The Tech Media Mogul Who Changed My Life

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Long-time word wrangler, editor, media obsessive; art & dog enthusiast. Internet lover. Amused by much. Hopeful. Sole proprietor, KVOX Media.
45 mins ago

The Tech Media Mogul Who Changed My Life

The ’80s tech world wouldn’t have been the same without David Bunnell, founder of Macworld and PC World. He changed publishing—and my career.

In 1987, David (R) presented the first Andrew Fluegelman Award to Tom Jennings for creating FidoNet.

In 1985, I was running a struggling San Francisco nonprofit called Media Alliance; David Bunnell was a new board member. I learned he was a rising media mogul in a new category: technology publishing for consumers. Though his titles, PC World and Macworld, were young — the latter less than a year old, as was the Mac itself — they had already gotten buzz, readers, and ads.

The early years of PC adoption had spawned a tsunami of fairly schlocky computer magazines that hawked services, hardware, software, gizmos, and gadgets. Usually they bore the thinnest of walls between editorial and ads. But David and his team aimed their efforts toward informing readers about all the new developments, with unbiased reviews, better writing, and better design.

David had helped found PC Magazine in 1981. Without the editorial team’s knowledge, their business partner made a deal for a trade publisher, Ziff Davis, to publish it. This development led to a famous staff walkout, a fast deal with competing publisher IDG, and the creation of PC World in late 1982. Macworld followed in 1984, shortly after the launch of the Macintosh.

When I first met David, I wanted to talk over the needs of my organization, as executive directors do, and gauge his support—financial support, I hoped. Instead, over a long lunch, he said, “You should come work for me.”

I knew next to nothing about computers, having only recently stumbled around on a Kaypro. Nor did I know anything about magazine publishing — or, for that matter, much about working at a for-profit business. When David said those words, it was all I could do not to look over my shoulder: Who are you talking to?

I left the meeting intrigued and dumbstruck. Before long, there was another lunch — this time David brought his wife Jackie, who oversaw design for the magazines. It was clear I needed her blessing; fortunately for me, Jackie was warm and positive. Within another month or so, David sent over a rather vague but illustrious-sounding description for a new role: running “corporate development” for his unit within IDG.

I cringed at the word “corporate;” I was still a hippie at heart, even in my early thirties. But unknowns aside, I had never strayed from capitalism by much — and hey, this gig would double my nonprofit salary. I decided to trust David’s judgment, because I genuinely liked him. He was quirky, quiet, and clearly not a standard corporate guy. I thought, “If I’m going corporate, at least it’s not for Bechtel.”

So I plunged into the most wonderful and compelling work I’d ever known. The team David had already assembled was uniquely funny, smart, and passionate. I found a workplace where virtually everyone was widely read, clever, curious, and irreverent. And they had a mission I could get behind: Giving readers useful information.

The office sentiment was that the mushrooming world of glossy, gassy trade shows (Comdex, anyone?), overblown tech hype, and laughable industry jargon presented motivation to stay irreverent. David shared that irreverence, even as he participated in the rituals of tech rollouts and demos. He was soft spoken, with an air of mischievousness just under the surface. The upshot of my new job was the built-in sense of community. These were my people. David had guessed right: I was a fit.

Over time, I saw that David was kin to many of the other characters who built the early PC industry. Today they might be recognized as “maker faire” types: tinkerers, hobbyists, and libertarians, all of whom were excited by the power and freedom that owning a PC represented. (A huge change from the high priesthood that had previously governed computers.) David was genuinely excited by the power of the personal computer, as the devices spread to more and more hands.

At the helm of a magazine, he wanted to serve the reader more than he wanted to deliver an audience to advertisers. And readers responded. After the first issue of PC World appeared, bags of paper mail began to arrive, filled with subscription orders and fan mail. David had nailed the zeitgeist. In his rollout, he was an early proponent of the “if you build it they will come” philosophy we expect of apps and services today.

Once embedded in the company, I fell in love with making magazines. I was fascinated by the wonderful arcana — the metrics of newsstand sales, blow-in circ cards, A/B testing, focus groups, the cost of paper, postal regulations, press checks, and make-goods. And I loved the people doing that work. I got exposure to a wide variety of functions and teams across the company, from project-managing brand new initiatives (and sometimes killing them) to becoming an influencer in shaping company culture —and these all became skills I have used ever since.

To the editorial gang, David was a popular and quirky figure. He loved teasing the “suits” on the business side now and again. In one memorable all-hands meeting, he wore a Red Army outfit and Converse sneakers, rising to acclaim from “the people” after remarks by the tie-clad CEO. Via his monthly column and occasionally his newsletter, “Subroutines,” David sometimes took stands that were definitely not the norm for the ’80s tech world.

There was his controversial column on the Bowers v. Hardwick case in 1986, where the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia law concerning sex between consenting adults. His concern was less specifically about gay rights and more about privacy. (Believe me, the word “sodomy” was not seen in tech magazines.) He won fans and critics, and fielded some angry calls from advertisers. And there was the time he took a bunch of us staffers to dinner to celebrate Corazon Aquino becoming president of the Philippines. He led our toast that night: “To freedom!”

Once his IDG contract was up, David struck out on his own to try a new approach and new subject matter: biotech. He schooled himself and created a new editorial product: a daily fax newsletter for biotech analysts and scientists. (He even obtained a classic Jaguar that sported the vanity plates A C T G.) Eventually, he sold his biotech business and became chairman of a company producing one of the early “new media” magazines. Then in 1996, he became CEO of Upside, a storied Silicon Valley monthly business magazine that, like David, wasn’t afraid to be irreverent. I had a second turn with him at Upside, running its nascent digital operation and serving as executive editor. As before, I loved all that I learned with him.

Thought many weren’t ready to admit it, monthly magazines were on the decline. And when his son Aaron died unexpectedly in 2000, it was a serious blow for David. I’m sure that’s a big reason he began to turn his focus more to personal explorations about health and aging (he started his own fitness and cycling regimen, and created a personal health site and a boomer magazine called Eldr). He delved more deeply into the web, search, and SEO. He learned HTML. He joined Twitter and wrote his own stories and poetry on several platforms, including Medium. I had the distinct pleasure of introducing David to yet another quiet Nebraskan with a keen interest in good writing and publishing: Ev Williams.

David could be enigmatic, was sometimes uncommunicative, and he did change his mind now and again. At the same time, he embodied much of what is familiar in the tech landscape today: It can be fine to pursue ideas based on curiosity; failures come and go; and serving readers first is a laudable goal. Rather than run his magazines according to the old rules of publishing, David allowed his titles to reflect the optimistic new industry he covered, which celebrated innovation over tradition.

For reasons I still don’t fully understand, David thought I was worth a try in an unknown job at a young company in a very young industry. In the years since, he celebrated my path, and I grew to appreciate the wide web he created. From that one-off job David offered me have come the working and personal relationships that make a life. I’m lucky I can credit a single man who first opened that door.

David touched many people, and there are many stories about him and his impact. Please add yours in comments.

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    Go to the profile of Karen Wickre

    Karen Wickre

    Long-time word wrangler, editor, media obsessive; art & dog enthusiast. Internet lover. Amused by much. Hopeful. Sole proprietor, KVOX Media.

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