Wired has always been a magazine for the tech nerds among us, but Thompson says he wants to “make it nerdier.”
On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Wired Editor in Chief Nick Thompson talks about the merits of running a print magazine in 2018, why Wired.com is instituting a paywall and how his version of Wired might be the nerdiest yet.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here or listen to it in full in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversations.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media, with Peter Kafka. That is me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m recording this in New York in late January, if you’re listening to this podcast when it comes out, you may still have time to buy a ticket to go see me and Kara Swisher, and the people who run Facebook, and YouTube, and SoundCloud, and Patreon, and lots of other interesting companies, at Code Media, February 12th and 13th, in Huntington Beach. Tickets may also be sold out. That is the peril of recording something in advance. You don’t really know. But anyway, it’s a good event. You should go there in person. If you can’t get there in person, we will bring highlights of that show to you on this podcast.
Okay, enough promo. I am here, as I said, in New York, with Nick Thompson, the editor in chief of Wired … do we call it Wired Magazine, or do we just call it Wired?
Nick Thompson: You can call it Wired.
Wired. Former editor of TheNewYorker.com. Accomplished journalist, avid runner, as it says in your bio.
I want to talk to you about a bunch of stuff, but the news that has brought you to me today …
I’ll come here anytime you want me to come here, Peter.
Deal. I was gonna go about the future tense, past tense. You guys are putting up a paywall.
You’ve announced, in the past, you’re putting up a paywall. The paywall is up.
All right. So if you’re going to Wired.com, today, what do you encounter, in terms of a wall?
Well, if you go to Wired.com five times today, which I hope you will, or you click on five stories, you will encounter a paywall that then asks you to subscribe. So it’s a fairly typical publisher paywall.
Yup. You can read whatever you want, but if you read five stories in a month, we ask you to please pay us.
Paywall is an old idea. Comes in and out of fashion. It’s back in fashion right now.
Yeah. It’s been ever more in fashion over the last couple years, as the media business has changed and as people have watched how paywalls have succeeded, and also as customers have become more accustomed to them.
I want to talk about the mechanics of the paywall, but just philosophically, this is something … you’re part of the Conde Nast family, you guys had a paywall at the New Yorker. Is the idea that all of the Conde publications are gonna have some form of this? I know Vanity Fair is probably gonna institute its own.
There aren’t any Conde Nast-wide plans that I know about or have heard about. This is very much Wired-specific, but it also very much comes from my experience at the New Yorker. I mean, I ran the New Yorker’s website when we put up a paywall, so I learned how we did it, but more importantly I saw what it does for your business model and what it does for your journalism model, and I want to bring those things over to Wired.
Just to spell it out, what does it do for you and your business?
What does it … I thought you might ask that question. I sort of floated that up.
That was a good softball.
All right, so on the business side, it’s good to diversify, right? Media business, we all know what’s happening to advertising CPMs, right? There’s a supply and demand problem. The number of places where you can advertise increases constantly. The number of people who want to advertise …
If you’re listening to this podcast for the first time, a CPM is what they call an advertising rate. They’re going down.
They’re going down. Everybody thought they would go up, right? Everybody thought that the rates for digital ads would go up over time, because you would learn more about your customers, you’d be able to target them better and ultimately be able to charge advertisers more because you could target the customers better.
And ultimately because old media rates were much higher. We figured they would eventually … we hoped they would come up.
Converge. So that didn’t happen. Or it happened for a little while, and then for lots of reasons, it reversed course. So CPMs, the rates, are going down, digitally. So all digital publishers have to think about this. And so you can come up with lots of different business models. You can host conferences in Huntington Beach, which is an excellent idea. And if you can execute them, that’s a good way to do it. You can move into different formats. You can have podcasts where the CPMs are pretty good. You can have videos, where the CPMs are pretty good. Or, another thing you can do is you can say, “Hey, we actually want you to pay us for the content.” That’s the way …
You can do all of them, right?
You can do all of them, you can do some of them well and others badly, you can focus entirely on one, but what’s probably not viable is to say, “Okay, we’re just gonna do advertisements on words. We’re just gonna have text content, with advertisements against it, and we’re gonna be able to do high-quality journalism for the indefinite future.” That’s a fishy proposition.
You’re almost saying you have no choice but to put up a paywall.
Well, that, no. I feel like publishers have no choice but to think about how to diversify their business models. The reason Wired is putting up a paywall is much more about the second thing I want to talk about, which is the editorial incentives. So with an advertising model where you’re trying to get as many readers as you can and as many clicks on your page, you have a bunch of perverse incentives. Right? You have incentives to do slideshows, you have incentives to rehash the news and pop in the Google News algorithm. You have incentives to do clickbait, right? And you’re a serious journalist …
Play devil’s advocate. Those are all things people want to consume, right? No one is forcing them to consume a slideshow, no one is forcing them to click on that link.
Oh, absolutely. No, there’s nothing … there’s nothing nefarious about it. I’m just saying that if you’re a publisher and your whole revenue source is advertising, your incentives will … you’ll have incentives to do those things.
In the old — and I used to work for Henry Blodget — in the old days, we were more optimistic about digital advertising. We would say that’s sort of high-minded bullshit. Henry wouldn’t use that word. Saying, look, playing devil’s advocate here, the idea that there’s something wrong with making stuff that lots of people want to consume is bogus. Why not create lots of stuff? There’s nothing wrong with that incentive. Why not try to get the most people to read, watch your stuff?
Totally, I get it. And I’m not saying that that stuff is wrong. Like Valley Insider … the number of stories that I read on the early days of Business Insider? Massive, right? Because there’s incredible stuff on it. And, in fact, I have nothing against traffic. In general, a story that is read by more people correlates with the story being better, right? If somebody’s rehashing the news and they do it really well and they write good sentences and they have good insights, they will get much more traffic and they will get much more ad revenue, right? So there is a pretty good correlation between the advertising revenue you get and the number of clicks you get and the quality of the journalism you do. And I have nothing against publishers that do a good job of making beautiful slideshows that make you go through them. That’s definitely not what I’m saying.
But what happens when you create a subscription business model is that your incentives change significantly, because then what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to build a really deep relationship with your reader, right? So no one is gonna subscribe if they think that what you’re doing is not unique. They’re only gonna subscribe if they feel like they can get on your site something they can’t get anywhere else. So suddenly, your incentives change. You do want as many readers as possible. You do want people to come frequently. But what you really want them to do is to love your stories, right? So when they finish …
Just to give them something distinctive, that is worth paying for.
And it may be the stories are okay, but if they’re packaged well, it doesn’t have … I mean, we all like to think that our stories are unique, beautiful creatures, right? But sometimes it’s just the packaging or presentation … something that they think is worth paying for, they can’t get somewhere else.
Absolutely, right? It could be beautiful photography, it could be an incredibly artistic way of doing slideshows, it could be that they think your headlines are better than anybody else’s headlines. But your incentives have shifted a little bit, right? Instead of just being an audience which, in general, back two minutes, is mostly good, your incentives are now audience and love. And so your incentives are better.
And that was something that I hadn’t understood when we launched the New Yorker’s paywall, right? High-minded publication. But once we changed the incentive, it changed the way writers wrote, it changed the way editors edited, it changed … and one of the interesting things was writers, I would interview them for jobs and they would say, “Oh, how do I know that you guys are gonna sort of stick to your ideals?” And the answer would be, “Well, trust me, right? It’s the New Yorker. We’ve been around for 90 years. Of course we’re gonna trust our ideals.”
But it actually … The argument works better when it’s, “Trust me, we’ve been around for 90 years, and in fact, our business model depends on us doing that.” And then the writers would say, “Oh.” And it would be kind of easier to recruit. And so over the couple of years from when we launched the paywall at the New Yorker, I saw this kind of benefit to the journalism. And so that’s what I want to do at Wired, is to create the same incentives in the whole process, from the people we hire, to the stories they write, to the editors, the way they edit them, to the way we package them, to the way we present it.
And again, it’s not like we’re radically shifting and all we’re gonna do are these massive 15,000-word investigations because that’s all that people will pay for. No. We’re gonna write about what happened 15 minutes ago, and we’re gonna do it as well as we can, but we’re gonna be trying to also focus, constantly, about building relationships with readers and giving them stuff that they’re gonna pay for.
You guys do do long-form stuff, you do do beautifully packaged stuff. That’s always been a hallmark of the magazine.
But how do you think the stuff you will make will change when the wall goes up, starting today?
It’s gonna be subtle, and it’s gonna happen over time. I mean, the way that it’s not like the day before the paywall, the quality of the stories was X, and the day after it’s gonna be 3X.
Like Jessica Lessin has a thing where she says, well we’re only … because we’re not advertising driven, we don’t have incentive to produce multiple things a day. We might do one thing day. We might do a handful of things per week. They each have to clear this very high bar. You’re not gonna go into that sort of slow journalism, where you’re doing a handful of things per week?
No, god, no. And Jessica’s in a totally different business, where A) all she does is have a subscription model, and B) her subscriptions cost a ton of money, right? We’re still gonna be predominantly advertising-driven. We’re not radically shifting, right? If you look at our revenue streams next year, the vast majority will still be advertising.
Yeah, how much will a subscription be?
A subscription will be 20 bucks.
You get the first three months free, and then it’ll be 20 bucks.
And then, but there will not be ads if I subscribe, right?
Yes. So we have a …
That’s different than, I think, most publications.
Yeah, it was a complicated conversation, a complicated choice. A bunch of things went into it. So one is, we’ve always had an ad-free product. A bunch of … a lot of people have paid Wired in order to see Wired without ads, without having to feel like jerks who use ad blockers. The reason they do that are the same reason why other people use ad blockers, right? The page looks a little bit cleaner, but also Wired readers are more technologically cognizant than average readers, and they care more about advertising tracking scripts, they care more about page latency.
They’re more likely to know what a cookie is.
They’re more likely to know what a cookie is. And so we’re gonna be giving them, when you subscribe, you’ll get the version without ads, optimized for that, both because the page will look a little cleaner but also because it will have fewer scripts and calls and all that stuff.
So you … I cut you off. You were sort of talking about the revenue mix. So what percent of overall Wired Magazine revenues will come from ads versus subscriptions, do you think?
So there are gonna be three main revenue streams. The first will be — and the vast majority will be — ads, and will continue to be ads, and it’s …
Majority revenue will be advertising?
Oh, absolutely, for quite a while. And our advertising revenue is great. We have a print publication. People are buying lots of print ads, because it’s good readers to reach, it’s a good platform to reach them, and the ads look beautiful. Our digital advertising is doing quite well too. This is more about creating a new revenue stream.
So the three revenue streams. No. 1 is gonna be advertising, the vast majority of revenue, for a long time to come. No. 2 will be subscriptions, and it’s not like we didn’t have subscriptions before, you could still subscribe with a print magazine to the tablet edition. This will be subscriptions to read the web page, and then subscriptions across all the different platforms where Wired appears.
And then the third is affiliate revenue, which is something that we’ve been pushing hard the last three months. And that’s where we review a bunch of headphones, and if you click and you buy them after you read it, you click on a link at the bottom that says, “Buy this now,” a percentage of that purchase will come back to use through affiliate …
People are very excited about this, right? Wirecutter’s are the best known …
Wirecutter’s the best known …
New York Times bought them. A lot of folks were trying to do this themselves, you guys included.
We’re in it, revenue is way up. It’s possible that because so many people are doing it that it’ll become less effective. It’s possible that Amazon, once it’s got everybody doing it, will say, actually, “Hey, you know, I can give you a little less than we used to give you.”
They already did that. They did it almost immediately after the Times bought the Wirecutter.
And they’ll do it again.
They said, “We’re gonna cut our rates.”
You know, and they have all the power here. So it’s a good revenue source today. Will it be a good revenue source in three years? I hope so. And then we also, we put on a conference there, but our main revenue streams are those three things.
You’re the editor in chief. Traditionally, in the old version of publishing, the editor in chief was theoretically responsible for the editorial part of the publication, not the business part. The reality was always a little more blended. When it comes to decisions like a paywall, when it comes to decisions like “we’re gonna push into affiliate revenue,” how much agency do you have there?
A lot. I mean my job is … it’s a combination of editor in chief and then very close partner to our chief revenue officer. I spend a lot of my time, surely more time than an editor two generations before, thinking through, “All right, well, if we do this, what will be the revenue? What are the risks?”
It’s a complicated job, because there are real benefits to keeping the two sides separate. And there are potential conflicts of interest, there are potential perverse incentives, there are potential sticky situations, and so my job is to try to navigate through those, and to make sure that we never make an editorial decision that’s influenced in a bad way by business incentives.
When you took the job, a year ago, right?
Yeah. Same week as Donald Trump started. It’s easy to remember.
Congrats. Did you say — so you’re responsible for this — did you say, “I want to do a paywall?” Was that part of the pitch? Was it something …
Oh yeah, that was completely part of the pitch. I think I mentioned it the first time I talked to the staff. I said, “This is coming.” The only reason it’s taken a year to do is that we were doing a content management system migration, and so our product roadmap was very much focused on that, through the first six months of my job.
We should do a sub-podcast. A spinoff podcast on CMS.
Oh, man. Well, I’m also the co-founder of the Atomist, I’ve got a lot of CMS experience. I can talk …
We can talk about that.
You want to talk for hours about CMSs?
Listen, you’re on Vox Media, home of the CMS differentiator, though we stopped talking about that. Facebook.
Yes, heard of it.
Conflicts were a couple weeks after Facebook said, “We are kinda getting out of the news business, sort of, maybe.”
Some people say that.
“We’re having some … we want to be very clear that we’re doing something. We’re making a big announcement about it.” How it’s actually gonna play out is yet to be seen. So what do you think Facebook was telling the publishing world, and maybe other constituencies as well?
I think that Facebook has had an incredibly difficult last couple of years, and they’ve seen …
Where they made billions of dollars. Billions and billions and billions of dollars.
Yeah, it’s not financially difficult. I mean emotionally difficult. But they’re so well compensated, it’s okay. But I think that what you’ve seen, in the last two months, is the fruits of the reckoning, and the thinking that Zuckerberg and the other top management have been doing.
So it kind of starts … they do an earnings call, Zuckerberg says he’s gonna make a little bit less money, they put out this research report in December that says, “Well, people have asked us, is social media good for you, or is it bad for you? And turns out, if you use it passively, it’s bad for you, and if you use it in depth, it’s good for you.”
The good news is, it’s good for you if you do it right.
The good news … well, as with all things Facebook, the research indicates that if you use Facebook a lot, it will be good.
And then Zuckerberg puts out his New Year’s resolution, which is, “I’m sad that our platform can be misused, I’m sad that it can make you unhappy, and I’m gonna make it better.” Which is pretty different from his annual resolutions, and then they announce …
Right, normally it’s, “I’m gonna run a lot,” or “I’m gonna learn Mandarin.”
“I’m gonna read some books.”
“I’m gonna slaughter my own meat.” This is literally what he said.
And this year, it’s “I’m gonna fix Facebook.” And then they announced, “We are gonna rejigger the algorithm so that we favor meaningful interactions, as opposed to meaningless interactions, and as a result of that, we will also drive content away from publishers.” So there’s one hypothesis. Frank Foer has put the most articulate version of it, which is that Facebook basically decided that news is a hassle. You get into the news business, and A) you have to meet with journalists. It’s a pain in the ass, because …
Journalists suck. They complain.
And they’re pissed off, and they are frustrated because they’re working really hard to grapple with all these questions that you guys blew through, and the journalists are all losing their jobs, and Facebook’s making all this money.
Well, and often, by the time they’re writing about you, and they’re also engaged in a business that is dependent on you, so it’s not like they’re writing about the environment, or really anything where they don’t have a direct stake in it. So they’re particularly salty when they come to talk to you.
The relationship between Facebook and journalists is one of the most confusing, most unhappy things there is. Not things, one of the most unhappy, confusing dynamics there is, in our business. So there’s the one hypothesis, I’ll call it the Frank Fore hypothesis, which is that Facebook has said, “We’ve had it. We’re done. Forget it. It’s not worth it.” And that this is Zuckerberg gradually stepping away from the news business, right? So Facebook got into the news business like four years ago, they didn’t really intend to come to dominate it, or at least they … and they certainly didn’t think through the consequences of what happens when they come to dominate it. They got to the point, and they’re like, “This is a pain in the ass. Let’s go backwards.”
I kinda don’t think that’s right. I think what’s happening is they’re looking at their platform and they’re saying, “There’s a lot of crap. And actually, it’s bad for our readers, and it’s making people frustrated at Facebook, and there are all kinds of consequences. So we’re gonna get rid of a lot of the crap. We’re gonna get rid of some of the click bait.” They’ve worked really hard, in the last year, to get rid of some of the outright lies, the fake news. My guess is that six months from now, we’re gonna see that what this change has done is helped high-quality places — like, for example, Vox or Wired — but it’s also hurt the more partisan, and the less accurate …
Because they’re not gonna not have news stories distributed on Facebook. If I want to share a Vox story, or a … what was the magazine I just learned about yesterday, just got shuttered. Baggers? It turns out that’s a motorcycle magazine that’s now being closed. Or Babe.net. If I want to share the Aziz Ansari story, Facebook will let me do it, and if a lot of my friends are interested in talking about the Aziz Ansari story, a lot of them, that’s gonna circulate, and so that there’ll be still a lot of traffic directed towards news. There’ll still be a lot of consumption of news on Facebook.
Yeah. I think that there’ll be tons of … I think publishers that publish stories like that Aziz Ansari story, that get lots of feedback and comments, those stories will do really well in the algorithm. I think if you publish smart things that people talk about, you’ll do fine. So I don’t …
Or, by the way, dumb things people talk about.
Or dumb things people talk about, yeah.
It sounds like what they’re saying is we’re gonna spend less time … we’re gonna get rid of some of the most noxious stuff, and we would like to not have Russians populating our feed with spam. But we’re gonna spend less time trying to sort of make sure that publishers are happy, or less unhappy, and we’re gonna spend less time sort of trying to get that stuff to circulate.
I think that’s right. Yeah, I think that’s the … that is the shift in that, is the thinking, and there are going to be lots more announcements coming out of Facebook about the media business and about publishing over the next few months, and I think some of them will make the publishing industry happy, though this one that they just did clearly did not.
If you’re in the media business, this is a big deal, you care about this. I would argue, if you had been thinking about this at all, you probably have come to this conclusion already, and in some ways this is sort of a formal announcement of a known thing. Facebook traffic has been going down, the money you make from ads on Facebook has been unsatisfying, and you’ve probably reached this conclusion. Do you think a reader, a Facebook user, will be able to tell that Facebook has changed what it’s doing?
I think savvy people will notice that “Wait, I like the New York Times, and I used to see three stories and two baby pictures, and now I see one story and four baby pictures.” I think savvy people will notice it, but most people will just scroll through and not see a ton.
I think there probably will be a decline in the amount of video you see. I think Facebook has been very frustrated at the amount of mindless video-watching on the site. We all know how it works: A video starts to play and you kind of stare at it, but you don’t comment on it, it doesn’t engage you in any way.
Facebook clearly knows that the internet is shifting towards visual media and that the percentage of web content that is video will be way higher, will engage video more in the future, but they also don’t want it to be stuff we don’t react to. So there will be far less video in your feed. Well, actually, the rate of growth of video will slow. So there’ll still probably be a little more video in your feed, a year from now, but much less than there would have been had they not made this algorithmic change.
Yeah. I have two thoughts on that. One, I’m astonished, I’ve been astonished for a couple years, watching all of these publishers spend a lot of time and energy creating literally the same video, right? They’re taking the same B-roll of a drone company’s video and putting motion graphics on it, because that’s a thing that works.
And by the way, Facebook was encouraging it, so I’m thinking, well, that can’t be what they want, for eight different publishers to make basically the same video. And those publishers can’t be happy. I mean, it just seems like no one can be satisfied. Except that any individual publisher can go, “Well we got a million views for it, so it’s worth doing, right?”
Right. The video element of our industry the last couple years has been crazy, because it is a place where you do get high advertising revenue, but nobody really knows who’s watching videos. We don’t have standards for what is a view. There’s a lot of repetitive content going on there. There’s a lot of strange traffic-generation schemes going on in the background. There’s Facebook’s weird relationship where they pay publishers and then pull out. It’s kind of the Wild West right now, and it will settle and we’ll figure it out a little bit better, but it’s a bit crazy right now.
I’m old, so I don’t know anyone who says, “I want to go watch some video on Facebook.” Maybe people do do that, maybe that is satisfying, but it seems like the version … the video that was dominating Facebook was not what people really wanted, it was the way Facebook had constructed its system to deliver videos. Well, they’ll change it.
They’re trying to change that, though. They are trying to have it be more like YouTube, where you do go to YouTube and start bouncing around.
Right. So related to that, every six, nine months, Facebook says, “Here’s a new thing we think is really important.” It’s live video, it’s Facebook Watch, it’s the most recent thing, and you can go back, and every six or nine months, here’s a new initiative we think is really important, we want to work with publishers. Over the years, they got smarter about going and talking to the publishers in advance, and what kind of terms would you like, and we’ll write you a check.
Over the last two years.
Two years. But each time they did it, it required the publishers that participated to say, “All right, we’ll try that, and we’ll dedicate some amount of time and resources. We might hire people to do this.” As someone who runs a magazine, as someone who runs a publishing business, how do you feel about responding to those new initiatives? I don’t think those are gonna stop, just because Facebook is turning something off.
They’re not gonna stop. You deal with them from Facebook, you deal with them from Snapchat, you deal with them from YouTube. All of the tech platforms will create new initiatives, and they’ll come to the high-end publishers and say, “We’d like you to be a partner.” And sometimes there’ll be terms where they will pay you for the cost it takes to get going on that particular initiative. It’s really complicated and you have to weigh a bunch of factors. You weigh, “Do we think this will work?” If Facebook comes to you, you know it will work, because you know the audience is there.
You would know it’ll work short-term.
You know it will work short-term, yes. And if Facebook says it’s gonna work short-term, it’s gonna work short-term, because they can jigger …
And say, “Look, everyone likes watching live video.”
Right, a new platform that you haven’t heard of comes and says it, you’re not as confident. So that’s one factor you weigh. You also then weigh, “Okay, well, is the content we’re gonna have to create to match what you want to create gonna be something we’re proud of?” And that’s not necessarily the case with Facebook. That’s one you have to weigh a little harder, at least that’s one I’ve had to weigh a little harder, in my experience. And then you figure out, can we monetize it long-run? Because you don’t want to be in a situation where you have a revenue guarantee for a short period of time, but then the revenue guarantee goes away, you’ve hired all these people and you’re stuck. And that happens all the time.
One of the things I think about and wonder about is whether, in five years, we’re gonna have a situation where the tech platforms are just paying the publishers, right? Because all the other revenue models have gone away if advertising is low, and the tech platforms have grown and grown and grown. And they come to the realization that it’s better for them, as citizens in this country and as places where people get their information, if there’s good information. And they’re not gonna want to create that information. So then are they gonna just offer us money? And that would be so strange.
Just put you on a stipend.
Basically make the media in the United States, and that’s not state-owned media, but it’s technology-platform-owned media, and that’s the direction we’re kinda heading in. And it’s frightening, and weird.
And they don’t want it.
They don’t want it, but they’re talking about it. They’re thinking about it.
They’re super apprehensive about it, right? Every time there’s an editorial question, they get freaked out. I think that they really do believe that things work best when you open up the internet and let people do what they want, and that will get you to the correct answer.
Well, but that’s partially their current view, and it is certainly their old view. But let’s look at Facebook and fact-checking. So Facebook had a crisis, after the election, and realized that they want to be able to at least somewhat fact-check the news. They’re not gonna hire fact-checkers.
But they didn’t want to fact-check.
Right. But they paid the fact-checking organizations, right? Or they effectively did, setting up partnerships with them. So what if you get to the point where it’s not fact-checking they want?
And then they stopped.
And then they stopped. So what if you get to the point where it’s not fact checking that they want, it’s actual news and analysis that they want, and they feel like there’s not enough of.
I think many of them are so petrified of … In addition to every other problem they deal with, then being held to account for paying for this story, for this thing, for promulgating this view. You saw they tied themselves up in knots when they were accused of favoring liberal media in their Trending thing. That’s not really true, but they spent months having to deny it and explain that they had conservatives who worked at Facebook. Yeah, and by the way, then they talk about buying rights for cricket, so they go in and out of content.
They go in and out of content. It’s a … I don’t know where we’ll be in five years, but I’m very interested, if the economic trends continue the way they’re going, if Facebook’s evolution of the way it thinks continues in the way it’s going, I’m a participant, but I’m also a curious observer, and also somebody who’s a little bit scared.
Let’s turn this back to Wired a little bit. So whenever I have a magazine person on this podcast, I have a bunch, I always ask my version of this question, which is why are you making a magazine in 2018, or whatever year we’re talking in? Because of Facebook, because of Twitter, I have an unlimited smorgasbord of stories. Great stuff. I can pay for it, I can not pay for it, I can assemble it how I want, I can have my friends put it together. Because normally someone says it’s the curation, we curate this stuff, but that seems less and less useful to me, as a consumer.
Yeah. I still love having a magazine. And I did at the New Yorker, and I do at Wired now. Why? Isn’t that old school? A couple things. One, the U.S. postal service has a really good delivery platform right now, and they will deliver it to 800,000 people every month, and they’ll get it at their front door, and they will open their mail, and they will see this magazine, right? And it turns out that on the internet, obviously, if you get lucky, you can reach more than 800,000 people. You can have stories that pop, but you can also put out really good stuff that’s seen by nobody because it doesn’t actually work in the algorithms. So having a distribution mechanism that gets it to 800,000 doorsteps is good. So that’s starting point No. 1.
No. 2, it’s a format that people like. We love our phones, we love our computers, but actually having a physical thing with you, there’s still some value. It’s demographically shifting. To people over 50, that format is more valuable, more comfortable. To people under 20, they don’t even know what it is.
I mean, you’ve rode the F train for a long time, right? Oh, a subway in New York, and you saw newspapers and magazines disappear from that commute, and that’s a generally well-heeled group of people who read a lot of stuff. And they’re no longer reading bound objects, or printed objects.
Yeah, so you have a diminishing demographic that sees it as a valuable thing, right? But it is not zero, right? It is still substantial. So No. 1, thank god for the U.S. postal service. No. 2 two it is still a format that people like.
No. 3 — and this is the most complicated one, particularly when it comes to complicated, long-form storytelling. There is something about the process of creating a magazine version of a story, being limited in time because there’s a real deadline. Being limited in space because you have a certain number of pages. Being limited in all the ways you’re limited that makes the stuff better, usually, right? Sometimes, having no constraints makes you create something better, and sometimes actually having constraints make you do something better.
The story has to be 8,000 words.
Right, or this interview has to be 30 minutes, so you’re gonna get through all the important questions, and it’ll actually be better for the readers. Or you could say we’re gonna talk forever, and maybe that interview will be better. But there is something about having the physical magazine that creates, in general, better work. Right now, I also helped found the Atavist, we do long-form with much slacker deadlines and much slacker constraints and I’m very happy with it, but there is something about the magazine that leads to consistently excellent and terrific long-form.
So postal service, physical thing, destination every month, reminder of Wired, the magazine, the beautiful photography you can put into it, the design you can put into it, and the fact that you can package it. So I’m sitting here and I’ve got an issue in front of me. It’s called The Golden Age of Free Speech.
I’m nodding my head, I can see it.
You can see it, I hope … listeners, can you see it?
It’s an arresting visual.
It’s an arresting visual, with sort of a decaying text, rusted text that says, “Golden Age of Free Speech.” And we put together five pretty great essays, five absolutely great essays on what free speech means in the digital era. Great writers.
And this goes back to your curation point. There is something about being able to read those five essays one after the other and to look at them in the same physical object, like a book — call the magazine the book — that has real value. So will Wired still be putting out a magazine in 10 years? I don’t know. Because obviously some of the things I’ve talked about, those trends are only gonna continue. Will Wired still be putting out a magazine in a year? Yeah, absolutely.
So you have one of these increasingly rare jobs, right? “I am the editor of a big, well known publication” that still commands interest and respect and generates enough money to pay your salary and many other people. You get the job a year ago, you want to put you stamp on the property. Radhika Jones is gonna do this at Vanity Fair over the next year or so. In addition to the paywall, you’ve got, you can hold the magazine up, what did you want to do with the magazine that would separate it from Scott Dadich? It’s Dadich, or Dadich?
Dadich. From his tenure. And presumably you did want to do something, just for no other reason than to say, “This is how I think the magazine should look, or be.”
Yeah, it’s a complicated question, in part because I don’t know what the answer is. So it’s different from sometimes when editors come in and want to completely reinvent something, because I had worked at Wired, prior to the New Yorker, for five years. I had worked under Chris Anderson. I had, in fact, worked with Scott. So I was part of the continuum that led to Wired, and I was a big fan of Wired. And many of my friends made Wired.
So it wasn’t like I came in and was like, “I am here and everything you’ve done up to this moment is garbage, and now we shall do it a different way.” It was more, I came in, I’ve got a different set of interests, I’ve got a different set of skills, and I said, “Okay, let’s start doing things this way, instead of that way.” Obviously, you replace Scott Dadich — brilliant, many-award-winning designer, also very smart thinker …
He came up as a design slash tech … he was a design guy, became a design slash technology guy, then was editing Wired.
Yeah. Design, technology, product, so he was … he worked on all aspects of the magazine, but he had particular experience in that area. I come up, having been a senior editor at Wired doing features, a senior editor at the New Yorker doing features, and then digital and product. Obviously I’ve got a different background, so I’m gonna be putting a little bit more of my focus in the style of the features, the way the feature well is put together, whether we can do digital features online, so there were some changes. I think there was a very deliberate effort to kind of pull the magazine a little bit more back to its roots, focus on core technology, focus on …
To its roots from … pulling away from …
So you take a magazine like Wired, and you can either have it be … it can be a magazine where it says technology has been integrated into all elements of life, let’s focus on the most interesting elements of life and how technology affects them. Or you can say Wired is a magazine that has kind of looked for the edge of where technology is, and kind of the craziest questions and the experimenters, and let’s write about them. And they’re not two completely different magazines.
You’d never want it to be all one or all the other, but I think there has been a shift, or I have tried for there to be a shift, to have it be more of the latter one, the people on the edge, sort of the strange technology, the deep in Silicon Valley, which is what the magazine came out of. Which isn’t a critique of where it was before I came in, it’s just been the prioritization that we’ve had.
Right. It was a particularly nerdy magazine when it came out, right?
I want to make it nerdier.
You want to nerd it up a bit?
Nerd it up. So we’ve been doing that. But I mean, you look at this issue, right? So the Golden Age of Free Speech, that’s not a nerd issue, but it’s a really complicated tech issue. So how does …
You also don’t have a famous person with a gag over their mouth, which is, I think, how people would have expected Scott Dadich’s magazine to look a year ago if he was tackling that subject.
We don’t have … I mean, one difference is there aren’t a lot of people on the cover, right? I haven’t assigned any covers that have people on it. There was one, a “Blade Runner” cover, which I was delighted by, which we had assigned before I started. But we don’t … it’s not a magazine where there are famous people on the cover. For better or for worse.
That’s something you can do quickly. How long do you think it takes to sort of incubate your version of a magazine? Is that something you have done in a year, or is that another year before it’s your thing?
Yeah, so back to the original question. My philosophy on how to work and my life philosophy, for better or worse, is something you learn at the New Yorker, where if you watch the leadership of the New Yorker, there’s never a moment where they’re like, “You know what? We should be something different, or we should tear it up, or we should do …”
They come in every morning, and they’re like, “We’re gonna make the best darn thing we can do today, and we’re gonna try to do it a little better than we did yesterday.” Right? And it’s never said explicitly. Like David doesn’t sit there in the lotus position and say, “We shall be 1 percent better today than we were yesterday,” but you watch, and that’s the way the people work, right?
And they don’t go off on retreats and come back with big ideas and shake it up. They come in every day and they do their best. And that’s sort of the philosophy I try to follow at Wired, where we do special issues, we do big things, but really the focus is let’s try to be better today than we were yesterday. Let’s try to find better stories, let’s edit them better, let’s find better art, let’s put it together better. But we haven’t done a series of radical things where we’ve torn it up and we’ve stayed up all night. The hope is that it will just be consistently good and consistently better.
Optimistic … but you know, actually, okay, here’s, this … optimism is the other really complicated thing for me. And for Wired. So the founding principle of Wired was that it would be optimistic, right? That, in general, the future is getting better because of technology.
Technology is gonna make the future better, the internet is gonna make the Is gonna make the world better.
Change is good.
This is all great.
Right. We report from a country west of California called the future, and it’s awesome, right? And I like that. And I liked working under Chris Anderson, where that was totally the philosophy. But in 2017, you can’t have a clear-eyed look at the effect of technology in society and completely believe that anymore, at least I don’t think you can.
Even in 2018.
2018, yeah, where are we?
I know, I know.
I mean who knows, in 2019. So that’s been a hard thing, because it’s not as though I’m a pessimist. In general, technology is definitely making the world a better place. I love my phone, right? I love all the technology coming in. I’m incredibly excited about AI. I think the concerns about X, Y and Z are mostly …
And if you think about technology in the future, you’re comfortable in various points with the idea that there are bad effects of technology. There’s lots of science fiction where we think, “Oh, look what has happened. That is bad,” right? There’s a lot of “Twilight Zone,” a lot of … “Black Mirror” takes it to an extreme.
That’s a well-worn path. But Wired was always like, “It’s generally gonna be great!” There might be some killer robots …
Might be some killer robots, might be nanobots.
… also some cool laser beams that will defeat the killer robots.
Yeah. And we still have a lot of that, right? We still have stories where we say, “Here’s something great that’s coming,” or we are generally much more optimistic about, I don’t know, AI, genetic engineering, robotics, all the things that people freak out about.
By the way, you have to convince someone to pay for this, so it can’t be overwhelmingly negative, and you also want advertisers to come hang out, so it can’t be total despair, right? They’ve got to sell a watch, or a high-end liquor.
Yeah, those factors are true, but we try not to … you hope that you settle on the editorial vision without worrying about those particular factors, while you do it.
No one’s gonna have a dystopian Wired pop-up store in Soho, right? That’s not an attractive feature for Samsung.
Probably Samsung would be less interested in the dystopia store. But so what we try to do is take a clear-eyed look at the hardest issues that are in the world of technology. So we are people who love tech, people who are interested in tech, people who are not scared of tech, looking at the hardest issues in tech, and that’s what this issue on the golden age of free speech is, where there are really hard questions about free speech. Because in some ways this is the era of free speech: Anybody can say anything. But on the other hand, no one will hear it unless the Facebook algorithm blasts it out to them. So you have …
And also, by the way, what they might want to say might be reprehensible, and we’ve all — and again, I talk about this a bunch — for a long time, I think everyone in technology, a lot of people in technology sort of assume that if you have more of it, things overall get better. If you offer the internet to more people in more parts of the world, generally those parts of the world will get better. It turns out, not necessarily.
Right, so this is the other interesting thing about optimism. It’s not just a clear-eyed view of the world leads you to a less optimistic position. It’s that a clear-eyed view of the world recognizes that the early optimism actually created some of the problems we have today. And that’s exactly what you talked about, right?
So the founders of Twitter speak about this very eloquently — or Ev speaks about it very eloquently — where it’s … they just assumed that people would be nice even if they were able to create accounts with eggs and say whatever they want and comment on anybody’s post and re-share anybody’s post. So they built in all of these features to maximize free speech, to maximize openness, to maximize anonymity, because they thought that human nature was something that it’s not. And so they created the system, it has all these problems, now they’re trying to unwind it.
But that is, in a nutshell, it describes one of the challenges for Wired, which is we used to have that view that Ev had, and Jack Dorsey had, when they set it up, and now we have a different view. And we’re not dystopian, we’re not critical, we’re not negative, but we’re serious, and we’re clear-eyed.
Clear-eyed optimists. Can we describe Wired magazine as the home for clear-eyed optimism?
Go for it. We’re thinking about … I mean, that’s a good slogan. Let’s go with that.
Let’s end there. That is a good place to end. Shall we?
Well there is one, you know …
You’ve got a coda? Go for it.
I sometimes joke, but the old slogan was “Wired is where the future is realized,” and I sometimes joke that I want it to be “where the future is realized and the present is fixed.”
You got the last word. Thanks, Nick Thompson.
Thank you, Peter, that was really fun.
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