McCloskey: 20/20 hindsight

Federal Computer Week’s first editorial team got a speedy education in computer technology

The Ada programming language, the Competition in Contracting Act, PC XT computers, the Inslaw saga, MCI Mail, sensitive-but-unclassified information, XyWrite, the Corporate Information Management initiative, X.25, columnist Lynn Bateman, dongles…

If you have firsthand knowledge of any of those terms and names, you probably do not have a MySpace page.Most likely, you are not a blogger or a wiki editor. Although you are undoubtedly a netizen, your understanding of Really Simple Syndication is pretty fuzzy. You might have no idea what del.icio.us is.

Like the editorial crew assembled to produce the first issue of Federal Computer Week in 1987, you may have wandered into information technology from a related business area. I had spent several years as a journalist covering the TV industry and the aftermath of the AT&T breakup. Most of us had little experience with computers.At that point, the personal computing firestorm was still a twinkle on the horizon.When we launched FCW, I did not know what a motherboard was — perhaps something to do with ironing laundry? One of our editors confessed to thinking the Apple computer might be related to the potato battery — the wellknown school science fair project that uses a spud. By today’s standards, we were techno primitives, just feeling our way.

But our technology infancy was shortlived. The 1990s opened with the explosion of small computers and personal productivity tools, including Microsoft Windows, Lotus 1-2-3 and Borland databases. For the first time, we could get and try the technologies we were covering.

Our reporting became more sophisticated as we started to receive, review and eventually test those new products. I remember the excitement in the newsroom when a version of Steve Jobs’NeXTcube reduced instruction-set computer arrived in 1993. It was coal black and had an aura of machine intelligence and potential, like some computational dark matter. For several days, it sat in the newsroom, and reporters would
walk by it, pause and stare, and move on.

With the continued unpacking of the computer industry — literally in the middle of the newsroom — a shift started to occur. We were starting to have the same tangible experience of technology as the community of IT experts we were covering. And with that, many of the walls of information
access and even privilege that had separated us and the rest of the media from the tech priesthood started to come down.

The Internet, of course, finished the job of demolishing those walls. I still remember the small thrill the first time I received a quick e-mail reply from a senior government IT manager regarding a story I was writing. I knew then the old world of media management was doomed.

Now FCW has announced the acquisition of its longtime competitor, Government Computer News. The two publications were scrappy rivals that each won and lost a share of battles. But technology itself was perhaps the biggest driver in the transaction. During the past decade or two, technology has shifted advertising dollars in a thousand directions, distanced management and workers, and offered new performance metrics for how readers spend time with our work.

Like our experience 20 years ago, it will take time before the vague shapes on the horizon become clear. No doubt FCW’s next 20 years will be as remarkable — and as surprising — as its first 20.

McCloskey was the first news editor of Federal Computer Week. He is now editor of Government Health IT magazine and program manager of the Government CIO Summit series.

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In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

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