David Bunnell, publisher of tech magazines PC World and Macworld, dies at 69

David Bunnell, who founded a series of innovative magazines in the 1980s chronicling the emerging world of computers, including PC Magazine, PC World and Macworld, and who played a large role in making computers accessible to the general public, died Oct. 18 at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 69.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his wife, Jacqueline Poitier, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Bunnell, a onetime student radical and teacher on an Indian reservation, became a magazine publisher almost by accident. He was working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the 1970s as a technical writer for a startup electronics company named Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, or MITS.

In 1975, the company introduced the first microcomputer, the Altair 8800, which launched the beginning of the personal computer revolution. Bunnell began to edit a company newsletter about the new computer and helped coordinate a convention for enthusiasts of the Altair.

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Two young programmers he knew at MITS, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, went on to found Microsoft. Bunnell stayed in Albuquerque and developed his first general-interest magazine for computer users, Personal Computing, in the late 1970s.

“The idea I had when I created Personal Computing,” he said in 1984, “was that the personal computer market needed a consumer magazine that was for non-technical people who wanted to get something out of the computer without knowing how to program it.”

When the magazine’s publisher refused to give Bunnell an ownership stake, he quit and moved to San Francisco. He found a job as a word processor while conceiving the idea for another magazine built around the newly launched IBM personal computer.

Working from a spare bedroom in his house, Bunnell and a small staff put together the first issue of PC Magazine, which debuted in January 1982. He was publisher and editor-in-chief.

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It was an immediate success, combining technical articles with cheeky, opinionated writing, glossy photography, colorful graphics and profiles of rising stars in the world of technology.

“He produced his magazines in the language of the man on the street,” Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, said in an interview. “He was an artist in terms of humanizing the machine. He destroyed the wall between the computer and the consumer.”

Bunnell had an agreement in place in late 1982 to sell PC Magazine to International Data Group (IDG), a publisher of other high-tech publications. Before the deal was completed, the principal investor in PC Magazine sold it to a different company without informing Bunnell.

Furious at what he considered a betrayal, Bunnell obtained financial backing from IDG to launch a competing magazine and took 48 of his 52 staff members with him. When the new publication, PC World, appeared in January 1983, it set industry records for advertising.

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Bunnell was sued for copyright infringement and other issues, but he prevailed in court, winning a settlement of $9 million.

Flush with the success of PC World, Bunnell premiered yet another magazine, Macworld, designed to appeal to users of the new Apple Macintosh computer. The first issue came out on Jan. 24, 1984, the same day Apple’s Steve Jobs publicly introduced the Mac.

In 1985, Bunnell was a principal force behind Macworld Expo, one of the first high-tech conferences aimed at consumers instead of people within the computer industry. The Macworld Expo became the prototype for countless other consumer electronics gatherings and, for years, was Jobs’s preferred showcase for launching new Apple products.

Even as he became a publishing wunderkind and high-tech millionaire, Bunnell remained an activist at heart. In a PC World editorial in 1986, he lambasted Georgia’s anti-sodomy laws as a form of discrimination that would undermine the state’s goal of becoming the Silicon Valley of the South.

“The PC promise is to preserve and enhance the power of the individual,” he wrote. The Georgia law “conflicts with the vision of personal freedom that compelled the growth of personal computers.”

David Hugh Bunnell was born July 25, 1947, in Alliance, Nebraska, where his father was editor of the local newspaper. Bunnell joined his father at work at an early age and became the paper’s sports editor at 16.

At the University of Nebraska, from which he graduated in 1969, Bunnell was president of the campus chapter of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society. He organized antiwar protests and led a march of 4,000 people to protest housing discrimination in Lincoln, Neb.

After college, Bunnell taught school in Chicago and later on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During a 1973 armed standoff between Native Americans and federal officials at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Bunnell smuggled food to members of the American Indian Movement.

In addition to his computer magazines, Bunnell launched other publications and online ventures that had limited success, including New Media, BioWorld, Upside Today, Content.com and ELDR, aimed at aging baby boomers.

In 2000, Bunnell’s 26-year-old son, Aaron, who worked for his father as chief of content at Upside Today, a fledgling Internet news site, died from what medical examiners determined to be an overdose of alcohol, Valium and heroin. His death was considered a cautionary tale that exemplified the hard-charging, hard-partying life of young high-tech workers.

“I believe my son was a victim of the dot-com boom,” Bunnell said.

He struggled with drug and alcohol himself, overcoming his addictions through therapy and treatment. In later years, Bunnell became an advocate of healthy foods and dietary supplements. He was the coauthor of “Count Down Your Age: Look Feel, and Live Better Than You Ever Have Before” (2007).

His first marriage, to the former Linda Essay, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Jacqueline Poitier, an original staff member of PC World; a daughter from his first marriage; two stepdaughters; and a brother.

Shortly before his death, Bunnell completed a memoir, “Good Friday on the Rez,” about his experiences on the South Dakota Indian reservation and at Wounded Knee. It is expected to be published next year.

Even as he was hailed as a visionary who recognized the early promise of the computer age, Bunnell harbored doubts about the benefits of the online revolution.

“The overwhelming thrust of the personal computer is that it can liberate and empower people,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “Unfortunately, so far it has largely been a white males’ revolution. Rather than decentralizing society, it has perpetuated the powers that be.”