ST Format - The Final Nail?

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By now you’ll have read the news about Future Publishing’s decision to close ST FORMAT after 86 issues. STF’s Technical Editor Frank Charlton provides a personal view on what’s happened, and what’s likely to happen.

So, here we are. After 86 issues and a few specials, not to mention the original issues of ST/AMIGA FORMAT, the last newsstand Atari magazine in the UK has quietly passed away. While certain doom merchants have been predicting the demise of STF for as long as I’ve been with the magazine - almost four years - we outlasted every competitor. While some will doubtless predict that STF’s closure will send a clear signal that the Atari market is officially coughing up its final death rattle, it doesn’t have to be that way...

When I first joined STF back in late 1992, it was a very healthy magazine indeed. With the ABC figures showing we were selling in excess of 69,000 copies a month, ST FORMAT was a slick, glossy magazine producing over 100 pages per issue. Back in those days, STF’s detractors pointed to the fact that features were often bland, with no real technical content for those of us who were well past the beginner stage. The other main gripe was the style of the magazine - STF has always been written in a lighter vein than the opposition, a fact which caused some to get extremely hot under the collar, often comparing us to a comic. When I began, I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of this was true, to an extent. It also has to be said though, that for every ’humorous’ caption and throwaway remark, there was some very good technical content in there. Fine, it may not have reflected the wishes of some of the more advanced users out there, but with 70,000 readers to cater for, no magazine can hope to hit the spot every time.

After a fallow period when the factual accuracy and technical content was described as hitting an all-time low, some fairly major changes dropped into place. Karen Levell arrived to take the Editor’s chair, and she made one important decision - in my view, at least. Karen was different from previous Editors for one simple reason - she listened, both to readers, and to the freelance writers who had been contributing for years. I spoke a lot with Karen in those early months about what could be done to revive flagging interest in STF, and to regain some of the trust which certain Atari retailers seemed to have lost. The core team at STF all agreed that some features and reviews had been allocated to writers who didn’t really know enough about what they were writing to cater for both the beginners and users of more mature experience levels. Karen took the brave step of actually giving the whole freelance team a much bigger say in the basic monthly content of the magazine.

Soon after this, I was installed as freelance Reviews Editor at STF, with the brief that I should make sure that the reviews contained no factual or technical boobs, and to re-open some of the damaged lines of communication with distributors and retailers. I worked hard at this, and I’d like to think I did a half decent job, judging by the positive feedback which came in at that time. Excellent freelancers like Peter Crush, Andy Curtis and Dug Armstrong were given more review and feature work, and we were all encouraged to work on our own ideas for future issues.

Sadly, the Atari scene did start to diminish soon after this. Developers who were loyal to the ST and Falcon departed for the PC and Mac market, lured by larger user bases and the promise of a more lucrative return for their hard work. Other major retailers like Titan Designs, System Solutions, Compo and the FaST Club merely dug in deeper, beefing up their level of support for the flagging market. At STF, we watched sales of the magazine slowly drop as users decided it was time to ’upgrade’ to other machines. Future Publishing is of course a commercial company - so when sales dwindled, measures were installed to recoup lost profits. After a few cuts in STF’s page count, we switched from being a perfect-bound ’Super A4’ mag to a smaller size with a flat, stapled binding. Was this the point that the rot set in? Yes and no, is my personal view.

Fine, so we suddenly looked less striking and attractive on the newsagent’s shelves. OK, so a lot of readers decided that the cosmetic changes reflected Future’s lack of commitment. What needs to be remembered is that Future has no commitment to any particular platform - if readers want the magazine, they’ll produce it. What should never be doubted though is that the STF team had a rock-solid commitment to the Atari. We didn’t like many of the changes either, but we worked damned hard to make sure that as the page count decreased, the actual quality of the content was never compromised.

When Karen departed to become Online Editor for a few of Future’s other titles like SFX and Comedy Review, long-time ST owner and STF Disk Ed Nick Peers was the logical choice. I know Nick well, and I won’t hear a word said against his personal commitment to the Atari scene. Nick has an ST at home, and it’s the only computer he has, even right up to this day. Nick took the good work Karen had initiated and did his best to build on it in the face of dwindling resources and ever-decreasing budgets. Unfortunately, major events like the closure of Atari World magazine and Compo UK seemed to be the last straw for many long-standing Atari enthusiasts. Falling prices in the PC and Mac markets, coupled with STF’s dwindling size and increasing price proved to be too much for some, so they left the scene. In the end, Future decided that STF was no longer a viable proposition, along with a few other titles like Comedy Review, which only made it to issue 5.

We found out about the closure while we were roughly half-way through producing issue 86, the final edition of STF. Needless to say, we’re as sad as anyone else about this. Some of us have day jobs to fall back on, but others among us find ourselves not only unemployed, but stripped of a magazine we’ve nurtured for quite a number of years. So should it all be doom and gloom? Is STF’s demise the final nail in the coffin of the Atari market? No - it doesn’t have to be.

Without a major newsstand magazine, it would be easy for lots of us to give up the ghost of the Atari market and move on. It doesn’t have to be like that, though. For years, we’ve encouraged as many of you as possible to splash out on a modem, and get yourselves online. Without my first 300 baud modem, I’d never have met the fantastically enthusiastic Atari users I know now, nor would I have ever made that initial approach to STF looking for work. Without something as dynamic as an online connection, I’d never have seen half of the excellent software that I have done, and my interest in all things Atari may well have waned long ago. If you’re reading this issue of AtariPhile on disk from a PD Library, think seriously about whether you should be online. Used sensibly, a modem opens doors to a thriving virtual community which may surprise you both in size and enthusiasm. The Internet is very much alive with an Atari presence - newsgroups are active, ftp sites like UMICH and cnam in France are stuffed to the gills with software, with new releases arriving every week. Bulletin Boards aren’t dead though, despite what some may think. Excellent sites like Ad.Lib and 42 BBS provide a connection to a level of friendship and support you’ll need now that STF is no more.

Even if you resist my online evangelizing, or find that finances block your path to the online world, all is far from lost. FaST Club publishes ST Applications, smaller than before but still an excellent forum for news, reviews and technical help. Disk mags like AtariPhile itself along with others like Maggie remain to provide every snippet of information you’ll need. I’m not saying that they’ll be a substitute for a professionally produced paper mag, but they do a hell of a good job in flying the Atari flag. If the market can’t support a pro magazine, it’s up to you to support the amateur publications as much as you can. Don’t sit back and be content to be a passive observer. I’m sure Colin would be the first to agree that the survival of a magazine like AtariPhile is dependent on your contributions. Even if you’ve never written before, or you think you can’t string two coherent sentences together, have a go. I did - I’d never written before I started with STF, and I’m now sat here producing a third of the pages for the final issue. Even if your stuff is never used, the very fact that you care enough to write in gives Editors a signal that there is still interest.

And so, to bed. By the time you read this, I’ll have long since finished my final words for a magazine I love very much. I don’t intend to consign my Falcon to the top of the wardrobe and use my Mac, though. There are some exciting products just around the corner, and I want to see them - APEX 3, Nemesis, MagiC 5 and Papyrus 4 are all worth waiting for. Development on Internet software like STiK and OASIS 2 is better than ever, and parts of the BBS scene is still thriving. I’ll still be there arguing the toss and enjoying the same level of friendship I have done for years. It’s very much up to you, now. Get connected to other users one way or another, and I’ll see you out there...

Frank can be contacted via the Internet at Frank.Charlton@dial.pipex.com or frank@support.tachyon.co.uk. He can also be hounded and hassled on Internet Relay Chat - look for Tach on the #atari channel.

Frank Charlton


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