For well over 10 years, I’ve subscribed to a free weekly electronic publication called TidBITS. It’s my favorite periodical—and that’s saying a lot, given the other magazines I read frequently, including Wired, National Geographic, Macworld, and Harper’s Magazine, not to mention The Wittenburg Door. But for some reason when I try to explain to people who are clearly part of the TidBITS target audience why it’s the coolest thing ever and why they should immediately subscribe, I tend to get blank looks that make me wonder if I’m wearing my TidBITS sweatshirt backwards, or if in my enthusiasm I’ve inadvertently started babbling incoherently. Perhaps I can set the record straight here.
Keeping It Simple
The subject matter of TidBITS, very loosely speaking, is the Macintosh and the internet. Back in 1990 when TidBITS was born, internet users were a small and elite subset of Mac users, who were themselves a small and elite subset of computer users. TidBITS was a way for this rarefied group of people to get the information they needed on a very narrow range of topics. Because the subscribers who originally made up the TidBITS audience were mostly academics and programmers, they tended to be very intelligent and have a low tolerance for fluff, so the publication’s focus and style were tailored to this group’s expectations. The result was, and continues to be, a weekly publication that has the two characteristics I value most: simplicity and quality.
Although TidBITS maintains a Web site and an RSS feed, most readers still receive the publication by email. Unlike most Web sites and electronic newsletters, TidBITS largely avoids graphics, fancy formatting, and intrusive ads. TidBITS is a text-based publication, which means that the content comes first—a principle I like very much. Interestingly, TidBITS was among the first internet publications to accept commercial advertising, but even though the bulk of the publication’s revenue is derived from ads, they are kept small, tasteful, and appropriate to the audience. Another source of revenue for TidBITS is voluntary contributions from readers; even though the publication is free, more than 1,000 individuals and companies have donated money. This, I think, speaks volumes about both the quality of the publication and readers’ appreciation of the no-frills format: other internet publishers, take note.
TidBITS also has the distinction of being the second-longest-running internet-based publication. The first, a newsletter called The Irish Emigrant, began publication in February 1987. Interestingly, both newsletters are free; both are published weekly on Mondays; and both frequently mention names beginning with Mac.
Created by Humans, for Humans
TidBITS has a small paid editorial staff, including publisher Adam Engst, who has written numerous computer-related books and has been, for several years, voted among the top five most influential people in the Mac industry. He and the other editors write about half the articles; the rest are contributed by volunteer authors from among the ranks of TidBITS subscribers—including, occasionally, yours truly. While the topics vary widely, the writing is uniformly clean, concise, and helpful. It also shows personality—TidBITS writers are opinionated yet polite, frequently funny, and in general make you feel as if you know them personally.
Along with the weekly newsletter, TidBITS maintains a lively moderated email discussion list called TidBITS Talk. This list allows subscribers to ask questions of the authors, follow up on issues raised in the articles, and discuss pertinent topics more deeply. Only a fraction of the publication’s tens of thousands of subscribers participate on TidBITS Talk, but those who do consider it an integral part of the experience, and often end up forming personal and business relationships with other subscribers and staffers. (Most of the attendees of the annual Netter’s Dinner, held each January during Macworld Expo in San Francisco, are TidBITS readers.) In short, TidBITS is not merely a one-to-many publication, it’s a community of friendly, helpful people who take each other as seriously as they take their shared interests.
Over the years, the subject matter of TidBITS articles has shifted subtly from “things involving the Macintosh and the internet” to “things our readers—who are mostly Mac users on the internet—find interesting.” Some extremely popular articles have included reviews of headphones; editorials on spam, privacy, and media trends; and even a survey of online crossword puzzles. Even if you’re not a Mac user or an internet geek, you’re bound to find plenty of interesting content in TidBITS. And if it isn’t already apparent, TidBITS has been a major source of inspiration for Interesting Thing of the Day. If this publication can achieve the same level of quality, simplicity, and helpfulness as TidBITS—and even a mere fraction of its readership—I’ll consider it a resounding success. —Joe Kissell
UPDATE: In early 2006, more than a year after this article was published, I joined the TidBITS staff as Senior Editor. So I now play an active role in shaping my favorite periodical—a nice gig, if I do say so myself!