An interview with Mike Magee: co-founder of The Register, and man behind ‘tabloid style’ tech journalism

'The Reg' co-founder tells us to expect a 'huge consolidation in tech journalism in the next year or two', and how the British perspective is something we need more of on the scene

Mike Magee

Mike Magee is best known as the co-founder of The Register – once coined the ‘closest thing to Private Eye on the internet‘, which he started in 1994, and ran until leaving in 2001 to found equally popular tech news site the INQUIRER. Most notably, he is credited with introducing a British ‘tabloid style’ approach to technology journalism – which sets the tone for many of the most popular technology news sources today. Among other things, we asked Mike about how he started The Register back in 1994, what he’s doing now, and about the future of tech journalism. Interview is published in its entirely.

What did you do before The Register?

[Mike Magee] The Register started as an email newsletter in 1994. When we started it, I was working as a freelance tech journalist and worked on it over two weeks – it was a fortnightly newsletter about semiconductors and software – first one is here [in its entirety].

Why did you start The Register? How did the idea come about?

[Mike Magee] “I met Tony Dennis and John Lettice in the Northumberland Arms, Goodge Street, a little before we did our first newsletter. I was covering semiconductors for my day job, Lettice was covering software, and Tony is and was Tone the Phone. It was inspiration – by then I had covered Intel and other semiconductor firms for many years – semis were then worth $200 bill a year, and no-one else was doing any kind of internet newsletter or anything else. Everything was in print. It was launched by sending emails and copying to user groups, bloody hard work because there was little or no broadband then, and sending out multiple copies of one thing took many many hours on a Sunday.”

How did you start The Register?

[Mike Magee] He told us “I had a day job as a freelancer, Lettice worked for Dennis Publishing – it was a part time thing. There was no funding then back in 1994. We just did it.”

Do you see The Register and the INQUIRER as ‘tabloids’, and – what do you think made the style and tone of the two sites so effective?

[Mike Magee] No, I don’t really see them as tabloids at all. At the time, most print journals – which is where the money was then – were targeted at corporate buyers, at techies, at people wanting reviews. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now after all this time, that poor techies faced with boring slabs of controlled circulation weeklies, and some dailies like Computergram as was, could do with a breath of fresh air in their jobs.

The Register

“They’re practically all tabloid now. I do feel proud of that, by overturning the then the status quo.”

What other ‘tabloid style’ tech news sites are there out there now?

[Mike Magee] They’re practically all tabloid now. I do feel proud of that, by overturning the then the status quo. Intelligent, thinking, feeling people want a bit more than Google news.

Why did you leave The Register to found The INQUIRER, and how are they different?

[Mike Magee] We had a quarrel. In 1998/1999, Linus Birtles, a publisher, sold a channel publication to Trinity Mirror and had a heap of disposable income. At one time I had a 60 percent share in The Register. Linus came in, introducing business practices, i.e. money, and the other editorial directors decided that we needed an office in Mayfair. I found that a weird idea myself. Keeping costs low is important and it is also important that you know when money is coming in and money is going out. There was no need for an office in Mayfair, but some felt that gave us a bit of a status. One of my editorial co-directors said “We’re sitting on a gold mine, Mike”. I had run a business before – a printing biz, and cash flow is the most important thing in any business. I had quarrels with the other editorial directors and it was agreed that I should go on a sabbatical. I did that. On my return, I had a heart attack at West Harrow station, made some outspoken remarks, and found myself without a job and waiting for a heart bypass in 2001 and incarcerated in Northwick Park Hospital. When I got out of there, still waiting for a bypass which didn’t happen until Autumn, I launched the INQUIRER. My then wife and I put 5,000 quid of our savings into a limited company – Breakthrough Publishing Ltd, and on beta blockers I tapped away with a lot of help from my friends until Harefield Hospital turned me into a new man. By then, I had 23.5 percent share in Situation Publishing Limited, still had quite a bit of a mortgage, but was determined to make the INQ work, because my back was against the wall. How are they different? Well I can’t judge how they are different now, of course, a lot of water has gone under the bridge.

What did you do after selling the INQUIRER, and what are your plans and aspirations for TechEye?

[Mike Magee] When I sold the INQ to VNU, I was tied in to VNU for two years to get my cash out. I got bored after about a year; I hadn’t realised that working for a corporation was such hard work. My publisher came to my gaff about six months in, and outlined his plans for the INQ, corporate style. I said: “When you sell a beautiful house, with a beautiful garden, and very well decorated on the inside, you cannot complain if the buyer turns it into a brothel.” He seemed surprised by that, but VNU took the INQ to places it hadn’t been before. When I sold it, we were doing between 15 to 18 million page views a month, ABC certified. After I left VNU, by then Incisive Media, I was still through incompetence getting their Web Trends reports. It had fallen, fallen and fallen again. My aspirations for TechEye are to reverse the trend to tabloid tech journalism and inject some serious stuff into the body.

“There is going to be huge consolidation in tech journalism in the next year or two, I am sure of that.”

What changes have you seen in the technology journalism over the past ten or so years?

[Mike Magee] Quite a lot. There is going to be huge consolidation in tech journalism in the next year or two, I am sure of that.

What do you make of the current technology journalism scene and the standard of journalism (or blogging) seen on the supposedly leading tech news sites like ‘TechCrunch’ and ‘Mashable’?

[Mike Magee] At TechEye we have suffered from Google Panda. Our journos still hold true to British standards – i.e. ask tough questions and try tell the truth.

Is there much of a difference between journalism and blogging any more in the technology scene?

[Mike Magee] Loads

What does the future hold for technology journalism – what developments will we see?

[Mike Magee] Dave Evans, an old hand on the tech scene, and Jonathan Green-Armytage, an even older hand on the scene, have some interesting views on this. Evans reckons journalism is dead. Green-Armytage reckons journalism is alive. Scraping screens is not good – we all have to do it sometimes, but following up on stories and digging out the truth is still good. It’s fair to say, in my opinion, that a journalist can do a good job by concentrating on hard facts, trying to make the Tescos and Intels of this world own up to their mistakes and answer questions, and keep on trucking. It is fair to say there’s practically no money for journos any more – some sites want to pay people eight quid a story, less than the cost of a packet of Marlboro Red in WH Smith. I take no blame for that.

The British perspective is still something we don’t see a lot of in tech journalism – do you think we need more in terms of truly British technology journalism?

[Mike Magee] We certainly do! You must have read Intel’s Guide to the Press.

Mike Magee runs TechEye and blogs at ‘Mad Mike Magee’s Musings

What do you think of his views on tech journalism and it’s future?