Wiredlings Fiercely Debate Whether Their Bible Will Die

Last Updated May 20, 2009 10:46 PM EDT

At the center of a parallel, palpable universe that emerged in the mid-1990s, sits Wired Magazine, as well as its blood child Wired News, though the latter no longer loads in your browser as it was meant to load.

(Before I continue, I should issue all sorts of disclosures. First and foremost, I was one of the people intimately involved with the events at Wired in the years 1995-97 that lie at the root of what is playing out before our eyes today. Very little of what I know has been published in the various accounts of that period, all of which are, in my view, woefully incomplete.)
As background reading tonight, please visit BoingBoing's ongoing discussion on the future of Wired.
There are all sorts of wonderful, soul-searching comments here, including those from Chris Anderson, current editor of Wired magazine, and Leander Kahney, who until recently was the editor of wired.com, plus Steve Silberman, one of the few writers who bridged both the off and online versions of the brand with many wonderful pieces, as well as several Wired bloggers, several Wired magazine writers, and a random assortment of others, some of whom, as is always the case in such threads, do not now and never have had a clue about what actually happened or what now is likely to happen next.

The essential fear underlying the present debate over at BoingBoing is that Wired may be on the verge of going out of business. The factual basis underlying this fear is that the magazine lost 50 percent of its advertising revenue last year.

Regular readers of this blog have known that much for a while. But I do not expect Wired to fold, and here's why. The Wired brand itself remains strong, from the perspective of the executives who will decide these things. Most of Wired's problems reside squarely inside its owner, Conde Nast's headquarters, where an incredibly clueless set of executives have made bad decision after bad decision ever since they acquired the print magazine, starting with allowing the online properties we'd developed back in the day to be acquired by one of the worst collections of thugs and hustlers in the web 1.0 era, Lycos, in 1998.

The good news is that some of them have since recognized that error.

It was at the precise moment early in 1998 when the biforcation of the brand occurred that all of the problems being sorted out so painfully and publicly by this younger set now were pre-determined. I had personally waged the battle to integrate the online and offline brands at the time when I was the only person who could have done so. It was not easy to convince my boss, Louis Rossetto, to yield the wired.com url to Wired News, but Louis, to his enduring credit, did so.

It was the right decision then, as it is now, because Wired News (note to comment list, insert "blogs") was and is the best potential expression of the Wired brand online. In recent years, Conde Nast has finally re-acquired the online half of the Wired brand, but it has not yet managed to restore Wired Digital to its proper position as the brand's leading edge. (And that failure is what is inspiring the current debate.)

After all, a monthly magazine could not in 1998 and cannot now compete with the 24-7 news stream online, and it shouldn't even try to. What the magazine can do (and in this case, does) provide, is in-depth analysis and the lovely esthetic pleasure of a well-designed and sensual print reading experience.

In wiser hands, and under stronger creative management, these different products could co-exist, and complement each other without all of the harsh resentments so nakedly visible in the comment streams referenced above, but which were also just as painfully obvious over a decade ago back when I was on the scene.

These are the classic symptoms of a dying business model (print) facing head-on an immature business model (the web), when neither has the chops to make it without the other. My only further comment at this point is that both had better take notice of how they will migrate their rather pedestrian debate to the mobile platform, which before long, will render this entire conversation as dated as fishwrap.

(Note: Thanks to my colleague David Hamilton, for alerting me to the BB debate.)
  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.

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