David Bunnell: Rebel Who Publishes PC Magazines

Times Staff Writer

He zips around town in a Mustang convertible, shops for clothes at chic Paris boutiques and drinks $5.50-a-glass Chardonnay.

But there is more--much more, to David Bunnell, the 39-year-old enfant terrible who has founded four of the top 10 personal computer magazines. His astute commentary has made him one of the most influential opinion leaders in the personal computer industry, and his unconventional politics one of its most controversial.

“This will sound trite, but I truly believe that personal computers have the potential to reshape the world,” says Bunnell, the creative force behind $42-million-a-year PCW Communications and editor-in-chief of its PC World and MacWorld magazines.


Bunnell is no stranger to efforts to change the world. During the 1960s, he headed the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at the University of Nebraska and organized a 4,000-person march against racial discrimination.

It was the biggest demonstration ever held in Lincoln, Neb., but Bunnell still dreams of what might have been: “If I had a PC back then, I could have done mailing lists and flyers and had a much, much wider reach.”

“The overwhelming thrust of the personal computer is that it can liberate and empower people,” Bunnell says. “Unfortunately, so far it has largely been a white males’ revolution. Rather than decentralizing society, it has perpetuated the powers that be.”

Admirers and detractors alike acknowledge Bunnell’s keen understanding of the personal computer industry. “He has great vision,” says Bart Rhoades, president and chief executive of PCW. “He has an instinctive feel for where the industry is going, and for what the PC user needs from a magazine.”

Bunnell, for example, was the first in the industry to recognize the potential for magazines devoted exclusively to the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh; it took years for the market to catch up with his vision of the Mac. But he’s made some bad calls too; the worst was in 1984, when he predicted that IBM’s ill-fated PCjr would take the market by storm.

His imprint on publications is readily apparent. All contain lush graphics, thoughtful feature articles and a minimum of jargon. In contrast, PC Magazine--which is published with twice the frequency of the monthly PC World--is much more product-oriented.

“We are aiming at the intelligent layman, rather than the techie,” says Harry Miller, editor of PC World.

PC World and MacWorld also bear another Bunnell trademark: His picture appears above his column in every issue. He readily admits to having a big ego, though he is shy and reserved with strangers.

“David is a natural publisher,” adds columnist John Dvorak, who writes for rival PC Magazine, which Bunnell also founded. “His columns are great, but the rest of his magazines bore me. I think he is spreading himself too thin.”

In any case, there is little debate about Bunnell’s commitment to social issues. “David Bunnell really cares,” says the Rev. Cecil Williams, who ministers to the poor and the powerless--and a handful of rich folks like Bunnell--at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

Not long ago, Bunnell spent a day helping a welfare mother he met at Glide move into new housing.

“I had a truck, and she didn’t,” shrugs Bunnell, who earned $1.6 million last year but can denounce “the outrageous and unacceptable level of poverty and disenfranchisement in our society” and sound totally sincere.

Straddles Two Worlds

Sitting in his office in his stockinged feet, he seems more awe-stricken than boastful about his rich compensation package, which is based on his magazines’ profits. “John Sculley (chairman of Apple Computer, who also earned $1.6 million last year) and I are in a race,” he says.

“We get some people at Glide from Marin County,” says the Rev. Williams, “but David is the first we have ever had from Hillsborough"--a posh Peninsula suburb that is the very antithesis of the Tenderloin.

Bunnell “revels in his ability to straddle two worlds,” says Susan Gubernat, editor of Publish!, a new PCW magazine devoted to desktop publishing.

Once, Gubernat recalls, Bunnell took a dozen staffers to a $100-a-plate testimonial dinner for Philippine President Corazon Aquino “because he knew it would be important to us.”

More recently, Bunnell’s wife, PCW design director Jacqueline Poitier, bought 10 tickets to an AIDS hospice fund-raiser and distributed them to interested staffers.

“The best part about having money,” says Bunnell, “is being able to give it away. . . . I feel I have a lot more power and ability to change the world as chairman of this company than I did as a student at Nebraska.”

Bunnell attributes his rebellious streak to his father, who was managing editor of the Alliance, Neb., Daily Times Herald, and to a “wacky” grandmother who was an early disciple of health food advocate Adele Davis.

Time and again during Bunnell’s improbable career--which has included a down-and-out stint as a word-processing operator between magazine launches--the soft-spoken editor has tweaked authority and gotten into fights with the powerful.

Consider: In 1982, when Ziff Davis Publishing Co. purchased a majority stake in PC Magazine against his wishes, founder Bunnell led a walkout of 48 of the magazine’s 52 staffers and started a competing publication called PC World.

“We ended up buying little more than a name, and they even appropriated that” charges J. Malcolm Morris, an attorney for Ziff.

The company sued Bunnell for unfair competition and unsuccessfully sought an injunction against the use of the letters PC in PC World’s name. Bunnell countersued, claiming he and a group of staffers had been promised a 45% stake in PC. The case is expected to go to trial in November.

Despite the litigation, within two months Bunnell and his band of rebels had launched PC World, whose 324-page premiere was the fattest first issue in magazine history.

More recently, Bunnell authored a sharply worded editorial in PC World and MacWorld calling for the repeal of Georgia’s “archaic” and “oppressive” law against sodomy. The editorial was prompted by a letter from Georgia’s governor extolling the state as a center for high technology.

“The PC promise is to preserve and enhance the power of the individual,” the editorial thunders. The Georgia law “stifles the very progressiveness Gov. Joe Frank Harris hopes to promote” and “conflicts with the vision of personal freedom that compelled the growth of personal computers.”

The reaction was swift. About 5,000 letters poured in--more than the magazines had received in their entire history--and most of them were negative. A hundred subscribers canceled. And a handful of advertisers pulled a total of $20,000 of ads.

Advertisers Irked

“If the guy wants to push his ideas about gay sex, he doesn’t get to do it with my $8,000,” advertiser J. T. Deters, president of Peachtree Technology in suburban Atlanta, told the Associated Press. “We don’t need some pundit from San Francisco rubbing dirt in our faces.”

Bunnell has no regrets.

“David has a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong,” says Harry Miller, the editor of PC World and a longtime friend.

Indeed, Bunnell gleefully reiterated his position in a press release trumpeting news of an award he received from the Fund for Human Dignity, a gay-rights group.

And while Bunnell’s stand troubled some advertising salesmen, PCW’s parent company stood behind him. “We believe in editorial independence,” says Patrick McGovern, head of Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Group.

Besides, PC World’s advertising revenue rose 15% last year. “Ultimately, people advertise in your magazines out of self-interest,” notes Cheryl Woodard, PCW’s director of research and a longtime associate of Bunnell’s.

PCW’s staffers gave McGovern a white hat for Christmas in 1982 after he invested the capital to start PC World following the Ziff-Davis imbroglio.

By that time, Bunnell had put together an impressive track record as a magazine publisher, having started Personal Computing magazine in 1977 and PC Magazine in 1981.

He practically stumbled into the field in 1974, when he got a job in Albuquerque, N.M., writing instruction manuals for a small electronics firm called MITS.

Contrary to popular belief, it was MITS that designed the first personal computer--the MITS Altair, unveiled in 1975. Suddenly, Bunnell had found his calling. He would be the voice of the personal computer revolution.

From MITS, he went on to Personal Computing, which he left after its financial backer, Benwell Publishing, refused to give him a 10% stake in the publication.

That is when he moved to San Francisco and found work as a word-processing operator for the California Bar Assn. through his then-fiancee and current wife.

Learned the Hard Way

“David learned the hard way how to deal with the money hustlers and business vultures,” says Jim Warren, a friend who created the West Coast Computer Faire.

“Like a lot of the other people espousing personal computers at that time, he came to the Bay Area as an agent of social change,” Warren adds.

Bunnell was rescued from word processing by Adam Osborne, who hired him as managing editor of a small computer book company he ran in Berkeley.

“He is a very astute fellow,” says Osborne, who later gained fame as a maker of portable computers. “He is very quiet but incredibly strong in his convictions.”

But magazines were still in his blood, and Bunnell jumped at the chance to start PC Magazine when an investor approached him in 1981.

“We started it out of our house,” his wife recalls. “We had people in the kitchen, the basement, the dining room--everywhere but the bedroom,” she recalls. “We ruined an Oriental rug by spilling a jar of glue on it.”

The intense personal involvement in the magazine “made it feel like we were raped” when the investor sold out to Ziff eight issues later, says Woodard, the research director.

“A civilized company would have tried to seduce us,” she says. “Instead, they chose to exercise their superior power and just grabbed the magazine.”

Ziff insists that it dealt with PC Magazine’s staffers fairly. Says a source close to Ziff: “They are the ones who are guilty--of the attempted murder of our magazine.”