I always considered Wired as the most inventive magazine of our time. It is always interesting, sharp, and fun to read. And its journalistic grasp is wide. Stories can be quite nerdy, which is fine since they are always carefully edited to remain readable by “the rest of them”. At times, editorial choices look not wired but weird when the magazine runs a story about a team of ship salvagers or profiles the structural engineer that built the Burj Dubai skyscraper. For having met the original founders of Wired, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, back in 1993, I thought the magazine was still run by a kind of instinctive, passion-driven journalism consistent with the early days’ DNA. I was wrong.
Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief, runs Wired on left-brain side. I visited him few weeks ago in San Francisco. The original HQ of the magazine remains the same, in the (former) industrial district of the city, where buildings have still high-ceiling and cinders-blocks walls. Anderson’s office is not filled with journalistic personal memorabilia, it’s all about data, charts, graphs on the walls and market reports on his desk and table. The guy is a data freak. “If I had the opportunity to run this magazine the same [quant] way as a hedge fund, I would do it without hesitation”, he tells me. Anderson’s editorial decisions are fact based. Months before an edition of Wired hits the streets, story pitches are circulated among staff members. They rank each project by vote. A passionate discussion ensues, in which Chris and his close staff will argue to include a pitch that ranked poorly or will kill a story they consider irrelevant. Once the table of content is set, three possible covers stories are market tested with various headline, graphics, etc on no less than 6000 panelists. In the background, Wired also relies on tons of surveys performed by the incredible sharp research department of Condé Nast, the magazine’s publisher. Each month, Anderson receives five centimeters of analysis of previous issue: story-by-story analysis, time spent by the readers, appreciation of content, length, graphic environment (very important).
This analytic approach to journalism has a lot to do with Chris Anderson professional background. He is a trained physicist who has worked in Los Alamos National Laboratory, before jumping into scientific journalism in Nature and Science. Then, he spent seven years at the Economist in London, Hong Kong and New York, as a tech editor and finally as the US bureau chief. (Anderson coined the term “long tail” — he even registered the brand, he’s now working on a book about the free economy). How does that translate into business? Well, Condé Nast is privately held company and does not releases figures. Wired is grossing about $50m, for a unknown profit (if any). But it is a hell of a brand — that allows other Wired Media entities to do very well. Today, Wired remains the perfect example of how a well crafted print product can make dollars and sense, even though it is a virtually free — a subscription costs $10 a year on the US market and its content is fully available online.