In the late '70s and into the early '80s, the tech world was vastly removed from its current omnipresence in American life. Computers were a curiosity. The average consumer would never have considered purchasing a computer for his or her home—on the rare occasion that computers were used by the public, it was strictly in the context of professional business. Most of the tech journalism at the time reflected that sort of mentality—very niche and very inaccessible.
"Most trade publications at that time were deadly boring," said John Markoff, a former, long-time tech journalist for The New York Times, in an interview with Motherboard. "They were insider publications for people who were professionals or employees in an industry sub-grouping. The publications wouldn't be interesting to anybody outside of that."
"People were still trying to figure out what to use these machines for," continued Markoff. "[At the time], people were in love with these machines as toys and hobby projects."
Markoff was an early writer and editor for InfoWorld, the first weekly tech newspaper. Founded in 1978, InfoWorld originated as an earlier publication called Intelligent Machines Journal, which was largely geared towards power users.
But the name of the publication changed in 1980—founder Jim Warren sold the publication to the International Data Group the prior year. And with the name change came a more mainstream focus. The tech community had grown large enough and widespread enough that its writers covered industry news—trends, announcements, unique people, and personalities. It was the first step to moving tech out of the exclusive hands of hobbyists and into the hands of a non-professional, non-technical audience.
InfoWorld was very much a bootstraps, knife-in-the-teeth operation. And one major, early obstacle was the lack of experience on staff.
"There weren't a lot of professional journalists in the mix," said Markoff. "We were making it up as we went along. Our editor-in-chief, Maggie Cannon, had been a secretary. My editor, John Dvorak, had previously run a small software company, but he had no experience with journalism at all. I was probably one of the most experienced journalists there, and I didn't have any experience other than some freelance writing."
John Barry, Managing Editor of InfoWorld in its early days, remembers the struggles of putting together the publication. He was primarily in charge of the newspaper's production, and the technological limitations of the early 80's led to some problems that a modern observer might take for granted
"The editors all had typewriters. No one even had a computer," recalled Barry in an interview with Motherboard. "The writers would draft their manuscript on typewriters. Copy editor Eva Langfeldt would copy-edit the manuscripts and send them to the type house. And those manuscripts would get sent back and forth by mail carrier.
"Sometimes, when you cut in line corrections, the type density could vary because the mix of chemicals wouldn't be the same on any given day," said Barry. "You could see where the lines were cut in because the type would be darker or lighter."
Barry also had a role in shaping InfoWorld's editorial voice, which intended to counter the "computerphobia" of the lay public.
"I was mainly concerned with production, but when I started, we didn't have a copy editor," recalled Barry. "I was frankly put off by a lot of the jargon and convoluted language of the industry. I remember I worked hard at trying to streamline things. Even though the subjects were technical, I tried to render them in more approachable language."
"We were trying to figure out how to not be super technical," said Markoff, "because we were writing for people who were not technically trained. We had to understand the technology but also translate what it was for a broader audience. We had to talk more about how this technology was used, and what its application was."
"The first story I did was an article about a printer interface," continued Markoff. "And Langfeld came back to me with it, because I had included every technical specification in the article. She guided me through the idea that I wasn't writing for a technical audience. I was writing for a consumer audience."
Markoff remembers some of his best scoops, such as the dangers of using personal computers on commercial airliners.
"I did some reporting on the risks of people using computers on airplanes," Markoff recalled. "An Osborne I (an early, "luggable" computer), weighed about 40 pounds. You could barely put it on your lap. But if you did and turned it on, it would give off radio frequency emissions all over the spectrum, including on some of the airliner's landing frequencies. [My feature article] got a tremendous amount of attention, and it got InfoWorld recognized outside of its tiny niche."
InfoWorld also printed a fair amount of gossip. And that was the sort of thing that landed the staff in hot water with its subjects, especially when they reported on secret projects.
"About two weeks after I arrived at InfoWorld. I walked into the office of Senior Editor Paul Freiberger," said Markoff. "He was about to break the story about Apple's codenames: LISA and Macintosh. This was 1981. The LISA didn't come out until 1983, and the Macintosh didn't come out until 1984. And as I walked into his office, Paul held the telephone away from his ear, because somebody was screaming at him. And that someone was Steve Jobs."
"He was infuriated," said Markoff. "And he was telling Paul that if he ran this story, the Japanese would be all over him and use it to their advantage, and that Paul was going to be responsible. We ran the story anyway. It was the first public airing of those code words, even though we still didn't know what the technology was at that point."
Freiberger also remembers that day well.
"Jobs was angry at me," said Freiberger in an interview with Motherboard. "But he did calm down about it. We eventually had a nice relationship and spoke at length many times. But at the time, we were all winging it a bit, and so was he. He wasn't used to dealing with journalists, and he didn't like it."
"Jobs later became a whole lot more sophisticated," Freiberger said. "He became someone who was very adept at dealing with the press and controlling the public image of both himself and Apple."
This early, awkward interaction between Jobs and a journalist illustrates the comparative insularity of the modern tech industry. It's a strange irony for an industry that prides itself on lack of communication barriers.
"There were very few big companies in the field back then," said Freiberger. "And there were very few sophisticated public relations organizations controlling access to companies. We could pick up the phone and call the president of a company. And, we also might hear from the president of the company. As I said before, Steve Jobs contacted me. On another occasion, Bill Gates contacted me, because he wasn't happy with an article I'd written. And Apple and Microsoft were two of the bigger companies back in those days. Imagine how easy it would have been to talk to any senior executive of almost any company back then."
Today, tech journalism is in a dramatically different field than it was 30 years ago. Print is dying. Digital is thriving. And much of digital journalism—both its packaging and its delivery—is visually intensive, collaborative, and interactive. Markoff is torn by the rise in these current trends.
"Has something been lost in the transition from print?" asked Markoff. "I go back and forth on that. Technology is still changing, and is still not stable. So [the relay of information] might be chaotic for some time. You walk down any city street, and people are staring at the palm of their hand, which is where everyone is getting their information. I can't believe that's the last step for user interface."
"I have no idea what it will be," said Markoff, "but I'm convinced that the way we consume information will move beyond that."