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Tech media lust thrives; Jaco survives

Being in high-tech journalism these days means having a lot of unemployed friends. That ensures both a lot of freeloaders at table and a steady stream of media industry rumors.

    Being in high-tech journalism these days means having a lot of unemployed friends. That ensures both a lot of freeloaders at table and a steady stream of media industry rumors.

    Among the most intriguing, especially to out-of-work associates, are whispers of new life springing from the ashes of the high-tech media apocalypse that claimed so many jobs and whole publications over the past 18 months.

    The e-mails flew fast and furious after this posting appeared on Craig's List and JournalismJobs.com:

    "New economy/tech magazine start-up in stealth mode based in San Francisco Bay Area seeks innovative reporters and editors for all levels of organization (editor in chief, executive editor, managing editor, reporter)...Experience with both Web and print plus daily and weekly deadline environments preferred. Editor in chief should have at least three years of experience preparing and managing large budgets."

    I run the Rumor Mill on a shoestring, and a frayed one at that, so that last requirement put me right out of the running.

    It also helped narrow the field of suspects who might be behind this big-budget venture.

    Skintelligent speculation suggests that the new magazine may be backed by none other than AOL Time Warner.

    "The only one who has staying power in that category is AOL," said one Bay Area media Skinsider. "They have the biggest ad presence on TV without spending a nickel. The other rumor is that it was those crazy guys from Future Media who did Business 2.0."

    AOL Time Warner's word on the matter: "As a corporate practice, we do not offer comment on market rumors, speculation or media reports." The "crazy guys" at Future Media did not return calls, but one person reached at the company who did not want to be named denied knowledge of or responsibility for the new magazine.

    Another rumor circulating among the unemployed journalism types tied the help-wanted ad to the new media company just launched by former Upside editor David Bunnell and Ziff-Davis, Wired and CNET vet Fred Davis--along with Iconocast editor Michael Tchong, and ex-CNET and Red Herring editor Rafe Needleman, among others.

    But Davis and Bunnell said it wasn't their ad.

    "We have so many people wanting to work for us that we haven't had any need to advertise at this point," said Bunnell, taking almost unseemly pleasure in the state of the Bay Area journalism job market.

    The Upsiders' project--infelicitously named Dig-it magazine under the Consumertronics umbrella--and the mystery start-up are both betting that now is the perfect time to launch a media company.

    Major competitors such as IDG's Industry Standard have folded, while surviving competition Ziff-Davis (unaffiliated except by provenance to CNET's ZDNet unit) is struggling to come up with huge interest payments every month.

    At the same time, aspiring media moguls are betting that the worst is over and they'll be catching the upswing both in the high-tech industry and the economy at large.

    Consumertronics isn't thinking small.

    Currently funded by Bunnell, Davis and their friends and family to the tune of seven figures, the media company is in search of investors. It plans to publish a premier issue of Dig-It in May, with the first monthly issue to come out in September. A Web site will launch with the magazine. A book press is also in the works.

    For its death-defying high-wire act, Consumertronics will launch (ready for this one TechTV fans?) a 24/7 cable high-tech TV show. The telly program will debut with a partial-day schedule in the fall, with always-on programming ready by Spring 2003.

    How will Consumertronics succeed where TechTV has struggled?

    "They tried to be about content," Davis said. "But think QVC, the Home Shopping Network--Barry Diller rebuilt his empire around HSN. But it is really vulnerable. They insult the intelligence of techies. We're going to get the lab reports and tell you where the best deal is."

    But Consumertronics isn't launching without adversaries. The company debuts amid legal threats courtesy of an Albuquerque, N.M., high-tech company that claims a trademark on its name, which bears a striking resemblance to that of Bunnell and Davis' media start-up.

    "We've been Consumertronics for 30 years now," said the company's president, John J. Williams. "They have no right to use the name. If they want to use our name and get involved in some sort of legal problem, or simply have people misunderstand who they are, they are welcome to do that. We will do our best to protect our name."

    Davis and Bunnell said they'd only heard about Williams and his trademark claim this week. Davis said the point was moot because Consumertronics and Consumertronics Media were in two different trademark categories. He pledged to deal with the issue "fairly and in a way that is consistent with our respect for other people's trademarks and copyrights."

    Meanwhile, the magazine will tell you where the hottest celebrities are wearing their digital underwear: Every month it will boast a celebrity cover, as the magazine is pitching itself as a Rolling Stone for high tech.

    "That's one thing Bill Ziff taught me that I'll never forget," Davis said. "When I was editor of A+ Magazine, for the Apple II, Ziff said early on that if the magazine is going to be a success, it has to be fun, it has to be driven by stars--Car and Driver was like that. The editor's job was to work for the reader, not the advertiser."

    Which is good, seeing as advertisers are so stingy these days.

    Reports of Jaco's death
    Speaking of stingy--and Dig-It founders--high-tech marketing newsletter Iconocast has been keeping its rumors to itself these past three months, with the unexplained disappearance of that other francophone Bay Area Internet rumor monger, the Jacobyte.

    Iconocast editor Tchong, a close associate of the Jacobyte--though the two are never spotted in the same place at the same time--assures us that his associate's prolonged absence is the result of a sabbatical, due to end next week, rather than grave illness or terminal professional jealousy, as we assumed was the case.

    While we had Tchong on the line, we decided to find out a little more about our closest competitor. Where, for instance, does he hail from?

    "Jaco is a worldly man," Tchong mused. "But you can guess from his French that he's actually Eurotrash."

    When did he pen his first column?

    "In February 1997, when Iconocast launched."

    Ah yes, I believe I remember it. The Rumor Mill was just preparing for its half-year anniversary at the time.

    How has the Jacobyte spent his sabbatical?

    "Watching reruns of 'Sybil'--a movie about split personalities--and actually responding to spam--things everyone else wants to do but dares not."

    And where's his current place of residence? Is he married? Are there children?

    "Jaco has taken up residence in London, and his yellow Ferrari carries a bumper sticker that says 'Happiness Is Being Single.'"
      A man after my own heart. Five months after, to be precise. But who's counting? All I'm counting are your rumors