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Tech News Blues

An Apple II advertisement from the December 19...
An Apple II advertisement from the December 1977 issue of Byte magazine, pages 16 and 17. The second page was described the features of the Apple II. The ad originally ran in May 1977 and was updated that December. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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BYTE magazine stopped appearing on newsstands in July 1998. The name lived on for a time as an online publication, without many of its best columnists and without its definitive test lab reports. Finally, in 2009, the real BYTE ceased to exist. Other online publishers revived the name, but it was never the same as the legendary print publication.

In November 2014, my favorite online technical resource for Apple power users and developers, OS X Hints, went into archive mode. A month later, on December 16, 2014, Dr. Dobb’s Journal followed BYTE into the virtual sunset after 38 years of publication. In fact, they call it “sunsetting” the publication: Dr. Dobb’s will continue as a preserved relic online, at least until the owners decide to let the site go dark.

I learned to program in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My tutors were BYTE and COMPUTE! along with COMPUTE! Gazette, which covered news and tips for Commodore home computers. I still have some copies of these classic publications, though I could replace them with digital copies. The Internet Archive (https://archive.org/) has every COMPUTE! issue, and many issues of the other magazines that taught a generation of hobbyists and professionals. Atari Magazines (http://www.atarimagazines.com) also hosts dozens of archived magazines, with permission of the publishers.

It shouldn’t surprise me that computer magazines faded away, but I had expected many of them to survive online. After all, if techies won’t get their news online, who will? Yet, computer and tech news websites have struggled.

Newspapers struggle because so many lost their unique value proposition. Local papers relied too heavily on wire services and syndicated content. The value of a publication, online or in print, is the quality and quantity of unique content. Readers won’t pay for news, features, and columns that are either free or extremely inexpensive elsewhere.

Is there a significant difference between IDG’s PC World and Ziff Davis’ PC Magazine today? The CBS Interactive owns both CNET and ZDNet websites, which it purchased in 2008, leading to some content overlap, as well. These publishers are struggling to offer value to their readers. It is unclear if these established tech news outlets will survive, much less thrive, with so much similarity.

The online versions of fabled computer magazines have lost me as a reader. I don’t understand the need for computer magazines to include articles on stereos, cars and appliances. If an article explored how to use your computer to control the car, or to download driving data, that might be okay with me, but I am purist. A computer publication isn’t supposed to review microwave ovens, either.

Yet there is hope for us computer geeks.

It is one of the oldest publication brands that remains a leading source of tech news and information. Computerworld, published by IDG since 1967, focuses on corporate computing. This focus leads Computerworld and its more technical sibling InfoWorld to offer the best coverage of computer technology.

Since 1985, British publisher Future plc has been ahead of its counterparts. Future publishes magazines for new users and hard-core techies. Future’s publications and online sites include Gizmodo, TechRadar, Maximum PC, MacLife, and Windows (not be confused with the old Windows Magazine.)

Future’s U.K. online and print publications PC Format, Mac Format and Linux Format are also must-reads for the serious geek. Future publications still include discs on the cover, which I happen to like. Online, they provide links to the same software and tools.

Another British outlet, The Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk) tops my must-read tech news sources. With the snarky slogan “Biting the hand that feeds IT,” El Reg is known for its biting sarcasm. Founded in 1998 to mock trends within information technology departments, El Reg continues to cover technology flops and failures in special white papers. There’s no better way to learn what not to do as a programmer or technology manager than reading horror stories of government IT contracts gone wrong.

Other sites I suggest include AnadTech (http://www.anandtech.com) and Tom’s Hardware (http://www.tomshardware.com), both published by Purch media. Purch also owns Space.com and LiveScience.com, two of the better science news sources. Loyal readers have expressed concern that Tom’s and AnandTech, once competitors, might start to overlap like other tech news sources owned by one publisher.

Indirectly supporting websites and publications with traditional publishers, authors and editors, are communities that offer links to news and tip for techies. These communities generally aggregate news stories. Aggregators differ from Facebook or Twitter in that it is easier to search the content, which is categorized by topics and keywords. It’s more like Google News than Facebook.

My favorite online communities for tech news are Slashdot (http://slashdot.org) and Reddit (http://www.reddit.com). Slashdot is now owned by DiceHoldings, which operates a number of career sites specializing in technology. Users have complained that the new owners have exerted more control over the site, but Slashdot remains the most vibrant online community for tech enthusiasts. The site’s slogan, “News for Nerds,” continues to describe the content.

Reddit dominates Digg, Delicious and StumbleUpon as a news aggregator, especially as those other user-driven sites launched disastrous redesigns in the last few years.  Like Slashdot, Reddit posts are seldom original news or tips. Instead, a news aggregator allows users to share links to other online content providers.

Independent bloggers and community forums cannot replace the work done by large publications. I can share my opinions, but I’m unlikely to have the opportunity to interview leading developers or scientists for my blog. Companies might ask me to review products, but that’s not like the famed BYTE testing facility.

It’s still sad to see many of the tech news sources sunset, go dark or simply lose their edge. When Macworld went online-only in 2014, more than half the staff was released. As newspaper reporters can attest, you can’t do great reporting without resources. Unfortunately, publications slip into a downward spiral, with fewer readers leading to fewer advertisers, leading to fewer reporters paid to cover news in depth.

Subscribing to digital (and print) editions of magazines you appreciate is the best way to ensure reporting continues into the future. That’s even true of tech news.

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