And along came the internet: how the web transformed the weekly

In 1995 I worked as a reporter for a technology title called PC Week. PC Week was a weekly newspaper and in 1995 weekly newspaper was yet to become an oxymoron.

It carried three or four stories on its front page, followed by page after page of ‘news’. What seems most remarkable recalling it now is that the issue closed on a Thursday evening, went to press over the weekend and didn’t reach the reader until the following Tuesday. Yet we still managed to tell people things they didn’t already know.

And then along came the internet.

While the demise of print has been slower than many predicted, PC Week didn’t survive much longer (in the UK at least). And when its one-time rival Computer Weekly shut down its print operations in April 2011 it was the UK’s last technology weekly. (In a neat piece of symmetry, it was also the world’s first tech weekly when it launched in September 1966.)

Computer Weekly was one tech trades' biggest beasts, generating £20m in advertising revenues and carrying 100 pages of classifieds a week at its peak. But that time had long passed.

Editor-in-chief Bryan Glick oversaw the transition two years ago. “I was brought in for one reason and one reason only: to shut print,” Glick told the Digital Media Strategies 2013 conference in London last week.

There was, he says, a perception that “shutting down print meant shutting down altogether”. But Glick, who has written about the experience previously, is proud of what Computer Weekly has achieved since. Web traffic is up 50 per cent year-on-year, the editorial team has grown from 10 to 15 journalists, a weekly digital edition goes out to 200,000 subscribers (compared to 90,000 print editions before its demise) and in the last three months of 2012 the title generated its highest digital revenues ever.

Yet he concedes, “We will almost certainly never make the same amount of money in a digital business as we did at the peak of print.”

What’s telling is how being digital-only, rather than an online adjunct to a print publication, has informed the model.

For example, it has forced those on the title to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of business to business (B2B) publishing, where controlled circulation once meant high advertising yields even if you weren’t quite sure that the much-prized reader ever took the publication out of its polythene wrapper. “We moved from knowing exactly who was subscribing but no idea what they were reading, to knowing exactly what they were reading but no idea who they were.” Online registration has since underpinned the business model.

The journalists, Glick says, understand the equation – traffic + members = money – but also know that it is their readers’ needs they have to serve, not the general internet audience. “It would be very easy to chase hits. We could live blog every Apple event.” 

The move has also made Computer Weekly rethink its editorial balance in another way. The ratio of news stories to long form is now 50:50 where once it was 70:30. “News attracts [readers] but long form is what keeps them there.”

Back in the mid-1990s, one of the earliest signs that our elongated publishing cycle was about to be challenged came from a colleague who was always first to know the latest news coming out of the US companies that dominated our beat, Intel, Microsoft and the rest. It took a while to rumble his secret – a noisy modem and achingly slow access to the internet.

Weeklies soon reflected this change by focusing more on analysis and opinion (the context and meaning) and less on news (the event). A decade and a half later, to judge from the Computer Weekly experience, that rule may still apply. Even in an age of instant publishing cycles.

 

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