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Feb. 24, 2017, 9 a.m.
Business Models

With truth and science under attack, Wired’s new editor Nick Thompson is planning a defense

“Wired is doing well, but this industry changes so fast that you have to be on top of all these opportunities and you have to look at ways you can evolve while staying core to what you really believe.”

How does Wired look in the Trump era, when facts and science have become contested ground? A lot more like itself, says Nick Thompson, the magazine’s new editor.

“Wired believes in scientific rigor. Wired believes in truth. Wired believes in math and approaching things in a scientific way,” said Thompson, who rejoined the magazine from The New Yorker last month. (He was last there as senior editor in 2010.) “I want us to focus on all of those things, but I also want us to study things like fake news, because that deals with technology and how people relate to truth and understanding.”

Those are big ideas, but Thompson has already made some smaller changes to Wired as well. Homepage bylines, a casualty of a recent redesign, have returned; the print magazine has lost its jump pages so articles are easier to read; and Wired’s audience engagement team is pushing out more content on every platform, including Snapchat.

I spoke to Thompson about his vision for Wired, the magazine’s role in a competitive, evolving tech media scene, and how the magazine will cover truth and science.

Ricardo Bilton: You were last at Wired in 2010. How does it feel to be back there now?

Nick Thompson: It feels great. One of the best thing about taking this job is that a lot of the people I worked closely with and admired and liked and trusted are still here. And so it’s been very easy to snap into a good working relationship with a lot of the senior people.

Bilton: I want to talk about Wired internally, but also Wired’s role overall in the tech industry. Thinking about when you were last there, seven years is a lifetime in technology years. What would say are the biggest changes to the industry and Silicon Valley since you were last there?

Thompson: A lot of it is still the same. We’re still talking about most of the same companies. The attitudes of young people are still the same. The excitement is still similar. Obviously, there are new fields. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have exploded in a way that we didn’t understand. Also, when I left it was right at the moment when the iPad was going to save journalism. [laugh] It is different. Technology moves quickly. Lots of new things have come about, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve entered a completely new era.

Bilton: One big change though is that a lot of these technology issues have become bigger societal issues. They’re more woven into the fabric of society to a degree that they weren’t before.

Thompson: One of the things about Wired, and one of the interesting complexities of this job, is that when the magazine started, it was a magazine for outsiders. It was a magazine for nerds on the outside of culture and power. Now the people who are the core subjects for Wired have a lot of power and are at the center of the culture. So the positioning of the magazine and the nature of the magazine changes. That’s one of the most important things for me to think through.

Bilton: Where are you in that thinking so far? Where do you see Wired’s role both in the tech industry, but also compared to competing technology publications?

Thompson: My sense is that Wired is a magazine about how technology is changing the world. It’s about how technology is changing politics, how it’s changing culture, how it’s changing our minds, how it’s changing work, how it’s changing the military. And I want Wired to be the best publication on those topics. When something important happens in that world, I want you to know you can come to Wired and read a great essay on it. I want you to know when you pick up an issue of Wired magazine that you’ll get the best reporting and storytelling about these issues. And I want you to know that when you’re studying something, you can look up and find an article on Wired that will be the best thing you read on the topic.

Of course, that’s way too broad for any publication, so we have to chose specialties, which are partly based on who works here, who is hired here. We have to chose our moments to really go after a particular subject. But that’s standard prioritization that editors and writers do.

Bilton:  What are the threads or topics that you think Wired should be focused on?

Thompson: Fake news and truth, for one. These things deal with a lot of topics that are core to Wired. We just posted reporting from Macedonia about the folks that write the fake news that has had such an influence on our country. The most-read story on the site today is about scientists trying to defend and make sure we have repositories of data in case the Trump administration tries to remove scientific data, which is a big fear in the scientific community.

Another area where I think we’ve done a good job, and want us to continue doing a good job on, is in digital security and privacy right now. There’s been a lot good coverage here about really important stuff about how to keep yourself safe.

Bilton: Wired’s always interesting to me because — similar, I think, to The New Yorker — it’s a magazine that readers feel ownership over. It’s the magazine that inspired a lot of people, including me, to get into journalism via writing about technology. Do feel the weight of responsibility to the brand in the same way that you felt as you tried to take the essence of The New Yorker and bring it online?

Thompson: This was indeed the core challenges at my old job and it’s one of the core challenges here. When you start, you just have a magazine, then you have a magazine and a website, and then you have a magazine, a website, and social media platforms. Then you have whatever comes next. What ties your product and what you write together is some identity — it’s something about the brand. One of my challenges every day that I’m in this job will be to think about what is Wired right now, what was Wired, and how do we help that identity move across these different platforms through all these things we create — whether its a magazine story, the design of an article, a cover, a blog post, or our Snapchat channel. Trying to understand what that thing means is crucial.

Bilton: Wired just ran an in-depth piece about how The New York Times is dealing the challenges of the media environment today. What’s a big unanswered question for you about media right now?

Thompson: The big unanswered question for everyone in this business is how to create a long-term sustainable economic model. It used to be fairly simple: You wrote a great publication that people were excited about and you sold advertising against it. And that is now a way to make some money, but it’s not really enough in most cases to build a completely sustainable model.

So what are the other components? Subscriptions. Memberships. Events. Video. Licensing. Figuring out the different places where Wired can both do great journalism and make enough money to sustain the operation — that’s a big challenge. Wired is doing well, but this industry changes so fast that you have to be on top of all these opportunities and you have to look at ways you can evolve while staying core to what you really believe.

Photo of Wired magazines by kokilduff used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 24, 2017, 9 a.m.
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