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Dec. 19, 2014, 2:10 a.m.

What does it mean to run “product” in a news organization? Hayley Nelson’s big challenge at Wired

Wired hired Nelson as director of product management almost two years ago; soon, she’ll launch a major redesign for the magazine.

f there’s a news outlet you would expect to be ahead of the curve in digital media, it might be Wired. The San Francisco-based magazine of technology has been at it longer than just about anyone; it launched back in 1994, with completely different content from the print magazine. Its creators, whose efforts were chronicled by Kyle Vanhemert on the occasion of the site’s 20th anniversary, were among the first to try and shape what a successful digital news business might look like.

But the path from here to there hasn’t been particularly straightforward. HotWired, or Wired Digital, was sold to Lycos in 1999. There, it became Wired News but was otherwise largely abandoned until Condé Nast, which already owned the print magazine, bought it in 2006. After that, the magazine’s digital presence gradually advanced, with the website continuing to be run as a separate entity with a separate staff working in a different part of the building.

In 2012, boy-wonder Scott Dadich became editor-in-chief of the magazine. The following year, Dadich hired the magazine’s first ever director of product management, Hayley Nelson.

“There was no product organization when I got here. They didn’t really know what product meant,” says Nelson. “That’s the product manager’s legacy — you’re always evangelizing. ‘Here’s what I do! I’m at this unique intersection between tech and sales and edit. I try to triangulate and listen to what everyone wants to do and make it all go forward.’”

Nelson had worked for Wired before, back when the magazine had only been around for a couple of years. Eventually, her career — with stops at Wharton, Johns Hopkins, the Associated Press, AIG, and more — took her to The New York Times, where she worked in product management for seven years on projects like building out business and technology verticals and merging the International Herald Tribune with the Times. It was also there that she met Chris Jones, now vice president of product development at Condé Nast, who ultimately convinced Nelson to make the move back to Wired.

Understanding what product management really is can be a challenge for journalists:

Which is why when I met with Nelson in Wired’s office in San Francisco, I asked her to explain to me the day-to-day experience of what a product manager actually does.

Breaking free of “the print-digital paradigm”

Nelson was brought on at Wired to facilitate the integration of the digital and print sides of the magazine, a job that has been both gradual and complicated. Her first task, though, was to build a team that could execute the project. It’s no small thing to hire developers and designers in the Bay Area when you’re a media company who can’t hope to compete with the salary offerings of tech companies.

“When I got the job, I sort of said, well, I need a project manager. And we need a web producer. And we need production people that report to the web producer. And let me look at the tech team — do we have the right skill sets? I don’t think so, we need four more people,” Nelson says. “So over two years, we’ve gone from four to eight and a change in leadership and brought in a lot of new talent.”

Retaining that talent is also a challenge, one which Nelson tries to incorporate into her management strategy. For example, Nelson promoted lead engineer Kathleen Vignos to software management engineer. Since then, Vignos has played an increasingly important role in shaping the culture of Wired’s tech team, instituting magazine-wide demos of new products that Nelson says have made the editorial team increasingly supportive of and excited about the work being done by their developer peers.

One shift at Wired that was already underway when Nelson arrived was changes to the newsroom seating chart. Digital and print editorial teams are no longer siloed, but sit together, and all are overseen by Dadich as editor-in-chief. In addition, some of the bigger names on the print masthead — Mark Robinson, Adam Rogers — have been tapped to work on digital projects.

“We put the people that do the web production of the magazine and some of the front-end design together with the art people from the magazine, for example,” says Nelson. “They stopped having their daily meetings at the same time, so they could go to each other’s meetings.”

But as personnel issues have started to resolve, merging print and digital content has been trickier. Like all publications making this transition, Wired has to deal with scheduling incompatibility of a print magazine that’s published once a month and a website that publishes new stories every day.

Recently, certain writers have found new ways to work around these disparities. For example, senior staff writer Mat Honan (who just left Wired to run BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau) was among the first at Wired to experiment with publishing early reporting online, and then producing a cleaned-up version of the same story to be published in print later on.

“It’s a lot of hard work to juggle both, and to move at two very different paces,” he says. “I think we could do a better job with figuring out who is doing what and when, so people don’t get crushed with concurrent print and web deadlines. Calendaring remains very hard.”

Honan says that while he considers himself equally part of the web and print teams, editors still tend to think of themselves as having more of a distinction in terms of medium. For Nelson, that’s one of the few remaining distinctions she’d like to see erased.

“If we’re going to be organized by vertical on the digital side, maybe those editors oversee the vertical coverage across all the platforms. That would be a sort of an end goal,” says Nelson. “I think eventually we want to break free of this print/digital paradigm, and it’s just going to be about content, streams of content.”

For the time being, most of Wired’s print content is available online for free, but not all of it translates well to the web, which could eventually mean killing some print features.

Nelson says she’s been closely watching how The New Yorker has dealt with its paywall and integration. This summer, that magazine unveiled a much applauded redesign of its website. The overhaul included both technical and design updates, and brought with it a temporary lifting of the magazine’s paywall. The magazine used the free period as an opportunity to track reader behavior, mainly with the intent of measuring how many stories the average visitor reads in a month. This data was used to develop the rules for The New Yorker’s metered paywall, which went into effect in November.

These strategic developments have been widely perceived as a success for the magazine. Traffic to the homepage continued to grow the day the new paywall launched. Fast Company published a story headlined “How the New Yorker finally figured out the Internet.” In an interview in October, David Remnick credited in part the “the people who own the joint” — Condé Nast — for the magazine’s continued business and editorial success.

“There’s product people in place at every [Condé Nast] title, so we do a lot of sharing — are you guys experimenting with this? are you using that tool? have you spoken to this vendor? There’s a lot of shared learnings across the titles,” she says.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wired followed in The New Yorker’s footsteps, launching a metered paywall after its next redesign, which Nelson says is currently slated for completion sometime in the first half of 2015. But for Nelson, the redesign has been a distant goal in the face of much more immediate problems for the magazine.

Managing with agility

“When I got the job, Scott basically said: So, where do we start? I kind of looked at the website…and said, low hanging fruit? You need to refresh your mobile experience and redo your gallery experience, because it’s just abominable. Like, embarrassing,” she says. “The other big thing in Year 1 that we did is moving from 17 different blog installs to one, which is this massive back-end project that we called Pangea.”

Since the days of HotWired, the magazine’s digital identity had splintered into lots of different “sub-brands,” many of which lived in different templates on the Wired Digital backend. Migrating all of that content onto an interoperable CMS — WordPress, in this case — was a major headache. But it also highlighted some particular issues with Wired’s brand as perceived by readers.

“We’re trying to narrow the focus a little bit to our six key categories. Some of that is just gut feel. Some of it we heard in user testing, that our sub-brands weren’t testing with readers; they didn’t have names that meant something specific to readers,” Nelson says. “I don’t think we have all the answers about that.”

For now, Nelson says she tackles problems by dividing them into categories of immediate, weekly, and long-term projects. Immediate issues are when the site breaks — bugs that need to be dealt with, general maintenance, messed-up code, etc. Projects on the weekly scale are discussed on Mondays; the team uses Trello software for project management. Every day at noon, there’s a standup meeting to discuss progress.

Nelson’s title puts her “firmly in technology” at Wired and, indeed, her management style is derived from agile management, a product of the software industry. But as a director of product management, her role is very much about being the touchpoint between all parts of the magazine. At The New York Times, she spent more time in the newsroom, which makes her comfortable interacting with Wired editorial, while her background in business (she has an MBA from Wharton) makes her at home when talking to consumer sales.

For Condé titles, sales is centralized in New York, but each property sells differently. Though there were struggles moving print inventory a few years ago, Nelson says Wired’s digital ad sales have always been at the front of the pack. “We have been the most successful with digital advertising at the company, partly because we’re more native to the space — tech advertisers were there first before fashion and beauty,” she says. Video ads, too, came to Wired’s advertisers before other Condé Nast brands like Vogue, Allure, or GQ.

It didn’t hurt that in 2013, Wired launched Amplifi, a studio that creates custom digital campaigns, videos, micro sites and events for brands. The magazine also offers ad units that can be tied to stories that are trending on social media, according to Nelson.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 4.10.12 PM

Another development in ad tech that’s influenced the magazine is viewability, a developing standard which says at least 50 percent of an ad needs to be visible for at least one second for it to be counted as an impression. What it will look like in practice: fewer ads in the right rail, and more ads interspersed throughout long stories that come into view as the reader scrolls. Expanding these efforts will factor into Nelson’s most ambitious effort at Wired so far — the redesign.

“The whole shebang”

As with many recent digital overhauls, the most important and ambitious thing about the new Wired site will be its responsive design. Unlike some leading websites, such as BuzzFeed, the majority of Wired’s traffic still comes through desktop. Most audience growth, however, is coming from mobile, and the site has been tested extensively on mobile devices. “We can’t roll that out in chunks — it’s sort of the whole shebang,” says Nelson. “It’s a massive project.”

In addition to designing and building a site ready to be viewed on all platforms, Nelson says her team has also been working to make the new site more visually rich, taking advantage of the extensive photo resources Wired has so long been known for in print. The new Wired also aims to offer better content recommendation for readers.

“We don’t actually do user authentication on the site right now. It’s actually something that’s in our road map for next year,” Nelson says. “That’s what will power future personalization on the site.”

Tagging content will allow Nelson’s team to collect data on what users have and haven’t read, and what content they seek out. Incorporating this behavioral information into the backend of the new site will make it easier to build an experience that caters to readers’ individual needs. Nelson is especially interested in finding ways to segment readers on a more granular level than existing categories allow for. “I think there are a lot more buckets than the social user, the searcher, the loyal fan,” she says.

Design-wise, the Wired team is taking inspiration from across and beyond the media industry. Nelson says her team looked at Fast Company as well as non-journalistic sites like Google and Pinterest as potential models. Wired considers The Verge a top competitor in terms of rate of production, traffic, and video content, but Nelson says they’re not huge fans of the Vox Media site’s square-heavy, multicolored design. For a taste of what a sleek, reimagined Wired might look like, check out their “Space. Time. Dimension.” package, guest edited by Interstellar director Christopher Nolan. Readers can now sign up to beta test the redesigned website.

The bubble and beyond

Nelson, her team, and everyone at Wired have a lot of work ahead of them before the magazine’s digital brand catches up with the competition out in Silicon Valley. After all, what some consider a tech journalism bubble — Pando, Recode, BuzzFeed San Francisco, Vice’s Motherboard, Medium’s Backchannel, The Information, etc. — has been swelling for a while now, and Wired has some catching up to do.

It’s unclear whether that will happen under Condé. The Awl published a story earlier this month in which the editors reported that Scott Dadich, the editor-in-chief, might be trying to buy the magazine.

It would require many millions of dollars, obviously, but that’s nothing for a few venture capitalists in these Golden Days of the Content Bubble, especially for the Valley’s longstanding Magazine of Record. (How would it make money for its investors? The Wired conference business has never been as glittering as All Things D or The Atlantic‘s, but that could always change. And the Wired Store is just one of its infinite #branding opportunities.) The fifty-million-dollarish question: Would Condé let it go?

For her part, Nelson says headquarters has been relatively helpful when it comes to Wired trying new things, like a different email vendor or content management system. “I’m very much into the test-and-learn — let’s try different things and see what we get out of them,” she says. “And I think, for the most part, corporate has been really supportive of that.”

But there’s no doubt that for someone managing a media tech team — in which the name of the game is rapid iteration and competitors like Vox have what seem like endless technical resources — reporting to a century-old magazine publishing company could be frustrating. Whatever the future of Wired’s ownership, Nelson has her work cut out for her.

Image by Richard Giles used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 19, 2014, 2:10 a.m.
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