Why DDJ Won’t Change

Joel Spolsky incorrectly read the announcement as SD taking over the Dobb’s name. Dan Read  hopes this might mean a hybrid magazine that combines the best of both. At the risk of alienating my future potential editors, almost certainly not. So far, what we’ve got looks like the pro forma assurances that are typical of an all-out acquisition. Software Development’s Editor, Alexa Weber-Morales, was laid off in December (when she was six months pregnant, to boot). The magazine’s being folded in the June timeframe, which means that the “change” will coincide with the build-up to the announcement of the 2007 advertising rates (at least, if the calendars are the same as they were when I left the company 10 years ago). In other words, even with what I imagine is considerable overlap in their subscription lists, Dr. Dobb’s will get a circulation boost of 30-50K readers which will allow them to raise their advertising rates. Aside from a bug on the cover for a six months or a year, and perhaps a 16-page internal supplement, that’s probably all they will take from SD.

At the most basic level, Dr. Dobb’s probably sees no reason to change a winning formula — they know what they like and they execute it. If Jon Erickson and the editorial team wanted the softer, more management-oriented articles that characterized Software Development, they would have already incorporated that type of writing. As for columnists, I think SD has some writers who are clearly at the very top of their craft — you may have heard of this Scott Ambler kid — but DDJ already has a full boat of writers to whom they’ve always tended to be loyal.

I may be wrong and, facing the travails of the industry, this might be an epochal shift in content. I doubt it, though. There’s no new blood.

The Imminent Death of Developer’s Magazines

Eric Sink had an incredibly timely post on “The Eventual Death of Developer Magazines” in which he noted that print publications such as Dr. Dobb’s, Software Development, and Visual Studio were becoming thinner and thinner. Things were even worse than he noted, though, since the magazines held a certain portfolio length and devoted more and more “advertising pages” to unpaid ads for in-house projects such as conferences and other magazines.

Of course, the major issue with developer magazines is that they have not adapted to the Web. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but one that has gone largely unremarked is that the developer magazines (except Code Magazine) are all put together by old folk like me. At 42, I don’t consider myself particularly old unless I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee, but when I took over Computer Language, I was 26 and I was taking over from J.D. Hildebrand, who I think was 29. Our competitors at Dr. Dobb’s, Jeff Duntemann’s company, and R&D, were a little older, but not much.

The thing about young editors is that they create magazines that have a feeling of discovery, because the staff is not convinced that they know everything. They don’t know how the magazine “must be,” they don’t keep columns out of nostalgia and inertia, and they haven’t gotten over the passion for creativity and the thrill of power when a technique is explained clearly.

In the particular case of developer magazines, there is a myth that what makes a magazine popular is that it’s an “invaluable aide to the business of developing software.” (That’s not a direct quote from anyone, but it’s so absurd that I can’t write it without sarcastic quotes.) Dr. Dobb’s Journal, which launched with the boast of “Running light without overybyte” has long changed to “Software Tools for the Professional Programmer.” From the day I took over Computer Language, the advertising side pushed towards the momentous day when the magazine had not a line of code, a day which thankfully came to pass long after I’d left the top of the masthead.

What makes a magazine popular is … well, I could write a bunch of stuff about “shared passion” and “personal but authoritative voices” but that would just be old-farty of me — what makes a magazine successful is exactly what makes blogging successful. Same thing, different era.