you won't let us forget.