Wired editor in chief Nicholas Thompson is nothing if not efficient. When he is not in San Francisco, where Wired is based and where he spends about a week a month, he commutes on foot between his home in Brooklyn and Condé Nast’s headquarters at 1 World Trade Center — which has the dual benefit of allowing him to avoid the MTA while keeping up his marathon training. (Although Thompson declined to discuss his marathon times on the record, a short amount of Internet sleuthing shows that he finished last year’s New York marathon in the top 200, clocking in at 2:43:50). After showering at the gym next door to Condé Nast, Thompson heads upstairs and puts on a slightly rumpled suit, which he keeps in his office. At the end of the day, he changes back into running clothes for the evening commute back to Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, a dance professor at The New School, and their sons. Not surprisingly, Thompson has the logistics of his monthly trips to San Francisco figured out down to the minute.
Thompson, who was appointed editor in chief of Condé Nast’s tech title a year ago, brings that attention to detail to the magazine and is equally thoughtful about editorial and business strategy. He is celebrating his first anniversary running Wired by introducing a paywall, which launches today and will go for an introductory rate of $19.99 a year (readers will be able to read four stories per month, and have access to the homepage, section pages and video landing page without a subscription ).
This isn’t Thompson’s first time at Wired. He was a senior editor from 2005 to 2010, before leaving to run Newyorker.com. In addition, Thompson is a cofounder of The Atavist, a long-form digital magazine/multimedia publishing platform. He is also an instrumental guitarist who used to supplement his journalism by playing on subway platforms.
Over coffee in the cafe atop 1 World Trade, Thompson talked at length about paywalls, covering the tech industry, business models, the perks of print, and muting Trump on Twitter.
WWD: Tell me about your first year as editor in chief of Wired.
Nicholas Thompson: It’s been amazing. I started the same week that Trump took office, so it’s fairly easy to keep track of how long I’ve been here. In some ways it’s not that different from my job at The New Yorker. We are doing journalism that’s fairly similar to what we did at The New Yorker — a combination of long, deeply reported magazine stories, news analysis, web stories. The mix of stories is pretty much exactly the same, but it’s a totally different world. I’m focused on change, I’m focused on technology, I’m focused on Silicon Valley. When I go home at night, the stuff that’s running in my brain is different. So the big changes for me are that I’m thinking about different things at night, I’m thinking about different things during the day. And, of course, there’s more management responsibilities and all those decisions that ultimately came down to someone else at The New Yorker, now I have to think about.
WWD: How did Wired and the tech world change in the seven years you were gone?
N.T.: One of the most interesting things about the difference between my job now and my job then is that the role of the tech industry in American society is transformed. When Wired started in 1993, the job was to champion these people. Wired was a publication that, for the most part, wrote about the start-ups, the heroes, the innovators of Silicon Valley — and little guys like Larry Page and Sergey Brin with a really smart idea for creating a search engine. But time passes, and you’ve got a new situation where these people with these really great ideas who subscribe to Wired now kind of run the world. So the job isn’t to champion, the job is to be as smart as you can be about them and praise them when they do things that are right and hold them to account when they do things that are wrong. The role of Wired has shifted, and it’s shifted in a way that’s a little complicated for our audience. There are old Wired people who say we shouldn’t be critical of tech companies. And then there are also people who think we are way too positive about the tech industry. So figuring out the right balance is a little tricky. I love technology, Wired loves technology. You don’t go work at Wired unless you like to mess around with your system preferences or look at the HTML, unless you are actually interested in the way tech is changing the world. But that doesn’t mean you are enthusiastic about everything.
WWD: Has tech coverage in general changed?
N.T.: Tech coverage is harder. When I was at Wired from 2005 to 2010, there weren’t that many other people doing it. The web existed. There were blogs, but not a ton. And now there is this whole ecosystem of tech publications. You’ve got mainstream publications that are writing about tech in a way they didn’t then, so you also have that competition. And then you have the same competition that everybody else faces, which is social media and individuals on social media breaking stories, or people at the tech companies who have interesting stories and instead of going to the press decide to write them on Medium. So the number of avenues for people to get news about the tech industry is now many more publications, many more tweets, many more Medium posts. And Wired is still there. So we have to carve out a new niche. On the other hand, even though there is much more competition, there is also much more news. There is no shortage of things for Wired to cover. If I was a reporter, just based on conversations I’ve had today, I would have like five interesting stories.
WWD: Since almost everything has a tech angle now, how do you decide what differentiates a Wired story?
N.T.: This is one of the existential questions: what makes a Wired story? And it’s hard to define. A Wired story is a story about how the world is changing, how we are changing, how our minds are changing.
WWD: How do you approach Trump coverage?
N.T.: Everybody thinks about Trump all the time, right? He is in everybody’s head. That is one of his great skills. People don’t want political analysis from Wired. They don’t want us telling them who to vote for, they don’t want us endorsing a candidate. So we are not going to do that. But we can’t ignore it totally. So Trump, for political reasons, has an FCC that is against net neutrality. That is like the most core thing you can have in Wired, so we are all over that. We are running stories about net neutrality nonstop. That’s important to us because we feel like we understand it, we have a history covering the issue. To the extent that Wired has policy positions, we are pro-innovation, we are pro-open source, we are pro-technology in all kinds of ways. We are all over privacy, we are all over net neutrality, we are all over political issues that are very much our world. Then there is another tier, which is something like the Mueller investigation. Some of it deals with how Russia used Facebook during the election. That’s a big Wired story. Is Flynn’s guilty plea a Wired story? Not really.
WWD: Right, and Trump coverage is everywhere.
N.T.: It is everywhere. It’s a trap, because it’s the stuff that people read so you get the most readership for it, but it also can make you feel not distinct and not interesting. I would like Wired to be a place where you know you can come and not deal with Trump for a little while. In fact, I have a filter in my Twitter feed so I don’t actually see the word Trump in tweets. If someone puts the word Trump in a tweet, I won’t see it. Because otherwise, it’s 100 percent of your Twitter feed. Even if you block the word Trump, and you block his tweets, it’s still like 90 percent Trump. I basically block sports news, and I block Trump because I don’t want to be distracted. I want as much information about the things I care about. Because your Twitter feed is the main way you get news, and you spend however many minutes a day you do on it. So it’s kind of an attempt to limit that.
WWD: You helped launch a paywall when you were at The New Yorker. Tell me about launching one at Wired.
N.T.: Launching a paywall at The New Yorker was a hard decision. But I learned two things that are superimportant. One is that when you align your economic model with your editorial values, everything works better. If you have a web site and you are generating money only by advertising, you have an incentive to only generate page views. And how do you generate page views? Well, one way is by writing really great stories. Another way is making slideshows and putting clickbait headlines on them and forcing people to click through. And that doesn’t feel good. So now let’s say your economic model is subscriptions. Well, how do you get subscriptions? You get people to read your stories beginning to end and to love them. Everything you do to get subscriptions aligns with the reasons journalists go into journalism. We want to improve the information flow in the world and make people smarter and make ourselves smarter. All of those things align with a subscription model. Some of those things align with an advertising model. The shift at The New Yorker had all of those beneficial things happen. It suddenly meant that I could hire someone and justify hiring them because, even if their traffic was low, people would subscribe. It meant that we could justify putting time into stories even if the traffic was low because it would drive subscriptions. It just helped with everything. And it changed the stature of the web site as an entity within the whole structure within The New Yorker.
The day I started at Wired, I was like, “we are going to do a paywall.” And we are going to do it because of these deep reasons. I love advertising, I want to get as much advertising as possible, I’m deep into advertising. Clearly we make most of our money there and will make most of our money there for a long time. But to the extent we can add in subscription, it’s very beneficial. That’s one thing. The other is this sort of complicated thing that I only learned lately, which is that you want the business model of the journalism that you do to travel with the content. Where do people read Wired stories? They read them on Wired.com, they read them in the magazine, and they also read them on Facebook, they read them on Flipboard, they read them on Snapchat, they read them on Pocket, they read them on Instapaper. They read our newsletters. So as your content goes out on all these platforms, ideally you want to attach your business model to it. So what the hell does that mean? One thing it means is that if you have a subscription model, it’s really important to work with platforms that let you do that. Then when you think about social media platforms, you have to think about how you are making money off them. So Twitter drives traffic to the site, which is great, but does it drive enough traffic to justify the effort you put there? Maybe. So Instagram: Instagram doesn’t drive any traffic. But Instagram is actually a really good platform for advertising. They are more open about including it. So even though you aren’t going to get any subscriptions because you aren’t going to drive anyone to your site, you can advertise better there.
When I started at The New Yorker, we had a magazine and the web site was a distribution channel for the magazine. Then it was like we have a magazine and a web site, and they are both content providers. Then we had social media feeds, and they were distribution channels for the magazine and the web site. But now it’s actually that there’s a magazine, there’s a web site, there’s a Snapchat edition of Wired, there’s an Instagram edition of Wired. There’s an Apple News edition of Wired, which is pulling content from the other places but is also kind of its own thing. And the job is also to prioritize, because you might have heard that in this age of journalism, our budgets are not massively expanding.
WWD: In fact, the opposite.
N.T.: Right. So you have an ever-increasing number of platforms you have to pay attention to, an every increasing complexity, and generally fewer people. So managing that is…fun.
WWD: What are the benefits of Wired in print?
N.T.: The U.S. Postal Service is a really great distribution system. Twitter is good, Facebook is good. But you can get lost and missed. The postal service takes 850,000 or whatever our circ number is and delivers them to people’s doors. That’s way better than tweeting. It’s there. It’s a physical thing. You can throw it out, but probably you don’t. It’s portable. It’s a physical reminder. And then there’s the cover. The cover is a really important place to make a statement about something. And also, print magazines have a limited amount of space. So you assign a feature and you assign a certain length, and then you have to hit a certain deadline to make it come out. Something about those restraints lead to a certain kind of craft. You always think if I just had more freedom I’d do better, but sometimes it’s the restraints that make things better.
WWD: The New Yorker and Wired are very different from most Condé Nast titles. What’s it like being part of Condé?
N.T.: Well, my boss is Anna Wintour, which is awesome.There are lots of ways where Condé Nast collaborates, but there has never been a moment where the company told me to do something that was appropriate for a fashion magazine but not for us. We kind of just do our own thing.
WWD: Is Wired a testing ground for business strategies that could work at other Condé Nast titles?
N.T.: It should be. We have launched a bunch of tech stuff that other publications will use. Because we are out in the world, we should be piloting stuff for the industry and the company. I would like us to do as much of that as we can.
WWD: Where do you see the tech industry going?
N.T.: The tech industry will only become more powerful as it becomes more deeply embedded in our lives and we become more reliant on it. It is in a period of inexorable growth. The big interesting question is whether there will be a backlash. The hardest question in tech right now is, should the five big companies be regulated in a different way? Would there be more innovation in America if they were broken up in some way. So you are starting to see a bunch of people saying “yes” to that. It’s a hard question. Antitrust law usually comes into play when companies start charging you more. It’s hard to argue that Amazon is making you pay more for stuff, since they usually charge less. When was the last time you gave Google a penny? Maybe for cloud storage. A big thing in 2018 will be whether the way we think about these companies changes.
WWD: Do you think people are going to get worried about giving these companies so much data?
N.T.: Every year I predict there will be a privacy backlash, and there never is. But maybe.
WWD: On a personal level, do you have any privacy reservations?
N.T.: I worry a little about privacy and I worry a ton about attention. One of the things digital devices do is they distract the hell out of you. So I work hard to make that not happen, even though I have to understand these devices. I am not too worried about privacy. But I try not to be always paying attention to that stuff. I don’t like to post anything about my kids. Well, that’s not quite true. I post tons about my kids, but I don’t post their names or their photos. I want people to understand that I have children so they know my interests, but I don’t want people to know anything about my specific children.
WWD: What tech do you feel like you couldn’t live without?
N.T.: I don’t know. I didn’t have a phone for a few weeks last year and it was no problem. The way I use my phone is kind of interesting. I use it for e-mails, I use it at interstitial times. And then at night, I basically read magazine features from other publications on Instapaper. So that’s my most pleasurable time with technology. That’s kind of basic, but kind of great.
WWD: What’s your take on venture capital-funded media companies?
N.T.: I mean, I founded The Atavist. I am well aware of VC funding. We still exist, but we have fewer employees than we did at the peak of our VC funding. I was really surprised to see the recent numbers. I will say this: Taking VC money and promising infinite growth is really hard unless you have a monopoly position or you have some kind of increasing returns to scale or some kind of network effects, where you are building a system where getting one person helps get the next person. Which isn’t the case for BuzzFeed or Vox. For them to keep growing at the rate they are growing, they have to constantly stay ahead of trends and be extremely smart about how to do things — which they are, but it’s still hard.
WWD: What did you learn at The Atavist that has helped you in your current role?
N.T.: I learned how to build a CMS [content management system]. I learned a ton about product strategy. I learned how much you have to focus on something and how to take on side projects. Every time I sit across from a vendor now who wants to sell us some product, I think about being on the other side of that conversation when I was at The Atavist. I learned how to hire engineers. I learned all sorts of things about budgets and business and how you provide health care to your employees and what it costs. I was never that engaged in it, because I had my job at Wired and then at The New Yorker, and I founded it with two other people who did most of the work. But I learned a ton. I learned how the VC world works, because we met with all of them, we raised money. I learned who these people are and how these deals work to a degree you could never learn without being in it.
WWD: How do you divide your time between San Francisco and New York?
N.T.: My wife is a tenured professor of dance at The New School here in New York, so she has a great job, and a not portable job. If she at some point got a similar job in San Francisco, off we go. In the meantime, the plan is that during the year I spend about a week a month in San Francisco. I also travel to conferences and stuff. But most of the time we are in New York, and most of the summer we are in San Francisco.
WWD: You also run marathons. How do you find time to train for that?
N.T.: That is true. I like to run. I run to work, I shower at the gym next door and I have suits in the office to change into. At the end of the day, I change back into my running clothes and run back home to Brooklyn.
WWD: And you are an instrumental guitarist.
N.T.: I’ve always played instrumental guitar and I put out a bunch of albums when I was younger. Ideally I will put out another one at some point. If you dig deep on my Twitter feed, you will find me late at night playing guitar. I put out a couple of albums in college, and when I moved here I worked as a street musician.
WWD: What was the best street?
N.T.: 14th Street L train at Sixth Avenue, because the L train platform has two trains on one platform, so people getting on the subway could possibly give me money, and people getting off the subway could possibly give me money. But I also played in Times Square, I played in clubs around the city. I played all over the place. So that was in my 20s, and then as journalism picked up, that kind of slowed down.