The PC World controversy resolved: the invisible hand of Pat McGovern

[Update: Wired posted something after I had started writing this that suggested that Pat McGovern's hand wasn't quite so invisible after all. Harry McCracken "returned to [PC World] only because IDG founder and chairman Pat McGovern and IDG President Bob Carrigan both assured him that he would have editorial autonomy over the content.”]

As a former employee of IDG, I have been closely (but quietly) following the PC World controversy in which editor-in-chief Harry McCracken reportedly quit when CEO Colin Crawford tried to kill a story that was critical of Apple (see Wired’s Epicenter blog):

The piece, a whimsical article titled “Ten Things We Hate About Apple,” was still in draft form when Crawford killed it. McCracken said no way and walked after Crawford refused to compromise. Apparently Crawford also told editors that product reviews in the magazine were too critical of vendors, especially ones who advertise in the magazine, and that they had to start being nicer to advertisers.

Fast forward to today, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the story “Editor in Chief Harry McCracken Returns to PCW“:

In a surprise announcement, Robert Carrigan, president of IDG Communications, told PC World’s staff today that “Harry McCracken has decided to remain with PC World as vice-president, editor in chief.”

“[CEO] Colin Crawford will be rejoining the IDG management team as executive vice president, online. In this role, he will be responsible for driving IDG’s online strategy and initiatives in support of our Web-centric business focus,” Carrigan said. “We will conduct a search for a new CEO to lead PC World and Macworld.”

This is welcome news for Journalism (yes, with a capital ‘J’), and I’m not that surprised based on my experience at IDG. Bob Carrigan was quoted, but in this outcome, I see the quietly steady yet invisible hand of Pat McGovern, the visionary behind IDG. When I worked for IDG as CTO of InfoWorld from 2001-2005, I spent enough time around Pat in regular board meetings, dinners, and company functions to get a real sense of how Pat operates. Pat is an amazing man (he is, incidentally, quite wealthy — #85 on the Forbes wealthiest people in America list in 2006, according to Wikipedia, he donated $350 million to MIT to start the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and he understands the China market as well as any American businessman, having been one of the early businessmen there in 1980). In his official bio, one segment sticks out and rings completely true for me in my dealings with Pat :

“Acting locally” describes McGovern’s commitment to his people and to a decentralized management structure focused on respect for IDG employees and customers. In April 2004, Inc. magazine named McGovern one of its “25 Entrepreneurs We Love” for “knowing the power of respect.”

“His commitment to decentralization has created a constellation of motivated business units that make their own decisions about everything from how to reward staff to what new businesses to launch. He also treats his end customers — the readers of such publications as Computerworld, PC World and Macworld — with consummate respect. At IDG the quality of content is sacrosanct…”

When I was at InfoWorld, we went through a vicious downturn in which advertising revenues dropped by almost 50% year-over-year, and as a member of the executive team, I went to the 3-times-a-year board meetings where Pat was always present. I can’t recall specific dates, but I do remember Pat suggesting on a number of occasions that our coverage needed to be more critical of vendors. As a shrewd businessman, Pat was always focused on sales numbers, but he also seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing editorially and wanted us to tell it like it is. He knew that the success of his business depended on editorial credibility. In these meetings, out of all the people in the room, Pat was always most engaged (not like some Blackberry-obsessive execs these days) and even in tough times, Pat was constructive and respectful. I’m not the suit-and-tie type, but when Pat came to town, I happily wore a suit and tie out of respect, and I didn’t mind at all.

Although I moved on from IDG two years ago, I consider Pat McGovern a personal and business role model. In a world where some people equate business success with slash-and-burn management, I’ve grown to admire Pat’s ways even more. Business cycles come and go, but empowerment, respect, and setting a strong example go a long way in building a long-term legacy. I don’t know the inside scoop of what happened at PC World, but you can bet that Pat McGovern was in the mix, empowering people like Bob Carrigan to make the right decision in the end. In the news cycle, this might seem like a flash-in-the-pan story about journalism, but for me, it’s a story about respect and good business in the long term. Hats off to IDG and Pat McGovern.

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