Here’s the problem with Wired: They think print matters.
Background: Stephanie Clifford warns that Wired may be about to die. Ad sales are down 50%, putting it just above Power and Motoryacht at the bottom of Condé Nast’s portfolio of magazines.
I’ve got some relatively ancient history to share, but I think it’s germane.
After I left Gawker Media, I was contracted by Condé to help the newly reacquired Wired.com develop a blogging strategy. I spent a few weeks with the Wired.com chiefs developing a battle plan and presented it to the magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. He gave it the nod—he got what I was trying to do instantly—and away we went.
Three months later the traffic to the Wired.com blogs had doubled. I cleared out writers that weren’t working. That didn’t always mean they were bad writers, but usually just bad bloggers—there is a difference. Even the best magazine writer may not be able to write and report in front of an audience.
Our most successful blog was Table of Malcontents, run by our friend John Brownlee (with Lisa, too!), who ran with the opportunity, creating a “net culture” blog that was the archetypal model for what we were trying to create: Smart, fast, full of personality, two steps ahead of mainstream tastes. It had a superstar team, and with hard work they were soon the most popular blog on the network behind Rob’s Gadget Lab. (They also did much to make my not-so-secret motto come true: “Make Wired weird again.”)
Then the magazine folks stepped in. As soon as it became clear that Wired.com’s blogs might actually get some traction, the magazine started to dabble. I had structured the blogs so that each had a lead editor, something that that worked very well at Gawker. No one had a problem with that—until it meant that my lead bloggers might be telling magazine staffers what to do.
It’s not unusual for print journalists to look down at online writers, and often rightly so. There are some amazing reporters and writers whose work appears in Wired, people who do the sort of storytelling that bloggers rarely have the time or skill to do.
But reporters treating their online peers like that at Wired? It was accepted without much question that the magazine side of the business—literally across the “Berlin Hall”—always trumped the online side.
I made it about six months before I felt too constrained by both the magazine and its publishers and moved on. Since then, Wired.com’s grown to 11 million monthly visitors: its blogs are among the best in their fields and its tech news reportage is among the finest, online or off—successes I don’t take credit for. The sheer size of that readership speaks volumes: the Times says the magazine has only 700k or so subscribers. (It’s a damn shame that online advertising is devalued compared to print advertising, but that’s the media world for you.)
Wired makes a fantastic magazine. The “puzzle” edition last month was just brilliant, and I skimmed it from cover to cover. But for technology and pop science reporting, the market has moved on. Tech magazines, now matter how well executed, are nothing more than a cute anachronism, with the same sort of boutique market as hand-made stationery.
Which isn’t to say that we or anyone else who writes for money isn’t doomed; we just don’t have to buy paper by the ton roll, nor keep a support staff around nearly as large as our editorial staff.
Wired is great print, but if the magazine can’t make money and is shuttered, taking the website down with it, I’m going to be livid. Not that making money online is easy—it’s not, especially without sacrificing your ethics and your voice—but if any mainstream outlet should be able to make the transition, it should be Wired.
I fear that may be impossible, not just for Wired but for all these old brands, because they can’t accept that the work at which they have excelled for years will be just as important when it’s online—and online only.
P.S. No one actually ever called it the “Berlin Hall” except me.
P.P.S. The fact that it was the Times that published this piece, one of my other dear media orgs also choking and sputtering on the future, was not lost on me.