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Interview with Tony Lockwood

What can you learn from 28 years in technical publishing? We asked Anthony (Tony) Lockwood, who recently retired from Desktop Engineering.

Roopinder Tara, Editor, Tenlinks
September 17, 2007

Word first got out in late May of this year that Tony was leaving DE, the magazine he had helped create and was thought to be inextricably linked with. TenLinks found Tony to confirm his leaving and through a series of email exchanges, recorded some of his wit and wisdom -- something all of us in the trade will miss -- as well as his trials, tribulations, joys and discoveries.


Lockwood  is busier than ever after retiring from Desktop Engineering

How long did you work for DE?
I was the founding editor of DE and we published our first issue in September 1995. The concept work had begun a year before.

Have you worked for other magazines?
I started my professional career with BYTE magazine, the granddaddy of computer geek magazines, in 1979. I was the last person hired by BYTE before McGraw-Hill took over.

I stuck around BYTE until the early 90s, leaving once and coming back for a brief encore. I also worked on BYTE’s ill-fated publication Popular Computing.

BYTE covered hard-core computer stuff for solder jocks and code maniacs. We called ourselves “hackers” then because nobody really knew what we were doing with microcomputers. We were hacking away and having a blast. We knew that microcomputers were going to change the world. It was terrific fun for about 10 years – before the magazine went corporate.

BYTE loved titles and I went through many of them. I started as a copy editor who also wrote the departments like new products, rewrote articles and edited. I left as senior technical editor of State of the Art, a focus section in every issue.

"guys stinking of Dr. Pepper and vending machine tuna sandwiches who had driven all day and night ... would show up"

One of the coolest aspects of my job in the early days was that I got to meet the nuts who showed up at the door. Often this happened by pre-arrangement, but sometimes hairy guys stinking of Dr. Pepper and vending machine tuna sandwiches who had driven all day and night from St. Louis or somewhere would show up with the “world’s most wonderful” computer thing they had invented. My job was to give them an hour and maybe write something about it.

I met Bill Gates before he was a deity. Gates’ tweed jacket was kind of funky. I pretended to be impressed when they said that they had inked a deal to be the exclusive OS for a big company’s new small system for the home user. We called PCs small systems then. I was polite but probably more focused on where I might go for lunch. A demo on a disk operating system was crushingly dull. I certainly was not much of a fortune teller.

In the early 80’s I was assigned to BIX - the BYTE Information eXchange, an online conferencing system with news, user groups, email, shareware downloads, chat rooms, things like that. Think AOL for hard-core computer geeks. BIX was the first online venture by a major hard copy publisher. I ended up its top editorial person. We were way ahead of the game. Too far ahead, actually.

BIX was way cool for its day, but it never had a chance. We were word weenies. We fancied ourselves computer Midases, which we were compared to 99 percent of the world. So, what did we do? We blew a ton of dough developing our conferencing software, running computers, and being ripped off by the computer farm, which is how we referred to the outfit that provided us with 24/7 computer and telecomm services.

"The ... VP... told us 'nobody would ever be interested in the Internet.' "

I created a thing called Microbytes, which was one of the first online newswires. It was somebody else’s idea and I fobbed it off to BYTE’s news editors as soon as I could because I had other things to do and they had their ears on the tracks. (Microbytes was like Tenlinks, only the customers came to you for the news, downloaded it, and posted it on their own computerized bulletin board system.) A user manual I wrote got some sort of award from a tech writers’ group. A honcho put me in charge of being the chat-room profanity cop, which led to my understanding much about human kindness.

McGraw Hill grew displeased with our spending habits. They sold BIX to another online outfit called DELPHI. The McGraw-Hill division VP who engineered our sale told us “nobody would ever be interested in the Internet.”

I quit DELPHI after 9 months. It was a three-hour commute one-way. My wife and I had recently replicated. My daughter was asleep when I left and asleep when I got home which sucked the energy right out of me. I went back to BYTE but lasted only a year so, proving only that you can’t go home again. BYTE had gone all corporate. An old boss, George Bond, lured me away to a job at an offshoot of InfoWorld called InfoWorld Direct.

"Management lesson: layoff the sales force and sales will drop briskly."

At IWD, I researched and tracked monthly pricing trends on hundreds of computer products for our audience of high-tech purchasing agents, a job that engendered a deep and profound hatred of spreadsheets. IWD went under. Management lesson: layoff the sales force and sales will drop briskly.

I knocked about doing freelance stuff, a little consulting, changing diapers. My son was born 10 days before IDW closed. They summoned me from paternal leave to give me a card, congratulating me on my biological success -- then laid me off. The recommendation letter I got was the most useless, lawyer devitalized recommendation I ever saw.

During this time, I sat silently for a three-hour job interview as a techno-savvy small publisher told me how the Pilgrims were misunderstood by history. He offered me the job, citing my great interview. Finally, an old colleague at BYTE quit his job at Sensors magazine to make the same mistake I made and went back to BYTE. He got me to take his job at Sensors. His loss, my gain.

Sensors covered the wild world of machine perception technologies. I mostly rewrote stuff, generally using faxes of PowerPoints as my manuscript. Then Desktop Engineering was born, and I was shifted to it.

"my corporate masters sentenced me to three years in hell -- as DE’s editor/publisher"

At first, I was on the editorial staff, so I did everything. My first editor was Ann Grummon, pale, red-headed and hilarious. She once walked into my office doing a handstand to win a bet with a sales guy. Late in 2000, my corporate masters sentenced me to three years in hell -- as DE’ editor/publisher. Luckily, I had two great people as managing editors to burn out, Vinoy Laughner and Jennifer Runyon.

I did not like being publisher. Too many spreadsheets. Our CFO and CEO were spreadsheet junkies. Every DE business unit – editorial, sales, marketing, what have you – had a separate line item for paper clips to cleaning services, all accountable by floor space times number of employees, divided by some percentage pulled out of thin air. Secret codes unlocked the networked printer/copier which helped track every sheet of paper. All that for a company with a few dozen employees. Go one buck over a line item and expect a grilling at the next budget meeting.

Anyway, being editor and publisher was not right for something like DE. More enlightened leadership in the form of Steve Robbins saw the conflict of interest and got me out of that. No doubt my whining helped him reach that decision.

I’ve also been the corporate editorial director, a position that required I have my nose in all content from magazines to websites to horrible stuff like marketing and PR releases, subscription pitches. The company once had three magazines and a newsletter, each with its own staff. The magazines were sold off over time. The newsletter was shut down because it was too arcane. The 300 people in the world who might be interested in it could not afford the subscription price. This was just before e-newsletters were technologically viable.

Have any authors you found gone on to fame and fortune?
Lots of famous people were a part of the old BIX and BYTE gang. People like Jerry Pournelle, Steve Ciarcia, Bjo Trimble, Rick Berman, and Bjarne Stroustrup.

At DE, I sought out the already well-regarded. See, I’m just a word weenie, good at massaging and presenting technical content. DE has so many areas of coverage that I could never become more than functionally literate in most of them no matter what my ego tells me. So, I went out and found people who were smarter than me to be my beat reporters. I overpaid them to ensure their loyalty.

“Overpaid” is relative. The accountants always got their knickers in a twist over my author payments. Compared to industry norms, I guess I’m guilty. The industry norm stinks. Accountants do not, as a rule, get content. Everything is a cost that must be reduced -- not an investment.

Anyway, my scheme worked. These people produced great material and made DE successful. After only a year of publication, industry people spoke of us as if we had been around forever. It is those writers who made DE what it is. If it wasn’t for them, TenLinks would not be interviewing a slug like me.

Rant done. Back to your question. Some of our contributing editors like Louise Elliott, Joe Greco, and Janet Gould – all dead now, by the way -- were respected names in MCAD/CAE/computerdom circles when I hoodwinked them into writing for us. Retired contributing Barry Simon is a name to be reckoned with in theoretical math and physics circles. Current DE contributing editors like David Cohn, Pam Waterman, and Sara Ferris are deeply respected within their areas of interest.

Some have other gigs. Pam Waterman, for example, is an accomplished children’s book author. She and her daughter Brenda wrote a great cookbook for kids with braces. (see The Braces Cookbook) Mark Clarkson is known as a cartoonist, animator, game reviewer, computer artist and Photoshop guru.

Do you have any good anecdotes about authors you have worked with?
I loved working with Louise Elliott and Joe Greco. We’d speak on the phone about an upcoming assignment, bouncing ideas around before settling on a slant. In a few days, I hear back from them and inevitably they’d start out saying “the real story here is …” It would have nothing whatsoever to do with the original idea. I always went for it because their instincts were so good and always got a great article. David Cohn has that ability, too. Same for “Mad Al” Dean.

What changes at DE did you implement at DE during your reign?
I created the editorial – mission, policies, general guidance, you name it -- out of thin air. I might have even come up with the name and the original tag line. I can’t quite remember. So, I guess the answer is everything you love or hate about DE is probably my doing. In DE’s backrooms, all minds would express their thoughts but it would inevitably come down to me saying “I have no idea how Editorial is going to do this, but we’ll come up with something.”

One thing I’d like to get on the record: Dave Colby -- the guy who replaced me as publisher – forced me to write my Diatribes column. Blame him and Brian Vaillancourt, DE’s current publisher, while you’re at it. Vaillancourt bugged me for years to write a column and then finally got a boss to order me to do it.

Vaillancourt, by the by, knows more about the MCAD/CAE business than anyone I’ve met. He’s a sales guy with morals which makes him an odd duck among sales people.

Has the church/state separation of editorial and sales changed during your tenure?
The B2B trade press inherently has a shaky separation between Editorial and Sales, and that has not changed much at DE. DE’s mothership, however, has always been pretty good about leaving editors alone to do their thing. The idea is that if our content attracts and retains the audience that the advertisers want to reach, we’d be OK. It works. I’ve never had a complaint about that part of management at DE. I’m not going to speculate about what goes on at other outfits.

"Sales tip-toed around [the editors] because they were cranky, ill-mannered, generally unpleasant in close proximity, or simply a bit bizarre."

Have industry changes of any kind been responsible for your decision to leave?
No not at all, but some things have changed big time.

When I first got into the B2B trade press, editors were mostly geeky women in flat but sensible shoes and unkempt guys like me with beer guts and stained ties. Very few of us qualified as personalities, although, after hours at the conference hotel, many exposed a Lindsay Lohan side. These people were often well known for their smarts in their given industry circles, but they were not celebrities. They were nerds who worked very long and hard to understand their beat. Sales tip-toed around these people because they were cranky, ill-mannered, generally unpleasant in close proximity, or simply a bit bizarre.

Today, editors are as much actors in a publisher’s marketing strategy as they are editors, making them both entertainers and glad-handing politicians. I guess it’s an essential part for business success, but any time spent being a celebrity promoting your brand name takes time away from mastering your domain, no matter how intensely nerdy you’re inclined to be. Worse, people begin to believe in their own celebrity, entitled to fawning respect and bags of swag.

A case in point: a respected industry analyst told me an editor from a well-regarded publication told him, “I’ve been working for this outfit for 8 months now, but still cannot figure out what C-A-D stands for.”

Listen, you management types: It’s OK to hire raw talent. We all had to start somewhere. What is not OK is hiring lazy morons because you can pay them far less than men and woman who know their trade.

Anyway, back to editors. Trade editors should be schleps able to bore anyone to death with obsessive prattling about their given field’s arcana. Kind of like what I’m doing now.

"What is not OK is hiring lazy morons because you can pay them far less than men and woman who know their trade. "

Another big change is that too many editors today are more interested in preening their feathers and pitching their résumé so that they can get a better paying job within the industry. Many of them are bored by it all and cocksure that they know everything in their industry. That bugs me. It’s a disservice to readers, the industry -- and themselves. Once you lose the fear of failure and don the mantle of omnipotence, you’re cooked and not creating an honest product. You’re also a big bull’s-eye for the lean and hungry.

All them newfangled digital competitors – things like Tenlinks – present interesting changes. Digital media has exerted a tremendous downward pressure on hard-copy ad prices in the biz. This, of course, drives the Chicken Littles in management batty.

Simplifying a complex situation: E-newsletters or websites are cheaper to produce than hard copy. They have no paper, printing, and mailing costs, for example. Complicating that simplification: Marketers have this starry-eyed faith that all their marketing can be done on the web. Since they know that a website or e-newsletter is relatively inexpensive to produce, they will not pay anything remotely close to hard copy ad rates for it.

"Digital media has exerted a tremendous downward pressure on hard-copy ad prices in the biz. This ...  drives the Chicken Littles in management batty."

But what fascinates me is that the marketers can be schizo about this. I once sat in a meeting where the CEO and marketing chief flat out told our sales rep that the web was the only place for their marketing dollars. A few months later, I ran an article about this company’s technology on our website. The CEO flamed me for “exiling” the article on the web.

But I digress. The problem is this realignment has caused corporate masters to re-jigger budgets. Previous management at my outfit and throughout the B2B publishing world reacted to the digital challenge by getting rid of a lot of editors and graphic artists and trying to make hard copy fit on the web.

Thus, you have fewer editors creating more and more product delivered in more and more media more or less in real time. Few editors can parlay their talent for words into good design. Fewer still are videographers. And designers and videographers are not editors or writers. This is why you see so many e-newsletters, magazines, websites, and podcasts that are ugly, amateurish, and packed with stupid mistakes, poor research, and massive oversights. Good product is important. Seems we’ve forgotten that.

There’s nothing new about this struggle: Radio versus TV went through this new media competition in the 50’s. The B2B industry is adjusting, but there’s a long way to go. The first step is forgetting what you learned in hard copy. Digital media is not hard copy.

How do you feel about vendor-written articles?
I was never comfortable with third party funding manuscript development. Call me old-fashioned if you want, but I really wanted DE editorial to provide the readers with the news and information they need to succeed at their job free of taint. Even if a vendor submission seemed good, one had to suspect there was some degree of bias.

In fairness, I have to say that some shops do create some good stuff for their corporate clients, so not all vendor-supplied articles are bad. The Parker Group, Strategic Research, Structured Information and Bob Cramblitt all can create terrific technical articles, but only when their client lets them. Not all clients let them. And some companies manage to insulate their techno-people from marketing and the legal beagles, which can get you some terrific vendor-funded pieces.

"corporate cutbacks and the march of time have eliminated most of the pros from the prose biz"

One big problem with vendor-supplied materials is that corporate cutbacks and the march of time have eliminated most of the pros from the prose biz. The pros that remain are under the heel of marketing and legal, both of which can suck anything interesting out of a piece.

More commonly, what you have is a bunch of perky, well meaning people clutching their freshly printed marketing or PR degree creating these things. Many are capable of learning but the mentors -- the pros -- are gone. But an incredible number do not understand that there is a different approach to writing the same story for marketing, PR, or a technical publication. They frequently have no clue about their company’s technology and are not inclined to learn about it.

I had wanted to be 100 percent responsible for 100 percent of DE’s content. For the first half dozen or so years of DE, I rejected almost all vendor-written articles, excluding guest commentaries. It really had to be something for me to run it. Reality forced me to ditch that M.O. when we started having more pages in the hard copy and more media to fill than I had manuscript development budget or staff to cover. That hurt.

What is your take on blogs? What is their effect on the print press?
Blogs are fascinating things. They provide a podium to any barroom philosopher, shyster, narcissist, and cable-TV-talking-head-wannabe with a computer. That can be good fun. One problem I have is that the intellectually lazy -- which means most of us at one time or the other – swallow the bloggers’ bilge as gospel. P.T. Barnum would have had a field day with a blog.

Shysters are a big problem. One time a self-proclaimed consultant on journalistic practices spent a few entries in his blog pooping on DE for some mistakes I made. He was right about the mistakes, but he made something like four or five serious Journalism 101 gaffes in his indictment of me. Suffice it to say, he was too lazy to call me and do the work of a real journalist.

Good editors and reporters are hamstrung by the need to verify what they hear. Many bloggers feel no such constraints or exhibit no discernible understanding of that obligation. This is why so many bloggers breathlessly blast the first hint of something and cause heartburn. Rumors and the repetition of rumor can create an alternate reality -- “truthiness” as Steve Colbert calls it. Readers who believe everything without attribution they read in a blog - or anywhere for that matter -- and without skepticism exhibit the behavior of lemmings.

On the other handbag, blogs present an opportunity for the press. Good editors and reporters can leverage blogs to create a dialog with readers, update or break stories, and venture into areas that are not part of their day-to-day beat.

Where’s your blog?
Next question please. Seriously, I’m embarrassed to say that our website did not support blogs until recently, and by then I was a short-timer. I did, however, personally respond to almost every email sent to DE by readers, often engaging in pen-pal like correspondence afterward. It’s also why my late column was freeform rather than the pablum most editors dribble out for fear of offending advertisers.

Would you advise young people to become a CAD, CAM or CAE editor?
Yes, absolutely. You are the first to play with new products for free. The intellectual stimulation is a rush. You’re constantly pushing the envelope of what you know because almost everyone you meet is an expert in something you do not have a clue about. How cool is that?

Another rush is being the first with a news item. I guess that is the competitive urge.

One characteristic of the job that I loved was meeting people living off their ability to operate MCAD/CAE/CAM stuff. I love user group meetings. The excitement and energy of people entranced by SolidWorks or LabVIEW or something is food for the soul. Besides, in the end, it is the readers that the editor serves, not the advertisers or corporate. Getting the readers take on the world is an editor’s best of all possible worlds. It makes it all seem worthwhile.

"it is great fun even when it’s driving you bats"

Finally, being an editor, whether in MCAD/CAE/CAM or cookbook publishing, is a mission. Like any job, you are subjected to bosses with bloated egos, knaves, deadlines, bouts of boredom, dumb-assed memos, and corporate rules. But an editor has the obligation to honesty, the chance to learn something, and an opportunity for creativity. It is not just a job made up of steps to be followed. It requires guesswork, judgment, snooping, diligence, and the ability to communicate complex stuff simply. Nothing is ever the same, so you’ve got to be learning all the time. And it is great fun even when it’s driving you bats. You’re not going to get rich doing it, but you are richly rewarded with intellectual stimulation and self-satisfaction when you uncork a good article or issue.

What are your plans now?
In late April when I first announced my intentions to leave, the Powers That Be repeatedly asked me to hang around and do wondrous things. It was all very flattering. Now they’ve stopped asking nearly as much, probably because I am going to keep doing a few things as a freelancer for a while.

Let me add that leaving is right for DE as well as me. It’s all been very amicable, and, frankly, bittersweet. DE is my baby. You have to let your baby go. Babies cannot make their destiny with the old man hanging around. And old guys get set in their ways. Besides, this “Lockwood is DE” business was only a myth created by our own marketing department. I was just an enabler for part of DE’s mission. Now the staff can focus on the future. The MCAD/CAE/CAM world is too vibrant to be well served by someone who has been around as long as I. You need fresh eyes, fresh wonder.

Jonathan Gourlay is now running DE editorial. JG’s terrific. Lots more talent than I ever had. DE could not be in better hands. He knows where I’m at if he needs me to do something.

I’m sure you have made many contacts in the industry. Do you plan to consult?
I don’t know. I have had a bunch of inquiries gauging my interest in consulting, writing, and things of that nature. If I had to guess, you’ve not seen the last of me. But then again, old editors can just fade away. We’ll see.

You may contact Tony at blogwould@yahoo.com.