Patrick J. McGovern died yesterday at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California. You probably don’t know his name.
But if you’re interested enough in technology to read about it in print or online, there’s a very good chance that you know one or more of the publications produced by International Data Group, the privately-held company he founded in February, 1964 and ran for the rest of his life. They included PC World, Macworld, GamePro, InfoWorld, the Dummies books and many, many more.
I worked at IDG for 16 years and eventually spent a fair amount of time in Pat’s company. It’s standard practice when someone passes away to describe that person as an unforgettable character, but trust me on this: Pat was unforgettable.
He was deeply interested in the human brain and how it worked, a pursuit he turned into a major philanthropic effort when he and his wife Lore pledged $350 million to create and fund MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. I’m not sure if I ever completely understood how Pat’s own brain operated, but it was fascinating to watch it in action. He was a dreamer, but one with a prodigious ability to crunch numbers. (During board meetings, he often seemed to be recalculating spreadsheets about matters such as subscription revenues in his head.)
Pat, who was born in New York and grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from MIT in 1959, then stuck around the Boston area and got a job at Computers & Automation, the U.S.’s first computer magazine. IDG started out as the International Data Corporation, a research firm that still exists and remains among the most widely-quoted sources of numbers related to the technology industry. In 1967, it expanded to include Computerworld, a newsweekly that’s also still very much with us. So are CIO, InfoWorld, Macworld, Network World and my former employer, PC World, all of which have been around for 25 or more years and spawned editions in countries around the world.
It’s not a coincidence that so many of the company’s brands have been so enduring, and it’s a testimony to Pat’s own personality. In part, it reflects his approach to business, which was extremely rational — there’s his interest in the brain again — and consistent over the decades. But IDG publications have also done well because his overarching goal really was the noble pursuit of helping the world be smarter about technology. Working for him as an editor felt like a calling as much as a job.
One crucial point about Pat: After the early days, he didn’t personally create new IDG businesses, and usually wasn’t intimately involved in managing them. In the case of PC World and Macworld, for instance, he provided the cash that let David Bunnell, the founder of PC Magazine, launch the brands out in San Francisco. That was kind of the idea: Pat was a maniacal believer in a decentralized approach to publishing. He funded other people’s ideas and — assuming that an IDG division’s business plan was met — largely stayed out of the way. IDG publications sprouted all over the world, operating with great independence. Rather than aiming for a cookie-cutter approach, brands such as PC World morphed to fit the cultures of different countries.
For a multi-billion-dollar company devoted to informing the world about advanced technology, IDG was — and, I assume, still is — a remarkably old-fashioned enterprise, in some respects. Much of that reflected Pat’s own personality, which was that of an old-school gentleman. For years, he trekked to IDG offices to personally give holiday cards (and bonus checks) to hundreds of employees at their desks, complimenting each person on a recent achievement, usually drawn from a crib sheet he had memorized. When you’d been with IDG for 10 years, he took you out for dinner at the Ritz Carlton, where he greeted you with a corsage and snapped your photo with his own point-and-shoot camera.
I don’t think he did these things because he was naturally outgoing — if anything, he seemed to be on the reserved side — but because he believed that one of his responsibilities as IDG chairman was to make other staff members feel good about their work. Even when I was a low-level editor, I got occasional complimentary notes from him — always written on the same ultra-cheery letterhead, with GOOD NEWS! and a rainbow at the top. He must have bought it by the truckload.
A few years ago at an IDG event in Beijing, Pat spoke entertainingly about the roots of his interest in China, which began when he somehow wound up there on a layover at a time when Americans weren’t supposed to do that. It was the beginning of a love affair and a big business. Pat spent a lot of time in that country, and IDG grew so successful there that other western publishers discovered that the most expedient way to launch magazines such as Esquire and National Geographic in China was to do it in partnership with him.
After his talk, as he left the stage, I congratulated him and asked him if he’d ever thought about writing his memoirs. He responded by looking flustered and slightly unhappy in a way I’d never seen him before. I quickly realized that Pat didn’t think of himself as an elder statesman or a potential retiree. He was just as invested in his work at IDG as he’d been in 1994, 1984, 1974 and 1964, and had no plans to do anything else, ever.
I’m still sorry that we won’t get the chance to read his autobiography. But I’m glad that Pat got to spend a half-century doing what he loved. It goes without saying that IDG won’t be the same without him. But neither will the technology industry which IDG was founded to cover, and which grew up alongside it.
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