Putting readers first

March 20, 2014

Pat McGovern passed away yesterday. He founded IDG — my employer, the company that publishes CITEworld — back in the early 1960s. I’m new at IDG, so did not know him very well, although I met him a couple times, but I’ve been struck by how many long-time (and former) employees of IDG absolutely revere him. Part of it was the way he’d walk to each person and hand them their Christmas bonus personally, always stopping to chat and always remembering a few key facts about the person — pretty unusual in a company with thousands of employees.

But the deeper root of their admiration, I think, is the fact that he was there at the beginning of this industry. He was one of the people who invented it. And while other pioneering companies like Ziff Davis have been chopped up and reconstituted so many times that they’ve become meaningless, IDG is still IDG.

More to the point, Pat McGovern understood what very few media businesspeople do: The customer is the reader. Advertisers pay to reach readers. If you serve the reader, the advertisers will have no choice but to come along.

I’ve heard many tales along these lines from coworkers who’ve been around longer than me — most of which aren’t for public consumption — but it became really clear when I read this interview (long, PDF) with him from 2000. There’s a lot of great stuff in there that today’s tech reporters who have never heard of Pat McGovern might want to read, like how he set up a business subsidiary in China before the US and China even had diplomatic relations. But in particular, check out this anecdote about the launch of Computerworld in 1967:

Pat McGovern: The industry was horrified  that we were writing these stories about bad performance, bad applications. No one  would advertise with us. They said, “You are the enemy of our industry.” We put out  the publication, almost without any ads at all for the first six months. Then the  people apparently did some readership studies and found out that even though our circulation was only about a third the size of the magazines that were all being mailed out en masse, as controlled circulation or free publications, more people were reading our publication and relying on it than anyone else.

They would call us and say, “I really hate to have to do this, but my research, and also  our sales people are calling me to complain. They say, “The publication I find on the desk of my prospect is this Computerworld, and why aren’t we advertising there? That’s where the attention of the prospect is. So I’m going to have to advertise. It really burns me up to do it.”

To really make matters worse, our Editor who was in the English, Journalistic tradition, which is very aggressive and investigative, started a column called “Measure for Measure,” in which, any time an ad appeared in the publication, he would review the copy for justification and accuracy and completeness. Of course, since almost every ad sort of relies on hyperbole of some fashion, or over-dramatization, almost every ad would be excoriated by his report. The advertisers just couldn’t believe it. Not only did they have to advertise in a publication that criticizes their company, but their ad itself, is going to be critiqued and blasted for incompetence.

Interviewer: Who was selling the advertising?

PJM: Many people. After a while they would quit. They would say, “I just hate to  send the ad in, because I know after your column appears I’m going to be called by this chap and he’ll say, ‘What the heck is going on, you’re tearing my ad apart, and my boss is asking how we can we have such a stupid ad.”

DSM: Who were your first advertisers? Which companies?

PJM: I remember Memorex was one of our first advertisers. I remember their ad, which claimed all this reliability, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” That was totally destroyed by the attack that this was all done without evidence or justification, a meaningless claim.

As a study in contrast, take this essay by a reporter who recently quit her entry-level job in tech journalism at VentureBeat. In her perception, today’s tech journalism is all about chasing pageviews and fending off pitches from marketing people.

Advertisements