['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]


A recent article posted up on foliomag.com (a magazine that covers the magazine industry) has a bit more to say on the sale of Ziff Davis... or the attempts thereof:

First-round bids on Ziff’s gaming and consumer/small business groups, which are being marketed separately, were due to the company’s advisor, Lehman Brothers on January 19. “I’m not sure how many people bid,” said one source, “but I do know that their price expectations are over the top" [...]

The source said the company is looking to make 3X-revenue on the gaming group alone, which has annual revenues in the mid-$20 million-range and break-even earnings. “Asking for 3X-revenue on a company that’s breaking even is very, very over-the-top,” said the source.

I don't want to spend this column talking about how game magazines have no future, etc., because I'm sure you have heard that from a thousand other people by now. What I'm more interested in is how this move compares to the rest of Ziff Davis's history, one that until recently was playing the role of the 800-pound gorilla in every genre it explored.

Ever since it got into "enthusiast" publishing in the 1950s (it bought Car & Driver magazine in 1956 and published it until 1985), ZD's always managed to capitalize on specialization. Half a century ago, they were smart enough to notice that general-interest magazines like Life or The Saturday Evening Post were becoming outdated -- with the concept of leisure time taking shape in the postwar boom, a massive market in hobbyist publications took off, and Ziff was at the forefront of it with titles like C&D and Popular Electronics.

It was with largely the same attitude that ZD swooped into the computer magazine business. In 1982 alone they bought PC Magazine (which began as a startup), Creative Computing (arguably the most influential consumer-market computer mag of the era), The Color Computer Magazine, and a bunch of smaller publications. PC grew to become a massive, 800-page juggernaut every month, and Ziff soon earned a reputation for either outmuscling competing titles on the newsstand or simply buying them and shutting them down entirely.

The most illustrative example of this for gamers is Ziff's 1996 purchase of Sendai Publishing Group, founders of Electronic Gaming Monthly. The buyout couldn't have come at a better time for Sendai -- EGM was a hit, with an average circulation of 400,000 copies, but the rest of Sendai's lineup at the time (including EGM2, Computer Game Review, P.S.X., Fusion, Electronic Games, Internet Underground, comic book mag Hero Illustrated and movie mag Cinescape, plus one-offs) didn't push 200,000 copies combined. They were a publisher with way too many titles, and Ziff was swift to lay down the law, shutting down everything except EGM, EGM2 and P.S.X. (which evolved into Official US PlayStation Magazine) within the space of a few months.

Flash forward, though, to 2007. Ziff Davis, in its entirety, publishes only six magazines now -- PC, EGM, Games For Windows, and three business-to-business computer industry titles. I joined Ziff in 2003 at the height of its game-mag empire, but since then GameNOW, XBN, GMR, and OPM have all shut down with nothing replacing them. Nothing, that is, except 1UP and a wide variety of PC and game-oriented websites, including the whimsically-named Gazerk.

With such a rapidly diminishing print presence, it's little wonder that potential Ziff buyers are a little apprehensive about the dead-trees side of the business, especially its long-term outlooks. Again, I don't want this to become a "Why game mags should die out" discussion -- I think that EGM/GFW are doing a very good job at proving why they should continue to exist, and indeed, why it's a great idea to keep on reading them. It's just interesting, I think, to see a company that rode the wave of enthusiast publications find its core business eroded by the ultimate resource for enthusiasts of all kinds: the Internet.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]