Today, Macworld magazine announced they’re shuttering their print version and laying off most of the staff. They had a round of layoffs awhile back, but this more devastating change almost feels like the death of the entire magazine.
I worked at Macworld magazine as a reviews editor back when Apple seemed heavily focused on cranking out new versions of iPods. The hottest startup around was Flickr. Evernote was just a Mac desktop app (with only hopes and dreams of growing into 30 other apps; pare it down already, guys). Getting a job at Macworld fulfilled a small-but-big-to-me dream of mine since childhood. I’d always wanted to work at a magazine, but I didn’t think it would happen because most of the magazines in the world have always been centered in New York. I chose to move to the West Coast out of college, and the few magazine gigs I interviewed for in Los Angeles and San Francisco were at boring trade publications. Thank God I never got the job at that motorcycle magazine on Wilshire Boulevard. I don’t even like motorcycles.
Macworld was part of a family of IDG tech publications, some of which I also interviewed at over the years. I probably would’ve enjoyed the video game magazine gigs if I would have gotten them, but they realized I wasn’t hardcore enough of a gamer. They seemed to value raw youthful enthusiasm over editing skills, which to my mind is not a wise way to hire people. But I understand why they sometimes hire that way: These jobs pay horribly.
I know it may be hard for people who haven’t worked in publishing to believe this, but the salaries at both newspapers and magazines are sometimes below the poverty line. Back in the first dot-com era, I worked as a copy editor at a small, San Francisco newspaper with a starting salary of $33K per year. It went up from there because they could see that I was moderately talented and useful, but the truth is there were (and still are) so many people with English degrees who want these jobs that publishing companies can get away with paying such a pittance. While it feels practically criminal to be paid so little, there’s no denying that almost every single print publisher is now paying for these past employment crimes. They’re dying quickly. It’s not at all unexpected, and it’s not entirely bad.
Even though I didn’t make much money at Macworld, I loved working there. I’ve been an Apple enthusiast since booting up my first computer, the Apple LC II (the “pizza box” Mac). To be given the opportunity to think and write and edit Mac-related hardware and software reviews was right up my alley. Heck, I was a long-time subscriber. More to the point, to be able to work there at that particular time, as Apple was ascendant and running full-steam, really made the job feel important to me. I still vividly remember sitting in the audience when Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone. I remember thinking how amazing it was to see a fully realized pocket-sized computer spring seemingly out of nothing. A new standard and a giant leap forward for everyone who carried a phone — which was almost everyone. I also remember wondering how in the hell I would ever be able to afford one on the salary I was making. (I ultimately left Macworld when I asked for a raise and was told maybe next year.)
What stood out to me about Macworld — and which probably wasn’t at all apparent to the casual observer — is that they were one of the first publications (that I know of) to really embrace a web-first publishing strategy. Instead of publishing a monthly magazine and later copying and pasting all that content on a poorly designed website, Macworld’s editors championed the idea of publishing quickly to the web whenever possible. They treated the print magazine with the same loving care they always did (it was beautifully laid out), but they wisely capitalized on the strength of SEO-friendly Apple news — and perhaps more important, rumor. They nailed down the way to put out both a monthly publication for very long-time subscribers while attracting new readers who desperately wanted news and reviews about nearly every product before spending their hard-earned money. Putting it all together at the end of the month as a print publication after the fact probably sounds like a “duh” strategy now, but it wasn’t at the time. If they had never pioneered their web approach (which was replicated at some other IDG publications), I think today’s announcement would have been more final. The whole publication would probably be dead.
But will they be able to continue to offer the caliber of content they always have? Not likely. I worked with some very smart and talented people at Macworld, and if they’ve all been laid off with this round of firings (and it appears they have) I just don’t see how they can continue to offer the same level of unbiased, informative, in-depth reviews. It’s basically been demoted to blog status.
But I’m still rooting for Macworld. Just as I’m still rooting for the San Francisco Chronicle, where they somehow trusted me to help lay out sections of the newspaper as I struggled to learn Quark Express. And that legal newspaper that paid me so little but gave me the chance to physically paste-up a newspaper and drink beer in the newsroom. Thank you, Macworld, for showing me how to think carefully about how I present opinions to the public that also affect the livelihood of independent software developers. It’s helped me as a community manager. Thank you for trusting me to create an in-depth, six-page, round-up review. Most important: Thank you for giving me the beat of “Internet applications.” Researching those quietly thriving Internet start-ups basck in 2007 (I was always rooting for you Six Apart and Pownce) is what ultimately led me to new and interesting work.
I feel like I’ve been fortunate to straddle some massive technological changes in American culture — and to have always (somehow, perhaps inexplicably) come out better for it. I’ve had cool jobs with cushy perks and expense accounts, but I’ve also been able to participate in a long-standing publishing culture and learn from some intensely interesting people who care passionately about putting out quality writing and editing. Magazine people. I love ‘em.
As Jason Snell, the nimble and experienced leader at Macworld puts it in his fare-thee-well post, “It was a great ride. But I should’ve stepped off years ago. So here I go.”
Someone hire these people. They’re infinitely more qualified than a Stanford grad who’s play-acting at his first job as Chief Product Evangelist for an iPhone app. And they’re itching for a new challenge.