Who would have thought that a small market town 150 miles away from London could become the heart of British 8-bit games magazine publishing for almost ten years? Now, you can find out something of how it happened first-hand, as a fascinating ‘time capsule’ from the late 20th century has materialised and taken its rightful place alongside displays going back thousands of years in a Shropshire museum.
Aliens over Ludlow – the Newsfield Decade is a small, but extremely interesting, exhibit currently on show at Ludlow Museum, that documents with photos, original artwork and, naturally, magazines, key elements of the all-too-short but blazing history of one of the British home computer revolution’s most prominent publishers – Newsfield, a company which had its origins literally just around the corner from the exhibit’s venue, Ludlow Museum. And they had one hell of a ride.
Newsfield Publications Ltd was founded by Roger Kean, Franco Frey and Oliver Frey in 1983. Based in the top three floors of number 1-2 King Street, Ludlow, Newsfield published a number of hugely popular computer game magazines from the mid-1980s to early-1990s, which at one time were everywhere to be found in British newsagents.
In the 1980s, the Newsfield offices, which were then above Victoria Wine, “…were a hub of games playing and reviewing, a journalistic endeavour that produced hundreds of thousands of words every month across 4 or 5 magazines, with all the design, layout and technical production carried out on the middle floor.” They even recruited keen young games reviewers from Ludlow School!
Their top magazines were, most memorably, Zzap!64 (dedicated to the Commodore 64 and launched in May, 1985 as the sister magazine to Crash, it later incorporated Amiga game news and reviews), Crash (launched in 1983 as a software catalogue, it evolved into one of the top mags covering the Sinclair ZX Spectrum) and the short-lived but fun Amtix! (for Amstrad CPC gamers, launched in November 1985 but only running for 18 issues).
This line-up was later supplemented by a number of interesting but rather less successful magazines covering role-playing games, film, horror and youth culture. Faced with financial difficulties at a time when the home computer and magazine market was changing, the company sadly went bankrupt towards the end of 1991.
The end of the company didn’t spell the immediate end for some of their magazines though. Another magazine publisher, Europress, continued to publish Newsfield’s flagship publications, Zzap!64 and Crash, for a further six months before the former was relaunched as Commodore Force and the latter sold to rival publisher EMAP and merged with Sinclair User. Continue reading Aliens over Ludlow – Newsfield invades the Buttercross!→
Last week, Retro Computing News began our exclusive celebration of the 30th birthday of ST Update magazine, which was first published for Atari ST computer fans in March 1987, but which has since then become largely (and unfairly) forgotten, at least on the internet. We published the first part of a two-part article by our editor Stuart Williams (who first wrote for ST Update in 1987) and Jonathan Beales, who was one of the founding managers of the Sunshine Publications magazine and whose hard work managing advertising was an essential part of its initial success. We also provided a full download of the first ‘Spring 1987’ pilot issue of the magazine.
Today we conclude with this, the second part of the article, focusing on the continuation of an exclusive piece of oral history kindly recounted to Retro Computing News by Jonathan, and for which we are very grateful to have had the opportunity to publish and set the record straight about what was a great, pioneering British magazine of the 16-bit era.
If you have not already read part 1, we highly recommend you do so first before continuing with Jon’s narrative below.
Part the second
Over to Jon Beales:
“And, Database Publications (Europress) based up in Stockport, in Macclesfield, they again were looking at doing an Atari magazine. Their editorial skills weren’t that great, well, they were good, but they didn’t quite have that kind of polish. Future weren’t doing anything, EMAP weren’t doing anything, and I just thought yeah, we’re gonna push on this and we’re gonna get this [ST Update] together, so I worked on the first issue, did very well. I think I sold £17,000 worth of advertising – and all I had was an A4 flyer, a telephone, some contacts and just self-belief, in this magazine. And, everybody loved it!
“And people came on board, and I’m not sure what the sales figures were on the first one, the print run was quite low, I think the print run was only about 20-25,000 because the numbers on the installed [Atari ST] base thirty years ago in March 1987 were very, very low. I mean, I don’t think there were probably more than about, combined 16-bit audience, ST and Amiga, wouldn’t have been upwards of 20,000. Because it wasn’t stocked [the ST], there were very few Atari ST and Amiga games, they weren’t really on the High Street, the independents sold them but the chains, which were W.H. Smiths and Boots, they were nowhere near them, because you did not have the user base. Back then, it was the old thing – software sells hardware. And because there weren’t many games, there wasn’t enough software to sell the hardware, and the hardware was too expensive.
What a game
“One of the reasons why I think Peter Worlock [the managing and launch editor] loved the ST so much, one of the reasons why he saw it as the away ahead was because in the summer of ’86 the Popular Computing Weekly editorial team loved the game Leader Board. Leader Board arrived on import on the Atari ST, and it was great. It was one of these really brilliant, well-executed first ST games around. And it was really, really good – everybody loved it. You know, you had tournaments between the Popular Computing Weekly team, the editorial staff, and everybody loved it because it was, I say ‘next-gen graphics’, slightly upgraded graphics compared to what a Commodore 64 could do, but it offered next-gen gaming. The first time that we’d really seen next-gen ahead of 8-bit.
But then, going back to 1986, in the UK there was no Nintendo, there was certainly no PlayStation, there was certainly no Xbox. There were no consoles. That is all you had. Leaderboard on the ST, on import, it wasn’t even actually released [in the UK] on the ST until 1987, about a year later, because all their stuff went through US Gold. So, we had next-gen gaming in the Popular Computing Weekly office via Leaderboard, which was a very playable and good game. I didn’t really like it myself, because I’m not really into golf games, but it was great and I think Peter [Worlock] saw that, and the editorial team saw it, and they thought yeah, this is going to be the way ahead. Which was very good.
Early days at ST Update
“So, ST Update came out, and sales were very encouraging. There wasn’t a lot of marketing on it, we put a half-page advert in Personal Computer World (PCW), I think that was about £500, I did the media buying on that because I was really into it. And yeah it was great. It was very, very good and for me, that was going to be the next big thing. And, eventually it was. But at first, we had no competition; Database arrived with their Atari ST User magazine in about April, I spoke to one of the guys there, a guy called John Snowdon, very nice guy “Snowy’, a bit of friendly banter, I was a lot more competitive than he was, he was quite a laid-back Manchester guy, very nice guy, and I was pretty ferocious, bit of a Rottweiler. Jack Tramiel’s famous quote was “Business is war”, and I was very much along the same lines, ‘cause at the end of the day, if you don’t have any self-belief you’re not going to get anything done, and you have to go up, because if you’re not going to get the deal, somebody else will. And you’ll lose out.
“But it was fun. And I think we published it [ST Update] monthly from about April or May time. I worked on it myself pretty much, we had Chris Jenkins who was the editor, Chris had come across from Popular Computing Weekly, Chris’s bag was very much music, he loved Atari ST music because Steinberg had released a software package on the Atari ST, which he was well into, and he loved his kind of MIDI stuff on the ST. And the Atari ST as we know went on to bigger things and the 1040 model came out, and it did well because they got the price down on that. So, Chris worked on that and he got us a few freelancers in, Kenn Garroch was hired from his work on Popular Computing Weekly for his peek and poke stuff, the programming side of things. A few other freelancers from Popular Computing Weekly, Duncan Evans came on board just to get the games out, but on the games side, there just really weren’t the games, you had a Microsoft Flight Simulator, you had the Harrier game on the ST from Mirrorsoft, these were reasonable games but they were very early in the cycle of the generation. And so, you really hadn’t seen much stuff.Continue reading ST Update – 30 Years After PART TWO→
The past few years have seen many notable 30th anniversary celebrations in the retro computing/gaming community. This month it’s the turn of the once-popular, but now largely forgotten (at least on the internet) dedicated British Atari ST magazine, ST Update, which was first published in spring 1987. And here at Retro Computing News [RCN], we’re doing our best to celebrate that birthday, with this, the first of a two-part article focusing on an exclusive piece of oral history given to RCN, plus a very special download for our readers, for those involved with the magazine, and for the Atari ST community at large.
Having recently spotted the rapidly approaching anniversary of the birth of ST Update, and finding almost nothing about it online, our editor Stuart Williams decided that it really deserved more of a remembrance than to fall between the cracks of Wikipedia and the various online archivers of old computer magazines, which at the time of writing still hold nothing of significance about the magazine. ST Update was also the first commercial magazine to publish Stuart’s own work, again in 1987.
Sunshine on a rainy day
March 1987, thirty years ago to this month, saw the birth of ST Update, then a Sunshine Publications magazine, out of the same stable as the also much-missed Popular Computing Weekly.
ST Update was an excellent magazine that, unfairly, has until now gone mostly unrepresented online. Based in Little Newport Street, London, this new kid on the Atari block was dedicated to all aspects of Atari’s finest range of computers, the ‘Atari ST’ (representing Sixteen/Thirty-two, after the Motorola 68000 CPU at its heart). As you will read below, the magazine came out at what was becoming a gloomy time for the home computer market and computer publishing in the UK, with the 8-bit market heading towards the end of an era.
Slow, slow, quick quick slow
Launched in June 1985, the American-designed Atari 520ST and its successors were, after a relatively slow start, set to become increasingly popular and affordable competitors, especially in Europe, to the somewhat similar but much more expensive Apple Macintosh, and the audio-visually more powerful Commodore Amiga, although the new 16-bit micros perhaps sat uneasily, not quite sure of their market, between their cheaper, better-supported 8-bit predecessors and what was to be the eventual wave of the future – the rise of the next generation Apple Mac and the IBM PC and clones. It would take a while for the new, more expensive market to mature, at least on the UK games front, which was inevitably where home computers stood or fell at the time. But for approximately a decade, the 16-bit next generation still held out the prospect of ‘power without the price’.
Competition on paper
To put things into a publishing context, of which you’ll again read more below, Atari ST User, published by Europress, had been around since March 1986, and even before that when it had started life as a pull-out section in Atari User magazine. Although Atari ST User did review games and carry demos, far more of the magazine was concerned with ‘serious’ issues such as hardware, programming, and music than its later rivals ST Action (launched in April 1998 by Gollner Publishing Ltd., the first dedicated games magazine for the 16-bit Atari) and ST Format. The latter launched August 1989 when its predecessor, the short-lived (June 1988-July 1989) dual coverage ST/Amiga Format magazine was split into two separate publications by Future Publishing.
So, ST Update was launched into a new world of sixteen-bit publishing, while the market was still forming, and as it turns out, the story of the magazine is also the story of that market.
At the suggestion of Darren Doyle, admin of the Green Meditations /|\ Atari ST group on Facebook, and the man behind http://www.atarigamer.co.uk/ and http://www.retrovideogamer.co.uk/, RCN and Stuart Williams reached out to the former advertising manager and co-founder of the magazine, Jonathan Beales, now a sports broadcaster and documentary producer, who kindly spoke to Stuart at some length about ST Update, its ethos, the market it was launched into and how it got going all those years ago.
The following remarks are from the first half of what Jon told Stuart about how ST Update came into being, as he saw it back in the day – and with the benefit of his modern perspective. We’re splitting up Jon’s contribution over two pieces so we can do justice to this, over the next week or so. Please stick with us on this, it’s a fascinating story to mark the 30th birthday of ST Update! Continue reading ST Update – 30 Years After→
The past few years have seen a number of notable 30th anniversary celebrations in the retro computing community – from the birthdays of the humble but seminal Sinclair ZX81 and the ever-popular ZX Spectrum via the versatile BBC Micro to those mighty 16/32 bit beasts, the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. Now it’s the turn of the once-popular, but now largely forgotten (at least on the internet) dedicated British Atari ST magazine, ST Update.
This month sees the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Sunshine Publications magazine, which was dedicated to all aspects of Atari’s finest range of computers and competitors to the Apple Macintosh and Commodore Amiga. Certainly an occasion worthy of celebration, as it was an excellent magazine that, unfairly, has gone unrepresented online – until now.
It’s also significant because the glossy title, which was published from London, England, was also the first computer magazine to publish the work of the editor of Retro Computing News, Stuart Williams! So it’s his birthday as well, in a way.
This post is just a preliminary heads-up for ST Update’s birthday, but there will be more to come soon, as to celebrate the occasion, RCN will not only be publishing a feature about the magazine and its founding – with the invaluable help of one of the founders, Jon Beales – but making available, for the first time ever online, a pdf scanned copy of the ultra-rare launch issue, dated ‘Spring 1987’.
We hope that Atari ST fans world-wide will take part in celebrating the birthday of ST Update by sharing the feature and the pdf around the globe – and we plan to do more to raise the profile of the magazine, making more issues available as soon as time permits.
One of the UK’s most prolific home computer gaming publishers of the 1980s-90s is to be honoured by Ludlow Civic Society in the now-defunct company’s ‘birthplace’, Ludlow, with a special blue heritage plaque!
Newsfield Publications Ltd, usually referred to simply as Newsfield, was founded by Roger Kean, Franco Frey and Oliver Frey in 1983. Based in the market town of Ludlow in Shropshire, England, Newsfield is most famed for publishing a number of popular computer game magazines from the mid-1980s to early-1990s.
Newsfield’s home computer/gaming magazines included:
Crash (focusing on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum)
Zzap!64 (covering the Commodore 64)
Amtix! (a short-lived Amstrad CPC publication)
The Games Machine (a multi-format games mag)
Raze (rebranded from The Games Machine and focused on Japanese consoles)
Complete Computer Entertainment Guide (a multi-format, quarterly magazine)
This line-up was over time supplemented by a number of less successful magazines covering role-playing games, film, horror and youth culture – for more general info, see Wikipedia’s Newsfield article.
Newfield’s headquarters between 1984-1989 was the upper three floors of number 2, King Street, a place of pilgrimage for avid 8-bit retrogamers even today. This is where the plaque will be fixed for posterity.
Importance of gaming industry
The plaque also effectively recognises the importance of the rise of the 8- and 16-bit games market in the 1980s and 90s and subsequently of retrogaming today.
It is hoped that some kind of unveiling of the plaque will be held in the near future so that fans of Newsfield’s seminal magazines can come from far and wide to view it.
The UK’s only weekly printed computer hobby magazine, Micro Mart (perhaps better known by retro fans as the original Micro Computer Mart, back in the day) is celebrating its thirtieth birthday in its current issue, number 1,390!
Micro Computer Mart was launched in November 1985 as a fortnightly publication consisting of classified advert listings for the computer trade. The magazine soon expanded in editorial content to include articles and reviews from many realms of computing, at a time when the market was still full of quirky and diverse hobbyist, home and business systems and before the current domination by IBM-compatible clones, Apple and tablets. It became popular with both amateur and professional system builders. In 1991, due to reader demands, Micro Mart moved to a weekly format.
On 14 November 2002 (issue 723) the magazine moved to a full colour format, having previously been printed (internally at least) in black and white. At this time, Micro Mart also expanded in content.
This past week’s special issue (dated 26 Nov-2 Dec), apart from the usual preponderance of hardware reviews and specialist features, is a little chunkier than usual, celebrating as it does the magazine’s birthday, mainly with two special features. The first is an article by James Hunt entitled ‘Personal Computing: 1985-2015’ which is about the huge rise and gradual decline of the IBM compatible computer (an interesting overview, if rather dismissive of the many other hobby machines which actually made the home computer revolution). The second, ‘The Writer’s Tale’, is a personal reminiscence by Mark Pickavance about his years as a computer journalist and particularly his time as a contributor to Micro Mart since 1993. There’s also a one-pager by David Briddock highlighting some events and figures from the year of Micro Computer Mart’s birth.
Back in the day
I must admit I remember the good old days of the original Micro Computer Mart in the 1980s with great fondness; I actually penned a few articles and reviews for them in 1987-1989, when their first publishers, MicroMart (UK) Ltd, were based in Olton, Solihull. I still buy the occasional copy today, usually when I spot something of particular interest in the intermittent retro columns. This time around, the mag includes a remembrance of ‘Chuckie Egg’ on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by David Hayward and a ‘Retro Round Up’ by Dave Edward of a pretty average-looking load of modern 8-bit games.
Despite today’s apparent declining interest in ‘home’ computer magazines (apart from those covering Linux and the Raspberry Pi…), and the loss of many major monthly titles over the past three decades, Micro Mart still manages to maintain its niche on the shelves of major newsagents, albeit often thinner than it once was, and that resilience is certainly something to celebrate after all these years.
Happy Birthday, Micro Mart!
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