Reviewing technology in '91: full contact, then and now

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Lee Schlesinger offers his memories about reviewing products in the Cambridge, Mass. office.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor on

In 1989, I made the transition from full-time programmer to full-time journalist.

After writing freelance product reviews for three years for Digital Review, the editors hired me as managing editor of DR Labs, the product testing section of the book. The offices were in the Prudential Center in the heart of Boston's Back Bay, and sister publication PC Week (now eWeek) was on a floor upstairs.

Every week, we tested products from accounting software to minicomputers, putting them through their paces in our chilly air-conditioned lab or farming them out to freelancers. One Memorial Day weekend, one of my writers came down with chicken pox as his deadline approached. I spent the bulk of that weekend shivering alone in our lab benchmarking digital audio tape drives, and with the help of all the writers we turned out what became a definitive look at the DAT products for DEC computers.

We also met with vendors who wanted to get us to review their products -- and sometimes, vendors who weren't happy about what we'd said about their software. I remember one vendor who was calm and polite until the author of the review joined us, at which time the vendor laced into him with raised voice and cutting words. (The PR rep who accompanied the vendor later apologized to me for his client's behavior.)

One of the side benefits of the downtown location was its proximity to the end of the Boston Marathon. If you could squeeze yourself through the packed throng, you could watch the elite runners cross the finish line, then go back to the office. During my tenure, the 1989 World Science Fiction Convention, Noreascon II, was held in the Hynes Convention Center next door. I confess I snuck down to attend a panel discussion on a Friday morning when I should have been editing a product review.

In April 1990, Bill Ziff himself visited us. The office was abuzz -- George Washington was coming to address the troops! The whole staff gathered in our largest conference room to meet him. We asked him about rumors that our publication was on shaky ground. He reassured us that Digital Review was an important part of Ziff-Davis, and he had no plans to change that.

Four months later Ziff-Davis sold Digital Review to Cahners Publishing Company. The move to suburban Newton wasn't the only culture shock: in the first new company newsletter we received, the president wrote, "This is the only Cahners publication you'll see without any advertising. We hope you don't mind the editorial clutter."

A month later, I found a new employer. When I came back to work at ZDNet in 2000, only the name remained from the old Ziff-Davis roots.

Lee Schlesinger worked at Digital Review from 1989 to 1991. He was also executive editor at ZDNet from 2000 to 2002.

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