Holmes: In the beginning: FCW 1987

FCW’s first editor looks back at the publication that she helped launch two decades ago

Federal Computer Week began life on a porch in Washington, D.C. International Data Group founder Patrick McGovern interviewed me for the position of editor in chief in late summer 1986.

McGovern, whose company was — and remains today — a leading publisher of information technology, wanted a publication in the government space. I had worked for IDG, establishing the Washington bureau for the firm’s flagship newspaper, Computerworld, and then covered the computer and communications regulatory scene for McGraw-Hill’s BusinessWeek. As a result, he asked me to articulate a vision for this new publication and recruit and manage the editorial staff.

The prospect was challenging and intriguing professionally. The timing, however, couldn’t have been worse personally. I had a newborn daughter and a 3-yearold son at home, a thriving freelance writing and editing business, and a husband with a vital career and prospects of his own. But McGovern was persuasive, and my family was supportive. I became FCW’s first employee.

From November 1986 to February 1987, I developed the publication’s vision and mission, prepared a budget, and hired the staff, including the current publisher, Anne Armstrong. I educated FCW’s first publisher, Fritz Landmann, on the virtues of editorial independence and negotiated with him to locate the office inside the Beltway and near a Metrorail line rather than miles away in the far suburbs. Meanwhile, my husband and I moved our young family from Harrisburg, Pa., to Falls Church,Va.

The concept for FCW was to take advantage of IDG’s reputation for technology coverage and apply it to the world’s largest single IT consumer, with its unique purchasing policies, demand for systems designed to address large, complex — even intractable — problems, and resulting impact on industry. As editor, I wanted to focus on hard news and concentrate on federal rather than state and local government IT applications. I also sought to treat with respect civil servants whose standing had suffered in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate
scandal. FCW’s promise from the first issue was that we would not waste readers’ time. And I wanted to craft an environment that would attract capable professionals and encourage and enable them to do their best work.

Initial plans called for a biweekly newspaper, but within a month of the
March 23 launch date, McGovern surprised me by announcing we would publish every week. He reasoned — rightly — that it would better distinguish FCW from its chief competitor, Government Computer News, which had a five-year head start in the market. Within three years, we were forced by finances to retrench, scale down our frequency, and, painfully, lay off some employees. Even then, I argued that the publication should publish as close to weekly as possible, and FCW has never been biweekly in the traditional sense, instead publishing at a rate that matches the federal market’s buying cycle.

McGovern also made it clear that there would be no additional resources beyond what we had budgeted, providing our first concrete lesson in the ever-challenging economics of publishing and the limits of “patient” capital. So an editorial staff designed to produce an issue every other week delivered the launch issue, took one week off, and then turned out 37 issues between mid-April and the end of December that year. Doing more with less characterized our enterprise until FCW finally broke even five years later.

Because the Fairview Park office we had rented in Falls Church was still under construction, we produced the first issue in borrowed space with hand-me-down furniture and equipment at the old Planning Research Corp.— then Litton PRC and now part of Northrop Grumman — building in McLean,Va.

We labored at what FCW’s first news editor, Paul McCloskey, dubbed “McGuffey’s Reader-sized desks,” finally releasing pages to the printer at about 3 a.m. the Friday before the Monday of the issue’s debut. We were exhausted and elated when we closed Volume 1, Number 1.

Nearly 20 years later, looking back at that first front page, with its black-and-white photograph of former National Security Advisor John Poindexter as he sparred with Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), I feel the same satisfaction I did then in the accomplishment. Yet even as we put
the first issue to bed, it was clear FCW would have to become more than a standalone publication to be a player in the government market.

And it did become more as we proceeded during the next several years to establish the Federal 100 awards, build a lab to test and report on new products in FCW’s supplement, Government Best Buys, launch an online presence with FCW.com, serve the state and local government market with the monthly Civic.com magazine, and capitalize on legislation mandating that federal agencies create the post of chief information officer
by developing an executive conference, the Government CIO Summit. Not all of those initiatives survived. Some failed not because of the lack of passionate and sustained effort behind them, but because the market simply made clear what it would and would not support.

Much has changed in the past two decades.My children are grown and well on their way to their own professional lives. IDG no longer publishes FCW. The PRC building was razed earlier this year. And last month, FCW’s current publisher, 1105 Media, purchased PostNewsweek Tech Media and, with it, FCW’s old nemesis, GCN. These longtime rivals will finally be combined into one company.

Holmes was Federal Computer Week’s first editor in chief. She went on to serve as FCW’s publisher. She is currently executive director/publisher of a scientific journal in the health care field. She can be reached at [email protected].


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