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The Life and Death of MacTimes

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- 1999.10.23 - Tip Jar

One of the more interesting stories of the past week was the decision of MacTimes to close its doors and try to auction off its domain name on eBay for a cool $100,000.

As I write this, there are 12 hours to go - and no bidders.

I'm not surprised. Wait a few months and the domain name will revert to InterNIC, unless MacTimes pays to renew the domain.

Low End Mac at MacTimes

Low End Mac (LEM) got its start because I couldn't find a comprehensive resource for older Macs on the web. So I combined information from books, magazines, personal experience (I first used a Mac in 1986), and other sites into profiles of the oldest usable Macs, from the Plus through the Mac II line.

That was April 1997. Over the ensuing months, I added PowerBooks and Quadras. It would be some time before I included Power Macs or the oldest machines, Lisas and Macs with less than 1 MB of memory.

Over the summer, I was contacted by Jason Pierce, owner and publisher of MacTimes, which was a decent Mac news site. He wondered if I was interested in having MacTimes host my pages for free. (MacTimes was about the same age as LEM. A note on eBay page pegs its birth as "early 1997.")

It took several month of on again, off again, talks before we moved Low End Mac to MacTimes in mid-November 1997. And not only did I have free space for my growing site, but Jason promised a percentage of site income for every ad banner I'd display.

And by this time, Jason's news engine had been honed to perfection. It was probably the best on the web, although it never got nearly the recognition of MacSurfer (which now incorporates some ideas that MacTimes was using two years ago).

Jason also taught me how to market my site. Soon I was creating more editorial content and sending news releases to a number of other sites. Traffic rapidly grew from about 20,000 pages per month when LEM was hosted on my personal site. My first full month on MacTimes, December 1997, saw almost 60,000 pages served. And that first check for just over $100 was amazing - I'd never thought what I was doing could earn me money.

Jason and I began working with other webmasters, bringing new sites into the MacTimes Network. We brought in State of the Macintosh, Pure Mac, Bare Feats, and The iMac NewsPage, along with several excellent columnists. (More details in Steve Wood's Goodbye, MacTimes. You'll Be Missed.)

Over my months at MacTimes, I watched traffic to Low End Mac grow and grow and grow, nearly hitting 400,000 pages in January and February 1999. And Jason gave me the position of editor in chief, working with the other MacTimes webmasters.

Unfortunately, it was more often dealing with dissension in the ranks.

I don't understand the finances of MacTimes; they were never explained to me. As far as I know, webmasters were each promised a percentage of site income based on how many ads they served, while columnists were paid by the piece. It's a good model, and one I use on Low End Mac - it's also one infiniMedia, my host, uses with me.

As Jason explained it, the problem was that some MacTimes sponsors didn't pay in a timely manner. Some would eventually pay, be reinstated, and then fail to pay again. And some may have never paid at all. At least that's what Jason said.

I tried to do some digging. I did help get one sponsor to pay, although that was far outside my responsibilities. But cash flow was always a problem at MacTimes.

Part of the problem may have stemmed from paying webmasters based on funds not yet received, which I see as a poor business model. (My contract with infiniMedia specifically states that I am only paid from funds received, never in anticipation, because there will always be some sponsors who don't pay in a timely fashion.)

Whatever the reason, things began to fall apart about a year ago. I know I got tired of being the middleman between the publisher and the writers and webmasters. I got tired of explaining that funds could only be disbursed as they were received. (In fact, Jason claimed that he had at times paid out of his own pocket when sponsors were not forthcoming. I don't know if this was true or not, but it is not a good model for a fledgling, cash strapped business.)

From January 1999, sub-sites dropped like flies. Pure Mac left. Bare Feats left. State of the Macintosh simply died where it was. Columnists gave up, despairing of ever seeing what was owed them. At the end of March, I officially moved Low End Mac to a new server and severed my relationship with MacTimes. Last month, the last remaining sub-site, The iMac NewsPage, left MacTimes.

And last week, the people who own MacTimes decided to put mactimes.com on the eBay auction block.

Overview of MacTimes

MacTimes was a good idea. Jason's news engine was simply excellent - so good, in fact, that another site bought it from him, only to fail to pay for it. Thus, it reverted to MacTimes and became known as MacHound - it had a nose for news.

Bringing together disparate complementary sites was another excellent idea, as was cross-promotion between these sites. During my time with MacTimes, I saw it grow from under 100,000 pages per month to a stone's throw from the million mark.

The bonus there: sponsors want space on popular sites and want to buy ad space in huge blocks. With 800-900,000 slots to sell, it was much easier to get the attention of potential sponsors than it was at 50-100,000 pages per month.

Exactly what killed MacTimes is hard to say, since Jason tended to become incommunicative when there were problems. Based on analysis of what I received for the months that I was paid, part of the problem seemed to be a drop in ad rates. Another part may have been the investment in a dedicated MacTimes server.

But the drop between January and March 1999 was precipitous. Losing two of our busier sites saw traffic decline by over 50% in that period. I don't know how much further it dropped after I left, but I'm guessing MacTimes turned into a 100-200,000 page per month site after Low End Mac left at the end of March. And that may not have been enough to display all the ads sold.

At this point, most former MacTimes webmasters are chalking it up to experience. We are still owed money back to December 1998 or January 1999, but it's unlikely we'll ever see it.

Still, we learned a lot about teamwork at MacTimes. We had a great set of people as both webmasters and columnists. As Steve Wood notes,

...for a short while, there were a whole bunch of very talented folks writing for it. Readers flocked to MacTimes with hits increasing substantially each month. Some grand plans were spun before a series of problems with cash flow and paychecks, termination of a topnotch editor, and some general posting problems prompted many of the writers and channels to go their various ways.

Despite its failings and eventual demise, those of us who were part of MacTimes are richer for the experience. I wish Jason Pierce and any others involved the best, hope they'll be able to salvage something by selling off the domain, and hope that if that does happen, the moneys owed to MacTimes contributors will finally be paid.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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