[ BYTE JUNE 1998 ] Tom's Unofficial BYTE FAQ:
The Death of BYTE Magazine

Much-loved BYTE Magazine ceased publication after the July 1998 issue, when new owner CMP Media abruptly shut down the 23-year-old magazine and laid off nearly the entire staff. BYTE had begun publication in 1975 as the world's second personal-computer magazine, following the debut of Creative Computing (also defunct) by a few months.

After the 1998 shutdown, the BYTE website continued to draw about 600,000 page views a month, even though nobody was updating the site. Obviously, quite a few people still wanted the kind of information BYTE provided. This unrelenting traffic prompted CMP to revive BYTE as a web-only publication in 1999. CMP convinced longtime BYTE columnist Jerry Pournelle to resume his Chaos Manor column on the new Byte.com website, lending some credibility to the effort. However, Pournelle left Byte.com in 2006. The underfunded website lacked BYTE Magazine's breadth and depth of technical content, and it vanished in 2009.

In December 2010, United Business Media (UBM) TechWeb announced that it will revive the Byte.com website (but not the print magazine) in the second quarter of 2011. However, the announcement suggests that the new site will be more oriented toward consumer electronics, not the deep technology coverage for which BYTE Magazine was famous:

The New Byte.com

"UBM TechWeb Re-Launching Popular Byte.com"

"Un-Sic Transit BYTE.com—BYTE Being Revived!"

"Taking Another Byte: Legendary Tech Brand Revived"

Why did CMP kill BYTE Magazine in 1998? The chain of events started on May 27, 1998, when CMP acquired a group of magazines, including BYTE, from McGraw-Hill. Shortly afterward, I wrote this unofficial frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) document to explain what happened. I was a senior editor at BYTE for nearly six years and was laid off with the rest of the staff.

This FAQ was not authorized or approved by either CMP or McGraw-Hill. Although this FAQ tells one person's view of the inside story, it does not disclose any confidential information that would damage either company.

—Tom R. Halfhill, BYTE Magazine senior editor, 1992-1998


Frequently Asked Questions

What happened at BYTE on Wednesday, May 27, 1998?

Were the layoffs related to BYTE's sale?

Why did CMP Media fold BYTE Magazine?

What was the main problem with BYTE?

Why should anyone care that BYTE Magazine folded?

Was BYTE losing readers? Was it losing popularity?

If BYTE was so popular, why was it in trouble?

Why were BYTE's advertising revenues declining?

Why did BYTE focus on technology and cover multiple platforms?

Doesn't the fall of BYTE prove that people don't care about other platforms?

Did BYTE's competitors fill the gap?

Aren't you exaggerating the myopia of other computer magazines?

Wasn't most of BYTE's coverage about the Wintel platform, too?

Why didn't former BYTE editors start a new magazine like the old BYTE?

Didn't anyone try to save BYTE?

Why didn't you join the new Byte.com?

What about rumors that CMP behaved poorly during this episode?


What happened at BYTE on Wednesday, May 27, 1998?

All publication activity at BYTE Magazine ceased on May 27 and almost all BYTE employees received layoff notices, effective Friday, May 29. We had only two days to shut down a magazine that had been publishing monthly for 23 years. Of 85 people in all departments, about 80 were laid off. Those retained were mainly in sales and marketing. The entire editorial staff was let go, with the exception of one person who was offered a job; he declined. We cleaned out our offices and departed at 5 p.m. Friday, May 29.

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Were the layoffs related to BYTE's sale?

Yes. On May 5, 1998, McGraw-Hill announced it was selling its Information Technology and Communications Group to CMP Media for $28.6 million. The group included BYTE, LAN Times, Data Communications, tele.com, and NSTL (National Software Testing Laboratories). CMP Media, based on Long Island, New York, was at that time the publisher of Windows Magazine, InformationWeek, Network Computing, EE Times, Computer Reseller News, InternetWeek, and other periodicals. The sale became final on May 30, 1998.

On Wednesday, May 27, CMP Media announced a large number of layoffs within the group, effective May 29. BYTE was hit hardest, but LAN Times also lost many employees. All editorial activity at BYTE ceased on May 27. The last issue shipped to the printer was the July 1998 issue.

On October 13, 1998, CMP announced the shutdown of LAN Times. Most employees were laid off, including one person who was hired only a week before. In 1999, CMP also shut down Data Communications, laying off nearly all its employees. Little more than a year after paying McGraw-Hill $28.6 million for the magazine group, CMP had folded three of the four magazines it acquired.

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Why did CMP Media fold BYTE Magazine?

Officially, CMP claimed it didn't actually fold BYTE. In fact, when CNET reported that BYTE had folded, CMP demanded and got a retraction. CMP originally said it would relaunch the magazine under the BYTE name after changing the editorial focus and hiring a new staff. The most prevalent rumor was that the new BYTE would emphasize software development and would appear in the fall of 1998. Obviously, that didn't happen. Instead, CMP relaunched BYTE in 1999 as a web-only publication, but it was a pale shadow of the original BYTE Magazine. The Byte.com site vanished in 2009 but is scheduled to be revived in 2011 by United Business Media (UBM) TechWeb.

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What was the main problem with BYTE?

BYTE was losing money in 1998. Some change was necessary to turn around the magazine's fortunes. Although circulation and readership remained strong, advertising revenues had been declining, and several turnaround plans were proposed. But everyone was surprised that the first step in CMP's turnaround plan was to kill the magazine and discard the staff. Evidently CMP's plan didn't work, because BYTE never appeared again as a print magazine.

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Why should anyone care that BYTE Magazine folded?

If you didn't read BYTE, you probably have no reason to care. But a great many people depended on BYTE to keep abreast of computer technology across multiple platforms. Also, it was a historical loss. BYTE was founded in 1975, the same year the first kit-built personal computers appeared for sale. BYTE closely followed the first personal-computer magazine, Creative Computing, which began publication a few months earlier in 1975.

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Was BYTE losing readers? Was it losing popularity?

Readership was not BYTE's problem. BYTE's circulation was about half a million, which is quite large for any computer magazine and especially for a publication as technical as BYTE. The subscription renewal rate was nearly 80 percent, which is astronomically high. Most computer magazines won't reveal their renewal rates because it's often less than half that much. BYTE's single-copy (newsstand) sales were not as high as we would have liked, but they were running near the industry average.

Note that BYTE's circulation of about 500,000 was only for the English-language North America and International editions. That figure did not include the 20 foreign-language editions of BYTE published under license around the world. Some of those magazines (such as Nikkei BYTE in Japan) survived for a while after BYTE folded. Unfortunately, most licensees, such as BYTE Germany, died shortly after their prime source of content (BYTE USA) dried up. CMP's decision to fold BYTE Magazine caught these foreign-language editions completely by surprise.

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If BYTE was so popular, why was it in trouble?

Oddly enough, BYTE might have been too popular. Most of the proposed turnaround plans would have voluntarily reduced circulation by various means, including raising the cover price. The reason is not intuitive for those outside the publishing industry. It's not always desirable to have the largest possible circulation. The cover price of a magazine often doesn't pay for the enormous costs of printing, shipping, and mailing the magazine. Profits come mainly from advertising revenue, which means a magazine must be attractive to advertisers as well as to readers. That's where BYTE was hurting.

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Why were BYTE's advertising revenues declining?

It would be great if a magazine popular with readers would be equally popular with advertisers, but it's not necessarily the case. Modern advertisers tend to prefer a very focused audience. It was always difficult to articulate BYTE's focus.

From its start in 1975, BYTE was a technology-oriented multiplatform magazine. BYTE adhered to that formula for 23 years. But that's exactly the opposite of almost all other computer magazines, which are product-oriented and platform-specific. Most computer magazines will not cover any platform besides "Wintel" (Microsoft Windows on Intel x86), and they will not cover new technology until it's packaged as a product for sale in stores. BYTE's approach was very different.

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Why did BYTE focus on technology and cover multiple platforms?

There's definitely a need for product magazines, but somebody must cover new technology—after all, this is a technology-driven industry. Once a magazine decides to cover new technology, a multiplatform approach is a must, because new technology doesn't appear on only one platform. Indeed, new technology often appears first on alternative platforms, then filters down later to the mass-market platform.

Users of PC compatibles might still be fumbling with command-line user interfaces if the Macintosh had not made graphical user interfaces popular in the 1980s. When Commodore introduced the Amiga in 1985, PC Magazine heaped scorn on what was actually the first true multimedia computer. The reviewer smugly dismissed the Amiga as a toylike "game machine" because of its sophisticated color graphics and stereo sound. Today, of course, virtually all PCs have sophisticated color graphics and stereo sound, and games are the most popular software products sold for PCs.

All significant new technologies introduced for personal computers appeared on alternative platforms before they became popular on the dominant platforms. Since 1975, BYTE covered every kind of personal-computer platform: CP/M, Apple II, Atari, Commodore PET, Amiga, MS-DOS, Macintosh, OS/2, UNIX, and many more. BYTE also covered emerging platforms, such as Linux, BeOS, Java, and network computers ("thin clients"). Most computer magazines won't cover alternative platforms—or, if they mention different platforms at all, hold them up to ridicule.

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Doesn't the fall of BYTE prove that people don't care about other platforms?

No, it proves only that BYTE's business plan was flawed. When BYTE folded, there were still half a million English-language readers and several hundred thousand foreign readers who needed or wanted the kind of multiplatform technology coverage that BYTE provided. Some people needed that kind of information to hold down their jobs. Others just liked reading about the latest technology.

BYTE never attempted to be the kind of magazine that would appeal to everyone. BYTE readers were information-technology managers, engineers, programmers, college students, and others who are interested in computer technology. Many people within the computer industry read BYTE to keep abreast of new and emerging technologies. BYTE was not very relevant to the average PC user, any more than Popular Mechanics is relevant to the average car owner.

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Did BYTE's competitors fill the gap?

In terms of editorial content, BYTE had no competitors when it folded. The average computer magazine's idea of "new technology" is the latest ink-jet printer. The average computer magazine won't explain how a new microprocessor works at the machine level. The average computer magazine views alternative platforms as threats, because the magazine is dedicated to only one platform. The average computer magazine is average. Throughout its 23-year history, BYTE never aimed at the bulge of the bell curve.

For people who need information about new technology, some alternatives have emerged since BYTE folded in 1998. Websites such as Extreme Tech and Sharky Extreme fill some of the BYTE void. However, those sites tend to be more product oriented and Wintel centric than BYTE was. Another substitute is to assemble a mosaic of industry newsletters and analyst reports, but annual subscriptions to those publications often cost $300 or more.

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Aren't you exaggerating the myopia of other computer magazines?

I don't think so. Let's take some examples of stories with which I was personally involved. In 1995, I wrote a detailed cover story on the new Intel P6 processor, later known as the Pentium Pro. You would think the leading PC-compatible magazines would have jumped on the story of this hot new chip. But comparable articles didn't appear in those magazines for many months (or at all), even though the P6 was critically important to the Wintel platform they cover.

For the December 1997 issue of BYTE, I wrote a detailed article on Intel's IA-64 (Itanium) architecture, followed by another article in the June 1998 issue. Other magazines didn't run comparable articles for years.

Today, nearly 13 years after BYTE folded, there is a greater understanding among computer-industry editors that some readers need or want deeper technology coverage. It's now common for some computer magazines and websites to cover microprocessors in the kind of detail that BYTE once provided.

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Wasn't most of BYTE's coverage about the Wintel platform, too?

Sure. Wintel is unquestionably the dominant platform, accounting for about 95 percent of all personal computers. BYTE had nothing against Wintel; we would have done our readers a disservice not to cover it well. Ever since BYTE was founded in 1975, the balance of coverage constantly shifted to keep up with the marketplace. This strategy was necessary for BYTE's survival and for the benefit of BYTE's readers.

In later years, some devotees of alternative platforms complained about the large amount of Wintel coverage in BYTE. But the percentage of coverage devoted to alternative platforms greatly exceeded those platforms' actual market shares, and few other publications covered those platforms at all. BYTE's technical coverage of the Macintosh matched or exceeded the quality of coverage in the Macintosh-specific magazines.

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Why didn't former BYTE editors start a new magazine like the old BYTE?

It costs a lot more money to start a new magazine than to fix the problems of an existing one. Also, we are journalists and technologists, not business people.

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Didn't anyone try to save BYTE?

We heard some reliable rumors that at least one publishing company offered to purchase BYTE from McGraw-Hill at a higher price than CMP offered, but McGraw-Hill decided it was too deeply involved in negotiations with CMP to change course. We also heard that at least one publishing company offered to purchase BYTE from CMP after McGraw-Hill sold the division, but that CMP declined the offer. CMP placed a high value on the BYTE name and the BYTE subscriber list—for good reasons. It's frustrating that another buyer didn't get a chance to save BYTE. It was possible for the old BYTE to survive without significantly changing its editorial focus.

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Why didn't you join the new Byte.com?

It wasn't just that I was upset with CMP for killing a great magazine (although I was). After freelancing for a while, I found another good job. In 1999, I joined Microprocessor Report as a technology analyst. MPR is the world's leading authority on CPU chips. In 2000, I left MPR and joined ARC Cores (now ARC International). In 2002, I returned to MPR, which is now owned by The Linley Group. My specialty is writing about embedded processors and licensable processor cores.

I'll always miss BYTE Magazine, though—and especially my colleagues at the magazine. They were among the most technically competent, ethical, and helpful writers and editors in the computer industry.

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What about rumors that CMP behaved poorly during this episode?

I don't like to hang dirty laundry in public. Anytime a company lays off a lot of people and closes down a beloved operation, there will be sore feelings. It's enough to say that CMP's executives badly misjudged the situation and didn't anticipate the firestorm that would follow their shutdown of a historic computer magazine. In 1999, ironically, they sold CMP to Miller Freeman. Some of CMP's own publications, such as Windows Magazine, were folded. If CMP and McGraw-Hill could turn back the clock to the spring of 1998, my guess is that both companies would handle things differently.

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Comments? Questions? Click here to send feedback.

P.S. Jerry Pournelle still writes his famous Chaos Manor column on the web.

P.P.S. Daniel Dern, executive editor of Byte.com, wrote an unpublished farewell editorial when he was laid off during another CMP convulsion in October 2001.

Last update: January 5, 2011


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