The Slow And Painful Death Of Imagine Media

   As you may or may not have already heard, Imagine Media has shut down 
Next Generation Magazine.  As a former longtime fan of Imagine for almost 
ten years, this doesn't come as a shocking surprise if for no other reason 
because NextGen was a good product in a management structure that rewards 
the mediocre.
   Before I go any further, I should state that as much as it pains me to 
this say this, there is no doubt in my mind that the entire US division of 
Imagine Media will be out of business within a year or so.  The subscriber 
lists of PC Gamer and PSM will undoubtedly be sold to another company before
Imagine closes up shop, but the fact remains that anyone at Imagine who 
isn't already out of a job is probably going to be out of one within a year.   
   That sounds harsh, but it's far from a bold prediction.  The company has 
been shooting money out of its ass for years, and the one thing that it 
could always depend on-- a strong reputation for quality editorial-- has 
been systematically destroyed over the past several years.
   So, how did Imagine go from being one of the fastest-growing publishing 
companies in America to a struggling mess of a company that is now just 
waiting for the final death knell to fall?  The answer appears to be simple 
on the surface-- A reputation for quality is the only thing that made 
Imagine successful in the first place, and management has chosen time and 
time again over the past few years to sacrifice that reputation at the 
expense of its customers.
   What about all Imagine's great publications of yore, you ask?  They've 
all been shot down, one by one, like birds out of the sky by an incompetent 
management team that is more concerned with any given financial quarter's 
bottom line than they are with the company's reputation for quality (which 
was truly Imagine's greatest asset).

Ultra Game Players
   My first realization of Imagine management's short-sighted approach came 
when the hugely successful Ultra Game Players was killed.  UGP was the #3 
video game magazine in the country based on numbers, but apparently that 
wasn't good enough for management, who had wanted it to beat out EGM and 
become #2.  While it was #3 in circulation, UGP was #1 in terms of its 
beloved status throughout the gaming world, something that Imagine would 
kill to have today.
   Hundreds of thousands of fanatical Ultra Game Players would be 
disappointed when their magazine was killed simply because of its inability 
to reach #2 on the charts, but that didn't really matter to Imagine's 
management.  A short-term financial gain was deemed more important than the 
long-term effects of having the most respected and beloved video game 
magazine in the country.

Game Buyer
   Adding insult to injury, Imagine transferred the entire UGP staff (except
for Mike Salmon) to an ill-fated project called Game Buyer and promptly 
pulled the plug on Game Buyer after just two issues.  The staff was given 
less than one month after the death of UGP to send the first issue of Game 
Buyer to press.  The huge amount of typos in Game Buyer cannot be blamed on 
management, but the lack of direction, commitment, and support from management
certainly can be.  
   Killing the project after two issues was a slap in the face to a staff 
that busted their asses in an attempt to make the product work, especially 
given the fact that the UGP rug had just been pulled out from under the very
same people.  Once again, a short-term financial gain was chosen by 
management despite the obvious loss of goodwill with customers that can only 
come when you a kill a hugely successful magazine, transfer its subscribers 
over to a new magazine, and then kill the new magazine after two issues.

PCXL
   While the rest of the former UGP staff continued to be jerked around by 
management, former UGP senior editor Mike Salmon was given several months to
create and tweak the concept for a new magazine.  Salmon made the most of 
this time and created the most unique, well written, and funny video game 
magazine ever made: PC Accelerator.
   To any reader of video game magazines who had been saddened by the death 
of UGP and by the entire Game Buyer debacle, PCXL was like a breath of fresh
air.  While the staff turnover from month to month was always very high 
(with lots of people joining the staff and lots of people leaving the staff),
the overall product was always overseen by Mike Salmon, and it always came 
out brilliant.
   At the time, I had an old and slow PC that could barely run games from 
1996, much less the 1998-2000 line-up of PC games.  Nonetheless, I read 
every issue of PCXL from cover to cover because as Triple H would say, "It 
was just that damn good."  Unfortunately for the staff of PCXL, as well as 
the game-magazine-reading public and countless PCXL fans throughout the 
video game industry, none of this seemed to matter to the inept management 
of Imagine Media.
   Never mind the fact that magazines often take years to build up huge 
subscription numbers over time, the fact was that PCXL "only" had about 
120,000 subscribers, and management may have also been concerned that it was
eating into sales of another Imagine magazine, PC Gamer.  PCXL was also a 
"niche" product, and we can't have that, can we?  (Imagine's MacAddict, 
which covers a niche market if there ever was one, is still in business 
today.)
   In the spring of 2000, Imagine shut down PC Accelerator.  The company's 
management had once again managed to kill the most beloved publication in 
the entire industry among hardcore gamers.  Management had little regard for
the 120,000 subscribers who were almost universally outraged and devastated 
by the closure of the magazine, which was still just as creatively edgy as 
ever at the time of its closure.

Games Business
   Games Business Magazine was also shut down in 2000, despite the fact that
it was the #1 video game industry trade publication in terms of both 
readership and quality.  Suspiciously, the plug was pulled on Games Business
not long after the death of MCV, the trade publication from Imagine's newest
competitor at the time, Computec Media.  
   I can only speculate, but perhaps Games Business served no purpose in the 
mind of Imagine's management now that MCV was dead.  To hell with the readers
of the magazine, and to hell with the staff (including Curt Feldman and 
George Chronis) who busted their asses to get Games Business back up on its 
feet after 90 percent of the previous staff simultaneously left the magazine
and moved on to other projects within the company.

Five Failed Launches
   With high-quality products dropping like flies throughout the company 
(or, more accurately, being swatted down like flies) and with the magazine 
business as a whole slowing down, Imagine somehow came to the conclusion 
that it would not be in their best interests to strengthen their remaining 
publications.  In the span of a few short months, Imagine used some money 
that they must have been crapping out, and they launched five (count 'em, 
five) different new magazines.
   None of these five publications were of particularly high editorial 
quality, and all five of them flopped.  Two of them (movie magazine "Total 
Movie" and music magazine "Revolution") might have had a small chance at 
success, but the other three magazines were practically dead in the water.
   Here was a company that shut down PCXL and claimed that they could no 
longer afford to publish "niche magazines," only to go on to publish Maximum
Linux, Digital Foto, and T3, which focused on high-tech gadgets.  Are these 
three publications not the very definition of "niche markets"?  How could 
anyone justify publishing these magazines while dumping PCXL?

Daily Radar
   In May of 2001, Imagine terminated what was supposed to be their flagship
online publication, Daily Radar.  After killing the highly popular Next 
Generation Online web site in order to launch Daily Radar, Imagine 
inexplicably hired a staff of 30 people to do a job that had essentially 
been done by a staff of two or three for several years.  This resulted in a 
lot more content being produced, but it also gave Daily Radar a dangerously 
large amount of expenses from the start.
   So, when the Internet advertising market dried up and the revenue streams
were drastically reduced, there was no way to justify the huge payroll.  
Management may have felt that they had no choice but to shut down Daily Radar
since they could no longer support the large staff, but one can't help but 
wonder why in the hell they hired a staff of 30 people in the first place.
   In addition, it should be noted that Imagine made no attempt to cut back 
on Daily Radar's larger-than-necessary staff and make a go of it as a 
profitable publication.  Rather than giving Daily Radar a chance as a 
streamlined operation, management simply gave up, fired everyone, shut down 
the web site, and called it a day.
   Unlike most of the company's previous closures, management made no attempt
to find new jobs within the company for anyone at Daily Radar other than two
people (Frank O'Connor and Dan Egger).  Approximately 30 people found 
themselves suddenly out of jobs, including one with a newborn baby.  If 
laying off a mother with a newborn baby doesn't make you a heartless bastard,
what does?

IGN
   I haven't even mentioned the clusterf--k that is IGN, the struggling web 
site network that is now a sure thing to be shut down within a few months.  
IGN was spun off from the main company of Imagine in part so that when IGN 
inevitably started its slow descent into hell, certain executives could say 
with a straight face, "That's not us, that's a completely different company."
The fact that it's the same guy at the top of both companies doesn't really 
matter, does it?  (Also, having two different web site networks allowed
management to partner one of them with Electronic Boutique's web site and the
other with GameStop's web site.)
    
PCXL Online
   Just two weeks before Daily Radar was canned and dozens of people were 
abruptly sent to the unemployment line, Imagine announced that PC Accelerator
was re-launching as a web site.  Thousands of gamers were overjoyed to learn
that their long-lost friend, PCXL, was back, and this time it seemed to be 
for good since there were no expenses other than the salaries of a few 
people.
   But like a fisherman with a brand new lure, Imagine's management sent 
razor-sharp hooks into the gums of PCXL fans.  Imagine shut down PCXL.com at
the same time as the Daily Radar closure.  It had just re-launched about a 
year after the closure of the print version and that there was only one new 
issue of PCXL online.  Yet again, a short-term financial gain was chosen by 
management despite the obvious loss of goodwill with customers that can only
come when you a kill a hugely popular magazine, re-launch it as a web site 
one year later, and then kill the web site after one issue.

NextGen
   Given the track record of Imagine's management, is it any surprise that 
it has now pulled the plug on the only hardcore-gamer-focused publication 
that it had left?  NextGen was Imagine's flagship publication, and it was 
one that management supposedly held near and dear to their hearts.  NextGen 
"only" had about 115,000 subscribers, but it stands to reason that it would 
have had a hell of a lot more subscribers if management put even one-tenth 
of the focus and promotion into NextGen as they have to their Official Xbox 
Magazine over the past year.
   Catering to the hardcore fans who put Imagine on the map was never a 
consideration, nor was preserving the company's fading reputation for 
quality.  All that mattered was that NextGen wasn't profitable and thus it 
had to be shut down.  Using that kind of logic (shut it down if it's not 
profitable!), wouldn't the whole damned company have been shut down a long 
time ago?  Much like the Daily Radar shutdown, everyone at NextGen was 
abruptly laid off except for one person (assistant art director Monique 
Martinez).
   In yet another slap in the face, Imagine has decided that the last issue 
of NextGen will be the January issue, not the February issue.  At least PCXL
was given the chance to publish one final issue in which they said goodbye 
and poked a little bit of fun at management, but NextGen will not be given 
this privilege.  Since the January issue went to press weeks ago, there will
be no goodbyes or sense of closure.  The 90 percent complete February issue 
will never be released, which means that the NextGen staff has wasted the 
past month of their lives on an issue that will never be published.

Remaining Publications
   Imagine used to publish over two dozen magazines and web sites, but the 
ever-shrinking number is now down to zero web sites with their own staffs 
and just five magazines: Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer, PSM, Maximum PC, 
and MacAddict (yes, MacAddict).  
   PSM and OXM, like most single-platform magazines, are far too slanted 
towards their own systems to offer much in the way of objective editorial 
content.  These two magazines are proof that de facto censorship can be just
as bad as actual censorship.  PSM and OXM are far from Nintendo Power in 
terms of pure fluff, but there's something to be said for multi-platform 
magazines that have no allegiance towards any particular system and don't 
have to worry about being too negative in general about X system.
   Unfortunately, there are only three multi-platform video game magazines 
left standing, and none of them are published by Imagine.  They are: GamePro
(which is complete crap), EGM (which is mostly crap, but also decent at 
times), and Game Informer (which is now the only games magazine that I look 
forward to receiving in the mail every month).
   PC Gamer and Maximum PC are extremely informative while also being 
horribly bland and altogether painful to read.  Maximum PC was an utter 
failure as "Boot Magazine" until Imagine bought out HomePC Magazine and its 
handy dandy list of 300,000 subscribers, who were then added to Boot's own 
list of 150,000 subscribers.
   You don't have to be particularly bright to do the math and realize that 
Maximum PC wouldn't be in business today if that buy-out hadn't taken place 
and given the magazine a total of 450,000 subscribers.  PC Gamer has also 
profited as a result of others' misfortune by acquiring the subscribers of 
PCXL and PC Games when they closed up shop.

The "Public Company" Excuse
   A lot of Imagine's short-sighted shutdowns and firings are passed off 
with the following excuse: We're a publicly-traded company now, and we can't
afford to publish anything that isn't profitable at this very second, 
regardless of its future potential or lack thereof.  I'm sorry, but I don't 
recall anyone putting a gun to anyone else's head and forcing management to 
take the company public.  
   It's laughable to claim that Imagine's management is handcuffed by the 
fact that they're a public company, when it was management's own choice 
through their own free will to become a publicly-traded company in the first
place.  It's the equivalent of a magazine editor tying himself up in a chair
and then complaining that he can't get any work done because he's all tied 
up.
   You can't discount the fact that as a publicly traded company, the 
executives at Imagine were probably (at least initially) rolling around in 
money after the cash infusion of going public.  This cash infusion was more 
than likely reflected in the salaries of these executives, and it stands to 
reason that a significant percentage of this money was put aside by 
individual executives as they saw fit.  
   Combine this with the cushy severance packages that seemingly all top-
level management gets at any company these days, and it's hard to figure out
what motivation Imagine's management has to give a damn about the company as
a whole at this point.  I'm sure some of them do nonetheless, but it could 
very well be the exception rather than the norm.  
   Imagine has been sliding down a giant mountain towards bankruptcy for a 
very long time, and the individual members of management are going to be 
financially set for several years whether the company turns itself around or
slides all the way to the bottom of the mountain.  With this in mind, it's 
no wonder that the company's once-great reputation for quality and goodwill 
with customers means little or nothing to these executives.

What Happens Now?
   By letting financial people run the company instead of creative people, 
Imagine lost sight of the long-term big picture.  When a company is built 
from the ground up on quality, and then management systematically chips away
at this standard of quality for a period of several years by shutting down 
countless beloved publications in favor of mediocrity, the company loses the
only legs that it ever had to stand on.  And without any legs to stand on, 
it's just a matter of time before this publishing giant falls and is forced 
to shut down entirely.
   The question is not if it's going to happen, but when it's going to 
happen, and the answer is probably within a year.  It will be a very sad day
when Imagine eventually shuts down, but no one will deserve more blame than 
the members of Imagine's own management.

Send your thoughts on this editorial to ivan@mastergamer.com

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2001, ivan@mastergamer.com