On the demise of SysAdmin Magazine

CMP recently announced that they will cut 200 jobs, and shut down more than one magazine in the process, folding their content into other existing magazines. There has been a lot of buzz in the sysadmin community (which I know largely as a loose collection of people who belong to LOPSA, SAGE, USENIX, or local groups of various kinds) about how sad and unexpected this is and how it’s a sign of the times or something.

You Can’t Sell a Generalist’s Mag to a Market of Specialists

I actually think SysAdmin’s demise was a long time coming – in part because, well, I’m involved in the publication of a couple of magazines, and read lots of others, and know people who work in publishing on other magazines as well as large online media outlets (some of whom I also write/edit/consult with). The plain fact of the matter is that it is extremely difficult to cover a topic like system administration in a generalist sort of way when your audience no longer consists mostly of generalists.

For example, the last two issues of SysAdmin magazine I remember getting were about Database Management, and Linux, respectively. The database management issue talked about Oracle and MySQL, and then had 3 or 4 articles on things not really directly related to databases at all, if memory serves. The Linux issue is probably of no interest to the admin who was all revved up for the Oracle articles, because that admin is probably not so much a sysadmin as an “Oracle admin”. Meanwhile, the average Linux administrator is probably uninterested in the Oracle RAC Primer.

Most admins aren’t generalists anymore unless they work in academia, research, or a company small enough that there are only a couple of people to handle the entire infrastructure. Even people who would like to be more general aren’t doing generalist things in production. I know several people who work *only* on {Oracle, sendmail, websphere, whatever-other-service-you-like} at work, and nothing else, but they run Apache, Bind, Postfix, and a few other services at home. That knowledge is nice to have, but it’s hardly something you can use to market yourself as a production generalist administrator.

So the market is flooded with mail administrators, backup administrators, storage administrators, cluster administrators, network administrators, database administrators, websphere administrators, exchange administrators, desktop administrators… the list goes on and on and on. The magazine market has mostly followed suit. There are magazines about cluster computing, DB2, AIX, SQL Server, Linux servers, Windows servers, and lots of other specialized areas. Note in that list that there are two separate magazines for two separate database products, but no “DBA’s Journal”. In killing SysAdmin Magazine, CMP is just following along with market trends.

Programming has mostly gone in the same direction. Dr. Dobb’s Journal is no longer available on your local bookshelf, but you can find php|architect, a magazine about nothing but PHP, doing well. Others exist for .Net, Cold Fusion, C/C++, Java, and now even Python. I’m sure Ruby and Lua aren’t far behind.

“I know, let’s start our own magazine!”

There are lots of naysayers out there who seem to think you need a huge staff, tons of money, and loads of other resources to start a magazine. Not true. You need a few dedicated, motivated people, and a small amount of seed money, and some time and hard labor.

An example is php|architect. It started with two guys: the publisher (who was a software development consultant as well), and his business partner, who also knew Quark pretty well – plenty well enough to do the layout. Then I came on board. So after the first issue came out, the rest were all tech and copy edited by the publisher and I, and the layout was done by the other guy. That’s really minimizing the amount of work we did, but the point is you don’t need an army.

When you’re as big as CMP and you’re looking at cutting a million bucks or something from your operating expenses, you go ahead and cut away! A small outfit isn’t playing with these kinds of numbers. A full-time editor at a company like CMP probably makes a 6-figure salary. A guy like me who edits as a side job makes something like… far less than that. At that rate, you can add another editor, a tech editor, a couple of columnists, all part time, and the advertising revenue will still cover the costs.

So if you want to see a sysadmin magazine, get some dedicated people who have half a brain and go do it!

Good luck.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Social Bookmarks:
  • Pingback: Now there’s an idea… — From My Mind…

  • http://gnuisance.net/ David A. Harding

    In your experience, how is the magazine market in general? As a consumer, I subscribe to fewer magazines every year, and I wonder if most other people are doing the same thing.

    I like magazines, but online articles and blogs typically satisfy to my needs and wants better for less money. I think the only major remaining advantage of magazines is the value added by good editing: the poor grammer & style and unnecessary or incomplete information of unedited articles and blogs fustrates me. Is this advantage enough to sustain the industry, is there another factor I haven’t considered, or are magazines soon to be as dead as the trees they’re printed on?

    -Dave

  • http://m0j0.wordpress.com/ m0j0

    Hi Dave,

    Trying to get an overall feel for the entirety of the magazine publishing industry is difficult at best. There are so many specialized niches within it, each with their own audience, and each audience with their own quirks and tendencies. For example, many geeks are happy to have a digital subscription to a magazine about Linux or PHP. My mother, however, would never handle a digital subscription to her knitting and gardening mags. It’s just too big a space for me to profess any real knowledge of the market as a whole.

    While I’m pretty sure I subscribe to *more* magazines now than ever, and I see other value in them – I absolutely 100% agree that good writing and editing is a huge, huge plus. Another value they have to me is similar to the value of baseball cards and music. There’s cultural value to the printed word. I can look at pictures of baseball players online, but somehow it wouldn’t be the same to collect them all in a desktop photo management app and show it off to my daughter. I just don’t think it would have the same awe and mystique.

    With music, I like some songs that are terrible because of the time in my life that they came from. Magazines are similar in that way. I love going to my grandmother’s house and looking at the ads from old Life magazine issues.

    I also like the “bare nakedness” of magazines. If editorial mistakes were made, they are there for all of eternity to witness. There are flaws in every issue of every magazine ever printed, and there’s beauty in the flaws of everything – whether it’s music, or baseball, or even people – or the written word.

    Of course, the market doesn’t care about my nostalgia. Luckily, I can put that aside and look past that fog with my business hat on, and I still don’t really see a danger of my beloved snapshots in time going away.

    Don’t believe the hype. The market will change, but the sky, at least for us readers, isn’t falling.

    They still print baseball cards. 😉

  • http://gnuisance.net/ David A. Harding

    Thanks for your reply, Brian.

    Thinking about your reply lead me to the thought that magazines, newspapers, and books traditionally serve as social proof. For example, you said that you’d use your book as proof you know a thing, or two, about “Linux.” But the accuracy of the social proof of these things is somewhat arbitrary: the first Harry Potter book, for example, was rejected for publication 12 times despite its eventual widespread social acceptance. Moreover, I’ve read numerous unenjoyable and uninformative published works.

    More accurate social proof can be found, sometimes, in social bookmarking websites like Digg, Reddit, etc… This leads me to believe that, soon, writers will change how they credit themselves: instead of saying, “John Foo has written for the NY Times, …,” the credits will read, “John Foo has written 5 top-10-ranked reddit.com articles, …”

    About the same time this shift begins to happen, I bet more magazine and newspaper editors for the audience your mother, the paper-only magazine reader, is in will begin trolling social bookmarking websites attempting to buy exclusive republish rights to popular articles. That seems like a business opportunity — maybe, in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’ll start a knitting magazine.

    -Dave

    P.S. I read your interview with Tony Mobily. Good job, but I wish there was a secret to how you do all you do — or, rather, I wish there was a secret and you’d tell it to me. :)

  • http://m0j0.wordpress.com/ m0j0

    Hi Dave,

    This is interesting stuff. I don’t typically think about hard copy content being a “social proof”. I guess it’s valid, though, because my book does, if nothing else, represent a body of knowledge on a particular subject. I hope your notion that crap is sometimes published without question while good work gets rejected is not based on your opinion of my book 😮

    As for Digg and Reddit, you should know enough to disillusion yourself of any notion of accuracy in those systems, or any like them. The fact is that even people who want to create a good, objective system, can’t. Google would like to do this as well, and have put forth significant money, brain power, and effort towards that goal. It seems that for each action on the web toward objectivity, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    Finally – wrt my interview, I’m not sure how to answer questions about my “secret”. Maybe if I understood what people thought was so awe inspiring about what I do, I could speak to those things directly and take away the idea that there’s some magic involved. I’d be happy to do it, so if you can pose the question, fire away. :-)

  • http://gnuisance.net/ David A. Harding

    Brian,

    I don’t think your book is crap. I appologise for combining statements about your book and crap in the same paragraph.

    I know social bookmarking applications aren’t perfect, but I do think some of them might be, on balance, better at seperating good articles from bad than magazine editors. I realise comparing social bookmarking to editors is inequal, but from inequitiy doth come change.

    WRT your interview, I was just kidding around. I find it easy to compare someone else’s life achivements against my own and find myself lacking. I think other people do the same thing, and I think the reason is that we depreciate the things we’ve already done and appreciate the things we haven’t. For example, I want to be a published book author, you’re a published book author, and therefore you’re better than me — instintively, that’s how I feel, but rationally I realise I did something during the time you wrote your book: I did things I thought were important, and I did them well, and I’d be proud of them if somebody mentioned them in the same paragraph as my name.

    Cheers,

    -Dave