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Wired for the Media Transformation

It wasn't exactly Louis Rossetto's party, but it had to feel that way on this chilly New York rooftop.

It wasn’t exactly Louis Rossetto’s party, but it had to feel that way on this chilly New York rooftop. Wired, the magazine he and his wife, Jane Metcalfe, founded, had its 15th birthday party last week, validating the uphill battles, the failed initial public offering and the sale to Condé Nast, sponsor of the party (and owner of WWD). “When we started Wired, we didn’t think probably more than a few weeks ahead,” Rossetto said. “We wrote a five-year business plan, but we did that to make money, not because we ever thought that we would get to the end of that plan. Then we got into it, and the thing took off.”

This story first appeared in the May 27, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Rossetto and Metcalfe already had their own anniversary party in San Francisco for old hands; he joked at the time that current editor in chief Chris Anderson “crashed it,” but claims no ill will.

“It’s stayed true in many respects to what we were trying to do, which was cover a planet in wild transformation,” said Rossetto. Fears that full Condé Nast ownership would turn what had been an iconic and utopian magazine into simply another shopping experience have not been borne out, he said. “It’s not just about gadgets,” said Rossetto. “The cover story in this issue is nuclear energy, something that’s very much in keeping with what Wired did in my time — poke its finger in the eye of conventional wisdom.”

Fifteen years in, Wired seems relatively untroubled by its paradoxes. The magazine purports to cover the future with a several-months lead time; it’s a print magazine that has outlasted boom and bust, as well as many of its competitors and an inherently fickle tech culture, but that until two years ago was orphaned from its online component, originally sold to Lycos. A mostly New York-based media corps repeatedly anoints it for print-oriented attributes like design, crafted apart in San Francisco. Its editor says he is not “a media person” but he’s out there front and center offering answers to, among others, media people.

All this comes at a time when even fashion’s elite embraces, at times reluctantly, what used to be the provenance of the geek. Or as Scott Brown put it in Wired’s May issue, “Our ethos has rewritten social DNA, which means (gulp) we’re in charge now. Let’s just say it: We won…. Nerds have exchanged uniqueness for ubiquity. It’s over. And uneasy lies the head that wears the horn-rims.”

 

The alleged victory of the nerds, or the survival of Wired, was by no means preordained. Said former editor in chief Katrina Heron, “I do remember for a long time the demise of Wired being a regular prediction in the world of mainstream media.” She added, “There was a certain kind of paternalistic media judgment being leveled….One of the things we’d always hear is, ‘It’s the green-haired kids on skateboards who read your book.’ But it was wonderful to be so sure that the idea was this big.”

These days, Anderson is a bit like the magazine itself: initially met with skepticism by an old guard, now readily celebrated. Early in his tenure, beset by newsstand and advertising free falls, The New York Times described hostility to him among “the digerati” and wondered if his days were numbered. Now it all might best be expressed in the numbers — newsstand averaging over 85,000 in 2007 and consistently up during his tenure after a rocky start (the dot-com bust had already sliced a quarter of the boom peak newsstand of over 100,000, though total circulation is up significantly from then, to about 700,000). Wired has won two National Magazine Awards for general excellence since Anderson took over in 2001; copies of his book “The Long Tail” sold 92,000 copes in hardcover, according to Nielsen Bookscan, and another book is on the way, and he commands speaking fees of $45,000 (plus first-class airfare). Of course, traveling 280,000 miles a year doesn’t quite lend itself to being hands-on at the magazine in the traditional sense. “God bless PDFs,” he says, “And I have a fantastic team.”

Magazines often sell themselves as reaching discrete and committed populations, apart from the muddy middle of newspapers, but Anderson, in a speech to a Mediabistro conference last week, implied his magazine was actually a mass object, complemented by highly niche blogs and social networking components. He also mentioned a forthcoming social media partnership he was unable to reveal, promptly setting off guessing games. (A willfully coy move or not, several insiders briefed on the project seemed bemused that it had generated so much hype. “It sounds like a case of the long tail wagging the dog,” said one.)

 

Said Anderson later, “This is the blessing and the curse, that I live the world I’ve been writing about. The whole message of ‘The Long Tail’ was not that it’s the end of the blockbuster, it’s just the end of the monopoly of the blockbuster. Mass products have to compete with the multitude of niche products. Our magazine is a blockbuster, a classic one-size-fits-all.”

Hence CondéNet’s acquisition last week of the techie site Ars Technica and the original Wired online brands, HotWired and Webmonkey. “As [the magazine has] become more mainstream and broader, we’ve become less about technology and more about how it changes the world,” Anderson said. “These acquisitions allow us to get on the long tail of Wired, to be able to be the full spectrum from the hard-core geek to the culturephile.”

The acquisitions aren’t going to be under his oversight, and Wired.com has its own editor in chief, but it’s one organizational model for magazines struggling to figure out a salient online presence beyond the fuzzy idea of a brand.

On the business side, Wired’s new publisher, former Details publisher Chris Mitchell, pointed out the title enjoys an unusual arrangement: a single publisher’s oversight over print and Web sales, which he argued gives incentive for successful integration.

The meme of technology changing the world is an expansive one, so it also gives Mitchell an opening to argue for more fashion and luxury advertising in addition to the automotive, spirits and consumer electronics at the title’s base. “The world has caught up to what the content is about,” he said. The pitch is also that the male reader’s passion for product design — 50-inch TVs, say — can be parlayed into other designed products. But it could be a tough sell in a challenged year when those advertisers are counting every page, since many still see it as simply a technology magazine that can’t offer the “editorial support” expected in other glossies.

And Anderson is hardly rushing to turn the magazine into Cargo. “I don’t want to edit magazines. I want to edit this magazine about this story,” he said. “[Condé Nast] knows why they bought the magazine, they know why they hired me. And the fact that they did it for the right reasons, which is that they believe in the mission and weren’t just looking for another monetizing vehicle, is why we’ve been able to be what we are today….They let me be me, and they let Wired be Wired.”