If you value great content on the web, and CNET in particular, you should know a little about CNET’s first editor in chief, Chris Barr, who died on May 21 at age 64 after a yearlong battle with cancer.
Chris joined CNET in 1995 after holding senior editorial positions at several Ziff-Davis publications, including PC Week and PC Magazine. The internet has supplanted tech magazines today, but in 1995, the move online was a big leap of faith.
“He was a pioneer,” remembers CNET founder Halsey Minor. “The most senior editor in all of technology publishing,” he recognized “the internet’s potential to reinvent how people consume information, and to leave old media and join an internet company.”
Web publishing may have been a bright, blank canvas, but it was still stretched over a frame of doubt about this whole “internet thing.” Chris went with both his publishing and personal instincts and steered CNET to be a humanizing place rather than a technical publication.
“I think in the beginning we all thought we were going to replicate print on the screen,” recalls Don Winslow, CNET’s then director of photography. “But Chris understood that this was something different, we would have to change the way we thought about presenting information.”
In a 1996 interview, weeks after CNET.com launched, Chris said, “The deal I have here is that our advertising department doesn’t talk to editorial. We don’t write for advertisers — we write for readers. This is such a fledgling medium that it’s important to set the ground rules early. The stuff we’re working on is revolutionary.”
Chris’ commitment to earning every CNET user drove what we invented. Our free online sign-up for forums and updates is a routine practice today, but it was a miracle of user inclusion back then and broke some very burly servers with its appeal. When we launched News.com in 1996, it featured a section on its front door called News Around the Web, a showcase of the day’s best content from our competitors. And CNET posted the web’s first editorial policy in 1999, spelling out exactly how we kept content and commerce clean on a medium that could blur them easily.
“The first rule I set up,” Chris told MrMedia.com, “is no compromises. People who come to the net for news can only trust the things they read if they come from credible sources. And we are a credible source.”
CNET launched with both feet: There was the flagship site known as “CNET Online” to differentiate it from as many as five CNET television shows in national distribution, as well as three “radio” shows online before the advent of podcasts. All aimed to be smart, useful and filled with personality you liked and trusted, per the Chris Barr ethic.
He may have been the top editor at CNET but Chris wasn’t a geek. He could build a PC or set up LAN (not simple in those days), but his definition of technology was broader: Curiosity and mastery of many things. I spent a number of evenings helping him in the kitchen during dinner parties and he was always cooking something he’d never made before with techniques he’d never used before (while some interesting new piece of jazz or reggae played from the McIntosh 6200 amp on the Danish sideboard, echoes of his 1970s career in the recording business, a lifetime before.)
As at those dinner parties, Chris loved bringing together unlikely groups of people at CNET, and in the early days it was all one big, unlikely group: Magazines, TV, psychology, fine arts, computer science and radio were on our resumes when we got hired to work at 150 Chestnut Street, the odd brick building on San Francisco’s waterfront with a Pullman train car in front that served as a conference room.
“He was magnetic, able to attract a strong team to join him on a mission that was new and totally unproven,” recalls Minor.
“I was completely intimidated,” recalls former CNET Managing Editor Julie Wildhaber from when she went for her first job interview with Chris in 1998. “I was worried that he’d grill me about tech, which was not my area of expertise. Nothing of the sort. Chris was warm and welcoming. He wanted to know what I thought about the site, what could be better, and what in the world interested me. He was clearly looking for curious, well-rounded people, because he saw that CNET could be about more than speeds and feeds; it could talk about entertainment, culture, politics, and all the other areas tech touches.”
“‘Internet startup’ was a term I only barely understood,” remembers former CNET Managing Editor Sally Zahner. “Chris leaned forward and told me about this internet company and the editorial team he was building. His enthusiasm lit up our conversation, and I remember thinking that this was the first interview I’d ever had where I could simply be myself. To this day, working for and with Chris was my happiest work experience, by far.”
Once you were aboard, 1990’s internet was a wild ride. Doubts about this career move were juxtaposed against opportunity you’d never seen before. But CNET was always legit, substantially because Chris ran a grownup shop that gave a house of creative minds a scaffold for meaningful invention.
“I vividly recall times when he put the brakes on ideas and would patiently sit down with me to explain how things could be better,” says Kevin Edwards, my production partner on CNET Radio who Chris hired fresh out of NYU. “It could be frustrating at times, but as firm as he was, I always left the debate understanding why he was right. Since leaving CNET, I’ve worked for other, smaller media companies and find myself constantly parroting the exact words Chris used with me. What he taught me is being spread to others.”
“Every challenge to him was just an amusing puzzle to solve,” recalls Rafe Needleman, who Chris hired from BYTE magazine in 1996. Zahner remembers “one winter when the heat gave out in the office and everyone was freezing — it was so chilly, you could see your breath. Chris walked in and saw us shivering in coats, hats and scarves, then walked out. A few minutes later he returned with some guys from our studio crew dragging in huge TV lights to warm us up. Problem solved!”
Chris was an avid photographer (my darkroom is built around his old enlarger and easel) and his wife, Margaret, a fine artist and printmaker. That aesthetic made its way into Chris’ work and helped keep CNET from looking like a BBS or Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. We may have used an awful lot of yellow in those days but CNET was colorful by design, with good layout and typography and a voice that was affable and informed within Creative Director Fred Sotherland’s inventive page designs. Blue and chrome were forbidden on the site, as well as in our building, because they were the typical colors of the kind of impersonal tech that we eschewed.
Any recollection of early dot-com execs like Chris will conjure someone who measured his or her worth in stock options. But while many of his contemporaries became dandies about San Francisco in their new Porsches and Land Rovers, Chris stayed quite content with his well-worn, dark blue Miata.
After CNET’s IPO, Chris and Margaret did buy a gracious but tired old residence in San Francisco’s historic Broadway Terrace with plans to remodel it. They loaned me the keys so my 007 club could use it as the site of a James Bond gala with invitations that whimsically advised that “Demolition of this structure will be necessary upon the conclusion of this event to curtail any further surveillance from the nearby Russian consulate.” Our guests, unaware of the scheduled remodel, were aghast when they drove by the next day and saw the place actually being ripped apart under apparent orders of MI6! Chris and I laughed about that piece of theater for the next 18 years.
After CNET, Chris went on to positions at Tendo and then at Yahoo, where he oversaw editorial content and led a team of 12 who compiled the Yahoo Internet Style Guide, our industry’s definitive guide to creating content for the web and a fitting later chapter in the career of a guy who helped build the medium.
CNET has been important to the foundations of the web and Chris Barr was important to the foundations of CNET. Every review, video, column and comment on our site has a faint line back to his uncynical ethic and realization that history gave us a rare chance to make a real difference in publishing and have a ball doing it.
CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET’s newsstand edition.
Logging Out: Welcome to the crossroads of online life and the afterlife.