Computer magazines are going mainstream

September 05, 1994|By Newsday

Magazine publishers hope to make computing a family affair.

For years, publishers of computer magazines have targeted business users, with technical publications filled with arcane jargon. But now there's a miniboom in mainstream, easy-to-read magazines geared to adults and families using computers in their everyday lives.

They include HomePC, brought out by CMP Publications in May; Family PC, a joint venture of Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. and the Walt Disney Co., which recently had its debut; and Ziff-Davis' expensive launch of Computer Life, which hits newsstands Sept. 13.

Other magazines also are elbowing in.

In October, PC World and Child magazine, which are owned by separate companies, will both run a 24-page editorial section called Smart Computing for Kids. That same month Scholastic will reintroduce Family Computing, which will be sent free to 1 million specially selected subscribers of its Parent & Child and Home Office Computing magazines.

Like other home computer magazines of its era, Family Computing was ahead of its time when it started in 1983. Five years later, with most home computers being used for work, the publication became Home Office Computing.

But magazine executives now agree that with more than 30 million households equipped with computers -- nearly one-third of the United States -- the time seems right to tap into families' growing interests in computing. And with the prices of CD-ROM drives, powerful chips and other hardware falling dramatically, and a large variety of more enticing software coming out, home computing seems ready to explode.

"I've been in publishing for 15 years and this was probably the most obvious opportunity," said Dan Schwartz, publisher of HomePC. "There were [magazines] for everybody other than the average American who likes computing and wants to get the most out of it."

HomePC takes a broad approach by focusing on entertainment, education and personal productivity. Its September issue features articles on helping kids -- toddlers through teens -- use the machines, and organizing life with a calendar software program.

With the third issue on newsstands, HomePC guarantees advertisers 200,000 circulation, but that figure will jump to 350,000 in January, Mr. Schwartz said, calling the growth "well beyond our wildest dreams."

To get the magazine into people's hands, CMP, a magazine publisher based in Manhasset, N.Y., slashed the newsstand price to 95 cents from $2.95 for the first two issues.

When Ziff-Davis researched the home computing market, it found two large groups of very different consumers, and felt they could be reached most effectively with separate publications, said J. Scott Briggs, president of Ziff-Davis' consumer media group and Computer Life's publisher.

One segment is parents who buy computers for their children, and the other is adults who consider the PC "the greatest gizmo they've ever seen," and want to try the newest software themselves, Mr. Briggs said.

Family PC, geared to parents of kids ages 3 to 12, has a warm, inviting feel. It suggests educational projects that parents and children can do together on their PC, ranging from playing

tic-tac-toe to designing pencil holders and Halloween decorations, and it rates different products to sort through the bewildering array. Family PC borrows its tone and design from Disney's 3-year-old, widely successful Family Fun. Both were conceived by editor Jake Winebaum.

Family PC has the advantage of Disney's marketing muscle behind it. By the end of the year, 20 million subscription offers will be distributed to families, Mr. Winebaum said, including about half through the soon-to-be released Snow White videocassette.

Ziff-Davis, which is for sale, has high hopes for the more sophisticated Computer Life, which "has more of an edge, graphically and editorially," Mr. Briggs said. It assumes people are familiar with and into computers and stresses "excitement, people, products and how-to," Ruth Stevens, vice president of marketing for its consumer media group said.

It opens with a column called Buzz, reprints discussions from cyberspace, features new and offbeat products, picks the the 20 best CD-ROMs, and under a section called "just do it," gives step-by-step directions for grown-up projects, such as tuning up a car.

The inaugural issue will have about 200 pages, half of which are advertisements. It's got a heavily male audience, and with a paid circulation of 300,000, it's the largest launch in Ziff-Davis' history. Mr. Briggs said he expects Computer Life and Family PC to top 500,000 circulation, possibly in three years.

So can several magazines in a new genre make it? Martin S. Walker, a Manhattan-based magazine consultant, thinks so. "How many fashion magazines and automotive magazines are there? Different magazines find different niches."

It may actually help that they're all debuting at once. When there's just one it must sell the overall concept, Mr. Walker said. When there are several, the concept is more obvious and each must convince readers that their formula works best.

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