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Rest in peace, PC World

The print edition of PC World is no more, and its demise marks the end of the general-interest computer magazine. Former editor Harry McCracken wrote this tribute.

Had you asked me 15-20 years ago what my dream job was, editing PC World would have been high on that list. So I guess it’s a good thing that dream didn’t come true.

It’s been years since I read PC World, for various reasons. Like McCracken said, the news moved online. The Internet moves far faster than print ever can, and the computer industry has always moved at breakneck speeds anyway. In one of my last job interviews, someone asked me who my “security gurus” are. I talked about several podcasts that I like, and why. “Good,” he said. “Now, since podcasts only happen once a week or so, where do you go for breaking news?”

That’s how my world has changed. Once a month used to be sufficient, but now, once a week isn’t enough to avoid old news.

“Well, if something really bad is happening, there’s no doubt you’ll see it on Slashdot,” I began. “But to see it in real-time, you pretty much have to go to Twitter.”

But let’s talk about PC World.

PC World was special. It was never as big or as popular as PC Magazine, and PC Magazine had bigger-name columnists, but PC World and its parent company, IDG, were known for their integrity. Even my journalism professors at Mizzou who touched computers as little as possible urged their students to get internships at IDG if at all possible.

The quality of the writing and editing was very good–as good as you would find in a good magazine in another field–and their reviews were honest. You couldn’t buy a good review from them. For that matter, if the product didn’t meet some standard of quality, they wouldn’t review it at all, for fear of the existence of even a poor review might seem like an endorsement.

In fact, I remember John Brown, the owner of Parsec, complaining that he advertised in Run, a sister publication of PC World that covered Commodore computers, for years, and they never reviewed any of his products.

But here was the thing. His products were generally junk, and just because you mailed him your money, there was no guarantee your order would ever show up. About the only thing you can find online anymore about Brown and his company is people complaining that they sent him money, and he ran off with it without ever delivering anything. As a journalist, I salute IDG for standing up to one of its longtime advertisers.

I would have respected IDG even more if they’d told Parsec to get lost and advertise somewhere else, but considering Run was down to 64 pages and about 20 advertisers near the end, I understand why they did what they did.

Sometimes you have to take the money, but you can take the money without totally selling out to your advertisers. Parsec kept advertising too, because they had no other good options.

PC World took it a step further, publishing annual reliability ratings for years. They surveyed their readers, asking what kind of computer they owned, and asked them to rate their computer’s reliability and the manufacturer’s customer service. When Gateway’s quality tanked, you read about it in PC World. If you read PC World, chances are you didn’t buy a Packard Bell computer, because you’d know they weren’t reliable and didn’t stand behind the product. Packard Bell sold computers by the truckload in those days and was a potentially enormous ad account, but that didn’t stop them.

But as time wore on, I learned less and less from each issue. By my early 20s, I could assemble a computer half asleep–trust me, I did it a few times in 1997–and I didn’t really need the magazine anymore. My subscription ran out sometime in the late 1990s, and I never renewed it. I guess you could say the magazine did its job–it educated me to the point that I didn’t need it anymore.

Like McCracken said, the golden age of computer magazines is long gone. That ship may well have sailed sometime when Reagan was still president. But the golden age of computer journalism is right now. Thanks to the Internet, today you can get a full magazine’s worth of content every single day, if you want it.

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