Mike Magee is a journalist who has worked in the technology and computer industry for over 30 years. He set up and later sold The Enquirer magazine and is currently Editor-at-Large of the online tech information portal Fudzilla. He talks to us about his career, the changes he has seen and why he is credited with bringing tabloid-style journalism to the industry.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a journalist?
Actually from being a very young kid, though I didn’t realise it till quite a bit later on. I used to buy magazines and I was always interested in the media, so round about then.
How did you enter the profession? What sort of education and training did you have?
I left school when I was 16, so don’t have any formal qualifications. No O-levels or A-levels. I started off by working for a PR company for maybe a year/year and a half. And then I became a technical writer, working for the National Building Agency. And from there, I moved into journalism. So I’ve been a journalist since about 1988 – it’s a long time.
Where was your first proper job in journalism?
An IDG publication called PC Business World. It was a weekly and we competed with PC Week.
Where did your interest in technology come from?
I don’t know where it came from but I’ve always had it. I think I tried to build my first transistor radio when I was about 10 or 11. That took up two weeks pocket money, and I messed it up by having no heatsink to take the heat away from the transistor. I’ve always been interested in new things. So it was kind of natural for me to end up in technology.
What titles have you worked for over the years?
PC Business World – that job lasted about three years, then they shut the paper down. So I freelanced for maybe four or five years for a variety of different publications – ones published by Future and VNU – PC User, Software Magazine, Practical PC. Just lots of stuff like that, and some American titles as well.
You are credited with introducing a tabloid style approach to writing about technology. How did that come about?
I don’t know if I completely agree with the description of me as a tabloid journalist! A lot of the titles tended to be over-heavy on technology, and I wanted to make it a bit easier for people to understand. And also to break stories, because people didn’t really break stories in those days. I’d made a lot of contacts through my period as a journalist, and if you talk to the people in the industry, like the distributors, resellers, vendors, you can pick up a of a lot of information that doesn’t come in the form of a press release. One of our principles actually was not to rely on press releases. Sometimes they can be very useful but of course they’re always painted with a sweet coating.
Where were you working when you introduced this new way of writing?
For a VNU title called PC Dealer. I then went on to work for the first group that covered all topics via newswire. If you use newswire to knock out 20 to 30 stories a day – and there were four of us – it made me get used to bashing out shorter pieces. So maybe that’s where the tabloid journalist style comes in – 250-300 words max. And it was aimed at a wide audience. You had to try and adjust to every kind of readers that might tune in.
When would this have been?
It was the 90s. When I was working for PC Dealer I had the idea of starting an online magazine called The Register. It started off as a newsletter but later became a webpage. I left that after several years, and then started my own magazine called The Enquirer, which was subsequently bought by VNU.
This must have been an exciting time in the industry?
Yes. When I first started working at PC Business World they were still using the old fashioned way of composing the newspaper with teams of subs, and it was a very difficult process compared to what computers brought. But in the wake of that, the number of jobs for editors and production people fell rapidly because some employers thought, “we don’t all these subs anymore”. But actually, if you look at modern newspapers, even the nationals, their online presence looks like they need an awful lot of subs, because there are often plenty of mistakes in the copy.
Do you have a favourite story that you’ve worked on?
I’ve got a couple actually. I’ve one that firstly saw me being sued by Intel because I got hold of some information about future products. I escaped from that by the skin of my teeth! And I think one of my favourite stories was about a person we called The Everywhere Girl, Jennifer Anderson, who appeared in a stock photo shoot back in the 90s. Suddenly her face was everywhere – on adverts for Compaq and Dell, and on adverts that had nothing to do with computers, like for Christianity. We didn’t find out who she was until till three or four years later. Somebody read the webpage and realised that it was one of the Friends, so got in touch with us and we finally found out who she was. That was a fun story.
Have you worked on any difficult stories?
The managing editor of the first magazine I worked on said to me he’s worked on Fleet Street and he preferred this kind of journalism – a PC crash rather than a car crash. Some stories are difficult, mostly because they need a lot of research, like the features I write. That’s the kind of difficulty that I guess every journalist faces.
Have you interviewed anybody famous?
I’ve interviewed Denis Healy – he was a lot of fun to interview actually, though I’m not quite sure how it came about. And Margaret Thatcher was at the launch of a software company in her constituency, so I got to chat to her very briefly. I’ve interviewed an awful lot of people over the years, but they’re the ones who spring to mind.
What does your working day look like?
I’m an editor and I’m at large because I’m in the UK. Fudo [Fuad Abazovic] who owns the website lives in Austria. So it’s more a matter of checking copy.
I rarely write about the channel, as in dealers and distributors, but I have an editing role now and can usually polish off the editing stuff in half a day, so it’s not too stressful.
The written work is stressful, like when I was working on The Enquirer and The Register. We were generating so many stories that you were never actually away from your PC. A lot of the stories originated in the States and Taiwan, so you had to adjust your hours to the different markets. You were working around the clock – very irregular hours and weekends too.
How do you relax?
I watch Netflix, TV and I’m writing a couple of books, so I’ve got plenty of stuff to do. But writing a book isn’t as stressful as sitting in front of a computer for 10 hours a day and bashing out meaningless stuff about a company I’d never heard of and might never hear about again!
How would you say the tech and journalism industries have changed since you started working?
They’ve changed drastically. I had a friend who worked in Fleet Street for most of his working life, and a year or two before he died, he said to me “You know Mike, journalism is dead. There’s no future journalism anymore.” The number of staff has been cut down, I understand that freelancers earn peanuts. I met a guy on a press trip to Paris a few years ago and he was paid by the number of times people clicked on his story. So that has an influence on your journalism, doesn’t it? You want as many people to read your story as possible so you spice it up a bit. And then of course there’s Chat GPT, which I tried out a few weeks ago on writing a channel story, and it was pretty good actually.
When I started, we certainly didn’t have access to the World Wide Web. My editorial assistant would have all the newspapers delivered in the morning and spend most of the morning cutting clippings and putting them aside. And there was a lot of mail – actual letters – from PR companies, which piled up during the course of the week. But I would encourage my reporters to do what I’ve tried to do all of my working life, and that’s talk to the people in the industry rather than just regurgitate stuff from someone’s story from somewhere else.
With regard to tech, I guess the biggest change to me is the is the arrival of the smartphone. I live on a street in Oxford and if I look out the window, chances are that if somebody’s got a smartphone and is looking at it as they walking along. People seem to be completely glued to them, and of course more websites are being designed to fit into that format. I still prefer a desktop PC and a proper keyboard. Then the other thing is, things like this artificial intelligence programme wouldn’t be possible unless there were gazillions of servers all the way across the world. So the processing power is way, way higher than it used to be, and that changes everything.
So tell me about the new version of The Enquirer you’ve just launched in Oxford
It’s a trial. I’ve got the website up and running. My idea is to recruit college students that are interested in getting into journalism. I get fed up with local news coverage. They used to have a team just across the river, but now it’s all been centralised, so I don’t think they get out on the streets very much, which they need to do if they’re going to report on what’s happening in Oxford.
Finally, how would someone grab your attention with a press release?
Photographs are important, of course, and being able to speak to the people that are mentioned in the releases is good too.