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David Bunnell: Rebel Who Publishes PC Magazines

June 14, 1987|VICTOR F. ZONANA | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — He zips around town in a Mustang convertible, shops for clothes at chic Paris boutiques and drinks $5.50-a-glass Chardonnay.

But there is more--much more, to David Bunnell, the 39-year-old enfant terrible who has founded four of the top 10 personal computer magazines. His astute commentary has made him one of the most influential opinion leaders in the personal computer industry, and his unconventional politics one of its most controversial.

"This will sound trite, but I truly believe that personal computers have the potential to reshape the world," says Bunnell, the creative force behind $42-million-a-year PCW Communications and editor-in-chief of its PC World and MacWorld magazines.

Bunnell is no stranger to efforts to change the world. During the 1960s, he headed the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at the University of Nebraska and organized a 4,000-person march against racial discrimination.

It was the biggest demonstration ever held in Lincoln, Neb., but Bunnell still dreams of what might have been: "If I had a PC back then, I could have done mailing lists and flyers and had a much, much wider reach."

"The overwhelming thrust of the personal computer is that it can liberate and empower people," Bunnell says. "Unfortunately, so far it has largely been a white males' revolution. Rather than decentralizing society, it has perpetuated the powers that be."

Admirers and detractors alike acknowledge Bunnell's keen understanding of the personal computer industry. "He has great vision," says Bart Rhoades, president and chief executive of PCW. "He has an instinctive feel for where the industry is going, and for what the PC user needs from a magazine."

Bunnell, for example, was the first in the industry to recognize the potential for magazines devoted exclusively to the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh; it took years for the market to catch up with his vision of the Mac. But he's made some bad calls too; the worst was in 1984, when he predicted that IBM's ill-fated PCjr would take the market by storm.

His imprint on publications is readily apparent. All contain lush graphics, thoughtful feature articles and a minimum of jargon. In contrast, PC Magazine--which is published with twice the frequency of the monthly PC World--is much more product-oriented.

"We are aiming at the intelligent layman, rather than the techie," says Harry Miller, editor of PC World.

PC World and MacWorld also bear another Bunnell trademark: His picture appears above his column in every issue. He readily admits to having a big ego, though he is shy and reserved with strangers.

"David is a natural publisher," adds columnist John Dvorak, who writes for rival PC Magazine, which Bunnell also founded. "His columns are great, but the rest of his magazines bore me. I think he is spreading himself too thin."

In any case, there is little debate about Bunnell's commitment to social issues. "David Bunnell really cares," says the Rev. Cecil Williams, who ministers to the poor and the powerless--and a handful of rich folks like Bunnell--at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

Not long ago, Bunnell spent a day helping a welfare mother he met at Glide move into new housing.

"I had a truck, and she didn't," shrugs Bunnell, who earned $1.6 million last year but can denounce "the outrageous and unacceptable level of poverty and disenfranchisement in our society" and sound totally sincere.

Straddles Two Worlds

Sitting in his office in his stockinged feet, he seems more awe-stricken than boastful about his rich compensation package, which is based on his magazines' profits. "John Sculley (chairman of Apple Computer, who also earned $1.6 million last year) and I are in a race," he says.

"We get some people at Glide from Marin County," says the Rev. Williams, "but David is the first we have ever had from Hillsborough"--a posh Peninsula suburb that is the very antithesis of the Tenderloin.

Bunnell "revels in his ability to straddle two worlds," says Susan Gubernat, editor of Publish!, a new PCW magazine devoted to desktop publishing.

Once, Gubernat recalls, Bunnell took a dozen staffers to a $100-a-plate testimonial dinner for Philippine President Corazon Aquino "because he knew it would be important to us."

More recently, Bunnell's wife, PCW design director Jacqueline Poitier, bought 10 tickets to an AIDS hospice fund-raiser and distributed them to interested staffers.

"The best part about having money," says Bunnell, "is being able to give it away. . . . I feel I have a lot more power and ability to change the world as chairman of this company than I did as a student at Nebraska."

Bunnell attributes his rebellious streak to his father, who was managing editor of the Alliance, Neb., Daily Times Herald, and to a "wacky" grandmother who was an early disciple of health food advocate Adele Davis.

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