RUPERT MURDOCH reigns over racy tabloids. Dow Jones keeps the daily diary of the American dream. But Patrick McGovern probably has more influence over computers than anyone else in the world. His Computerworld, Macworld, PC World, and 90 other publications in 34 countries - including the newest, PC World CCCP, which premiers in the Soviet Union later this year - make him a benign Citizen Kane to 14 million people a month interested in bits, bytes, RAM, ROM, and WYSIWYG.
That's tremendous power, given the way computers are permeating society. And it couldn't be wielded by a more self-effacing, less power-hungry person, says almost everyone who knows Mr. McGovern.
Standing astride the world of computers - a world that has evolved along with his own publishing empire - McGovern makes an observation that describes both the information age and his far-flung magazines and newspapers.
``Computers are a powerful force in allowing the decentralization of enterprises,'' he says. ``So much of our bureaucracy is based on people who filter information layer by layer, control the flow of information in a work group. Now everybody can get access to the best possible information at work, so you can flatten the organization. People can spend a lot more time doing rather than just disseminating information in a management hierarchy.''
Consequently, computer-connected businesses such as McGovern's can organize themselves as a ``network of enterprises - one group has its own approach, does its own work, and interconnects with the next group.''
That's how McGovern's International Data Group works. True to his vision, this information-era chief executive is anything but authoritarian. ``Nice guy'' is a recurring description of him. Employees call him ``Pat,'' and around the office it is clear that he remembers them by name. He dresses funny at annual meetings, hands out bonuses personally at Christmas, flies coach class, and generally comports himself in an unbossy way. At his office in this Boston suburb, he points out the look-alike dummy that slumps in a chair across from his desk as ``a vice-president who'll listen to my ideas.''
But with all this bonhomie, make no mistake: A favorable review of new software or hardware in one of McGovern's publications can help make a new computer product into a superstar. A pan can be devastating.
``He is a man who moves and shakes this industry,'' says William Poduska, a former college classmate of McGovern's and, as founder of Prime, Apollo, and Stellar computer companies, himself a major force in the computer industry.
The McGovern publications appear to divide and multiply along with worldwide interest in computers.
There's one for IBM PC owners, VAX owners, Macintosh owners, desktop publishers, federal government computer users. There's a publication for PC users who live in the Bay Area, in Greater Boston, in Washington, D.C., in Los Angeles. There's Tietotekniikka, a journal for Finnish information processors, Lotus for the Lotus software market in Britain, Arabian Computer News ... you get the idea. McGovern says he sometimes does not know about a new publication that one of his 34 corporations starts until it crosses his desk.
Most new computer products are introduced at trade shows, so McGovern's World Expo Corporation competes for a piece of this business. But once a new product is on the market, advertisers must focus on a specific community of computer users. That's important because, unlike a car, say, or a television set, computer hardware is only the opening wedge. Buyers then are sold a dizzying array of add-ons, upgrades, and - most important - software, all geared to a specific computer.
With a global advertising network, McGovern's International Data Group tells companies they can ``deliver their message to influential buyers in 33 countries ... without placing a single overseas telephone call.'' Dell Computer Corporation, a Texas-based manufacturer that relies on direct-response advertising, says it plans to use McGovern's overseas connections for expanding its sales.
For all their technical specialty, McGovern's publications are surprisingly accessible. This is because of constant readership research. Computerworld, the 125,000-circulation flagship of the McGovern fleet, must do four readership surveys a year. Many McGovern publications invite readers to rate the writers each year, and compensation goes accordingly.
Other than endorsing what readers want, McGovern doesn't interfere, says Computerworld editor Bill Laberis. ``We've always been encouraged to let the chips fall where they may. I can't imagine having more autonomy. I never get direct feedback [from McGovern] that is not positive. And there are no hidden messages.''
Computer cognoscente generally rate PC Week (Ziff Communications publication) and Electronic Engineering Times (CMP Inc.) as having a slight news edge on Computerworld. But specialists in this highly competitive industry say all publications are scoured for technological or marketing data.
Genial and soft-spoken, McGovern sees information technology as a unifying force for mankind. He believes computers will dissolve national rivalries by uniting interest groups around the world - which explains his quiet glee over PC World CCCP as well as similar publications already established in China and Hungary.
The electronic global village is not, of course, McGovern's unique vision. Marshall McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, and other techno-gurus have been talking about it for decades. But for McGovern this isn't gee-whiz futurism or a moral crusade. It is more or less a description of his immensely profitable global publishing operations.
``Of all the people with a global perspective,'' says John Rotenberg, president of the Boston Computer Society, ``Pat McGovern really has an intimate contact with all the different cultures'' by virtue of his business.
And it is good business. McGovern is now one of the richest men in America, according to Forbes magazine. His International Data Group is a $310 million-a-year corporation in revenues, aiming for $1 billion by the early 1990s. At that time, McGovern plans to turn over company ownership to employees - the better, he says, to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive when he leaves.
McGovern traces his computer conversion to a book he read while in high school in Philadelphia in 1951, a science-fiction yarn he recalls being entitled ``Giant Brains and Machines That Think.'' He won a national essay contest in college the next year on how ``computers would spread know-how throughout society,'' built a computer that was unbeatable at tic-tack-toe, and earned a full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With a degree in biophysics, he launched into a career in the young industry of information technology.
His company has grown along with the computer population. In 1963, he notes, only 140,000 people in the world had access to computers. Studying the spread of the telephone and television in the US earlier in this century, McGovern forecast 30 percent growth of computer users each year. By 1970, there were 1 million computer users. Today there are about 80 million. By the turn of the century, he says, there will be close to 2 billion.
``He got in early and really made a go of it,'' observes William Welty, director of research at Hambrecht & Quist, a San Francisco-based financial house that specializes in high-tech.
McGovern says he clearly saw the power of information dissemination while on an extended trip in 1960.
``In places with the highest free press, people seemed very lively and energetic. The more information people have, the more prosperous seems the economy and the more active and energetic seem the people.''
Computers, he says, are not the be-all and end-all. But they are immensely important tools in this process.
``The progress of civilization,'' he says, ``seems to be related to man's access to better and better tools. Agriculture helped us get food when we wanted it rather than having to search around for it. The Industrial Revolution amplified people's muscles. Television, the eye. Radio and telephone, the ear.
``The amplification of the mind comes out of this intelligent information system.''