Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
WIRED has traditionally been labelled as a tech magazine, but there’s a real mix of business, culture, politics, society etc. How would you describe its positioning in a world where a lot of those lines seem to be blurring?
That’s such a good question, and it gets at the heart of what WIRED is. When WIRED started, tech was a much narrower thing. And then tech got embedded in everything, and so the way we had to think about what we cover, and what our space in the world, changed constantly. Points we thought about ourselves as, ‘Well we can write about any story we want as long as we write about the tech part of it. We can write about any company we want, as long as we write about their email server. We can write about any cultural figure we want as long we write about their digital strategy.’
There are other moments where the way we’ve thought about tech stories have been, ‘Well let’s look at problems the way engineers look at problems. Let’s look at the world the way people in tech look at the world.’
The way I try to define it, it is that WIRED is a magazine about the forces disrupting the world and changing the world. And so, what we try to do is we try to identify the most disruptive forces on our economy, on what it means to be human, and we write about that.
So, if you were to take a look at all the stories we published in the two years that I’ve been the editor, you would see for example, a lot of stories about Crispr. But not a lot of stories about basic science. And the reason we write about Crispr is because we want to write about science, but we also want to write about the parts of science that we think are changing what it means to be human, changing the way we exist in the world. So, we identify those things and then dive into them.
And you said just then that you define yourself as a magazine. What does a tech magazine look like today?
That’s a very funny question. Yes it’s true. One of the things I like to think about is that…journalism is obviously a troubled industry right now, but because we cover the forces that are destroying our industry, we are hedged. So, the faster the acceleration goes, the better our story is.
But more seriously, we publish a magazine because there are wonderful things about publishing a print magazine. There are wonderful things about the United States Postal Service, International Postal Service, getting something printed on paper that you can read, but the majority of our effort is obviously focused towards digital.
One of the great things about WIRED is that we made the digital transition that so many journalistic entities have struggled with, we made that 15 years ago. We started – 10 years ago at least – started bringing down the walls between the digital operation and the print operation.
I can remember you guys have had some quite innovative digital magazines over the years. When digital magazines were cool!
Yeah the Wired iPad edition, when the iPad came out in say 2009/2010, just killed it. It was so beautiful, so crazy, the design was amazing. Of course it was 100 megabytes, and you couldn’t put the darn thing on your iPad, and people didn’t adopt that form of magazine reading, the way that so many people -ourselves included – expected. But it was incredibly innovative, our forms of long form multimedia storytelling were also extremely innovative. So, we feel some obligation to use the most innovative tools coming from the world we cover.
Talking of a lot of your editorial angles, the thing the journalism world has known you for, particularly over the last couple of years has been these 11,000 word pieces on Facebook: ‘Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook – And The World’ with that cover of Zuckerberg with a black eye. You’ve just followed it up with ’15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook’. What drove the decision to do those two pieces?
As the Editor in Chief, I don’t have a tonne of time to write, or I shouldn’t take a tonne of time to write, but I do care a lot personally and specifically about certain issues, and I do know a decent amount personally and specifically about certain issues. And one of them is Facebook and the way the Facebook algorithm has affected the news industry, and the way the Facebook algorithm has affected democracy.
After the 2016 election, it was clear in the United States that Facebook had played a substantial role, and a very very interesting role, and that in fact, the way that Facebook had disrupted the news industry was connected to the way that they had disrupted politics. And so, I have a friend who’s on staff who I co-wrote a piece with 10 years ago and he’s still here; Fred Vogelstein. And so, he and I were kicking around how to cover Facebook, and we said ‘Well why don’t we write a big story, the two of us. We’ll split it apart and we’ll each take on different parts and talk to different people, and we’ll try to reconstruct the full story of the 2016 election and its aftermath.’ What happened leading up to the election, why was Facebook so blind to the Russian interference, to all the fake news problems, what was happening with the news industry, that fraught relationship, how did Facebook respond.
So, we wrote that piece, it came out in January 2018. And then, as people noticed, Facebook had a really interesting year even after that. Our first story was called ‘Inside the two years that shook Facebook and the world’. And so, we spent the next year watching catastrophe, chaos, excitement, frustration building, and Facebook explosions everywhere.
And of course we know all the characters because we talked to 50 people the first time around. We know everybody in executive management, we know lots of people at the lower levels of the organization, and so in about October/November, Fred and I said ‘You know, we should probably do it again’. And so I started calling, I made up a list of all of the…15 things I didn’t understand about Facebook that I wanted to try to understand. And we started asking people, and we tried to put together a chronological narrative of the 15 months from when our first story published to when our second story published.
So to the larger question of why did I do that. It’s one of the biggest stories in the world, it was something I knew a lot about. And even though I’ve got lots to do in my job, I do love writing and reporting. I did have long, far-ranging conversations with other executives without any comms officials in the room.
Do you think any of them grasp some of the problems that they’ve actually created now, rather than just trying to bat it away with PR?
Oh absolutely. I don’t think there’s any doubt that they know that they have created problems.
I mean, if I were to give them the most honest and charitable construction I can of how a senior executive at Facebook thinks, they would probably think, ‘We did make mistakes. We did prioritise growth over other values. We did resolve trade-offs in ways that weren’t the smartest. We absolutely screwed up in 2016. But at the same time, the media is totally unfair. The media doesn’t understand, the public doesn’t understand the complexity of this, and these problems are way harder than people think.’
And all of that is partially true. But I think that is genuinely the narrative that would go on in the minds of top Facebook execs.
It’s just grown almost out of control.
It’s grown almost out of control and… I was thinking about this yesterday, where one of the most interesting trade-offs that Facebook has to deal with, is the trade-off between privacy and safety. The more you prioritise privacy, the more bad things happen on your platform and maybe out in the world, but the more people’s identities are protected. The more you prioritise safety, the more the company becomes like Big Brother.
So there were two big news stories yesterday that came up in Facebook land. Number one was Facebook moving to a one-strike policy on Facebook Live streaming for people who violate their policies, which means if you post one picture that their algorithms identify as nude or hate speech, you won’t be able to post live videos. That’s a response to the Christchurch shooting, and everybody was like, that’s really good! Prioritising safety!
But it’s also kind of an issue with privacy there, and then simultaneously there’s a big debate in San Francisco about face recognition technology. My whole Twitter feed/filter bubble is totally in favour of not allowing, certainly police departments, to use facial recognition, but probably not allowing Facebook either. But again that’s a situation where you’re prioritising privacy over safety.
So the two big stories, my filter bubble are all the people inside of my filter bubble agitated…are arguing opposite sides without quite realising it. That’s the situation that Facebook is in, is that they’re often trying to prioritise between these really hard things, and they know they’re going to get slammed no matter what side they choose.
That’s not to exonerate them, because they often choose the wrong side, right. And they often choose the side that will advantage their business model, and they couch it in other terms.
But it is to say that being a tech platform with the responsibilities that they have, is hard. That’s part of the reason why I like writing about it so much is because, what’s at stake is immense and the choices aren’t easy. And anybody who thinks that choices are easy is not looking quite hard enough.
Could you ever see a future utopia where both sides are balanced, and we actually end up getting past this as a society?
Maybe. The question that I struggle with and I don’t know the answer to is, is this fixable? I think that Facebook does lots of good and society connects people in ways that are good. I think that Twitter connects people in ways that are good.
But I think that Twitter certainly has been a real harm to the way politics and democracy function. There are lots of benefits and so, could you fix it?
Could you change the algorithms, could you change the structure, or is it too late? Facebook, could you change it so that it’s unambiguously a net benefit?
I think so. I think you can change the algorithms. I think you can change the philosophy. I think you can change structures.
That comes down to the Internet itself. Could you ever get the Internet so that it’s net positive!
Yes I definitely believe. I absolutely believe that the Internet as a whole can be net positive. The question where I’m more undecided are on the platforms. Is the world better off with a different Twitter, or no Twitter? And I still feel like it’s a different Twitter. But that’s a hard one.
If we get back to those pieces themselves, what was the impact of them both in terms of metrics, and you guys and also the cultural and political impact?
So they both got certainly over a million readers, the first one’s over a couple of million. The first story was the top driver of subscriptions last year, and we drove 108,000 subscriptions with our first year with a paywall.
I mean I know the story that drove the most was our first Facebook story. There were lots of people who read them, in part because it’s the 12,000 word story about the biggest thing of the year, and as all the catastrophes happened at Facebook following our story, not because of our story, but following, our story people would link back and read our story again. So, they had a wonderful long tail. So they were terrific. This first story has had a big effect.
Now the political impact of the story…that’s hard to measure. You could say this was one of the first times that people from Facebook talked. It was one of the first big investigations in a magazine, the fact that it came in WIRED had a big influence, maybe? But you can also say the thing that really cracked the dam was the Cambridge Analytica scandal that happened two months after our story. That certainly shook up Facebook in a way nothing else did.
So, there was a lot going on at the company. It’s hard to say how much our story mattered. The thing I can say is that I do genuinely believe that if you want to understand Facebook, we’ve written the most comprehensible, clearest, chronological, easy-to-read, and fair accounts. What their influence is, is hard to measure.
You’ve recently published a piece on one year into your paywall at WIRED. Were you nervous about introducing that? Especially given the New Yorker success.
I wasn’t that nervous. So I’d worked at the New Yorker. My job had largely been about introducing a paywall, building a journalism model that would work with the paywall, working with the staff and all kinds of complexities. So, the day I came into WIRED, and the day I introduced myself to the staff, I said, we’re doing this. We set about doing it.
There is no question in my mind that paid content is extremely important for a publication like WIRED. From the day I got in the job I wanted to do it as soon as possible. So I was 100 percent confident I wanted to do it.
Was I 100 percent confident it would work? Of course not! My concerns are the same concerns anybody launching a paywall should have.
So the general concerns: will you actually lose money, right, because let’s say you lose 10 percent of your traffic. You have been monetising it at X, you lose a certain number of eyeballs, ad impressions, ad revenue, affiliate revenue, brand equity. So you lose money when you launch a paywall because it will not increase traffic, it will most likely only decrease traffic. I mean there’s some weird ways it does increase traffic – as people subscribe they feel more loyal, and maybe more obliged to read, but in general it’s going to hurt your traffic.
Two, it’s possible that people are so used to getting your content for free, it’s been offered for free for so long that there’ll be some kind of a backlash. Three, we were a little late to the paywall party, and at some point people will get subscription fatigue. And so I worried about that.
I also worry…there have been times or there have been conversations on staff where people are like, ‘Well I don’t want to write that, that’s going to just get tonnes of traffic, and not a lot of subscriptions,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s OK. Right?’ We still get the vast majority of our revenue from ad dollars. Just because we introduced a paywall doesn’t mean that 90 percent of our revenue is from consumer revenue. It is still ad dollars and we still need as many readers as we possibly can get.
You said as well that some of the pieces that drove the most subscriptions for you last year were quite a surprise.
Yes that’s true. So, one of the things I did when I was writing that essay I wrote maybe two weeks ago about our year of the paywall, I looked at all the stories that had driven the most subscriptions. And there’s no precise science on what story makes somebody subscribe because, you read a story, you think it’s great, you come back and subscribe three days later, that’s hard to track. But you approximate it.
And the stories that did it were of course, long, meaty features, that got lots of readers. Not surprising, of course those would drive subscriptions. But there were also some stories that didn’t get a lot of readers, that drove a lot of subscriptions. So, we ran this very dense piece called ‘The Genius Neuroscientists Who’ll Explain A.I.’, and it got let’s say 140,000 readers, not that many. Say it’s the 65th most read thing on the site, but generated the second most subscriptions. That’s interesting. Not that surprising though.
What was truly surprising was that we would run lists, like ’17 Best Mother Day’s Gifts’, and they’ve been good lists, and good guides, and when they were doing really well, they wouldn’t just drive people to click on the story, they would also drive people to subscribe, and it turned out that in almost every category of content, the best stuff we published drove a bunch of subscriptions. So that was actually quite heartening, and also a little surprising. Happy about that.
Oh I should say, back to the question before, what I was worried about with the paywall. The other thing that I was worried about was particular to WIRED, is that WIRED has been very much associated with the notion that content on the Internet should be free. In fact we put the word ‘free’ on our cover not that long ago, maybe eight years ago. The predecessor of my predecessor wrote a book called ‘Free’, right. We come out of the Silicon Valley counterculture libertarianism, we come out of a philosophy where people in general have thought information should be free, information should travel, don’t put any walls around your information.
So, when we launched the paywall, I was very worried that a whole bunch people who’d loved WIRED for twenty five years, were going to write to me and say, ‘You’re not only making this magazine impossible to read, you are destroying the ideals of the founders’. And that turned out just not to happen at all. In fact the founders said, ‘Oh that’s great. Smart way to do it, charge for your content, that’s important.’ And everybody seemed to understand. There’s almost no backlash against the paywall.
Well I suppose people would always pay for the print magazine. So, it’s just the same thing in a different form.
People pay for the print magazine and in fact, the founders wanted to set up a premium, highly expensive print magazine, so all was well with that. Though I did worry about it a lot.
I guess the next big challenge for you guys is getting those people to re-subscribe. So is there anything you’re doing to prepare for that?
Well we’re trying to write good stories! My view is, if they subscribe, and if they get value from it, they’ll resubscribe. And so if we do a good job, we publish lots of stories, we edit them well, if we send them our newsletters in ways that are convenient, we reach the readers where they are on their devices, or wherever they want to read them, they’ll resubscribe.
So the resubscription challenge, I think is just a ‘be good’ challenge, which is exactly the kind of challenge you want.
Conde Nast have said that they eventually want to get paywalls across all of their brands. Do you think a paywall is something that can work for every brand, or is it just specific audiences it really works for?
I think it can work for every Conde Nast brand. I don’t think it can work for every brand. If you are a traffic play, if you run like…I mean think about Forbes, which has this very lucrative contributor network. No one’s going to subscribe to the contributor network, in part because there isn’t really an identity or a style or a voice, why would you subscribe to that? But it is an extremely good business for them to be in. There are lots of places where the subscription propensity will be extremely low, but the traffic will be extremely high, and it would never make economic sense to launch a paywall.
There are other places where you can launch a paywall, set the meter extremely high, and pull in just a small number of people, but get some of the brand equity value of a paywall, and by setting the meter really high, identify an extremely core group of loyal users you can then create some sort of membership program around.
So there are all kinds of different models. The New Yorker and WIRED are the two I know best, it’s very much, ‘We’ll give you a couple of things to read, and then we’re going to hit you with the paywall pretty early on, and get you to pay for us.’ But there are all sorts of other ways to have different kinds of paywalls that can work for different publications.
Yes I suppose there are different subscriber and membership schemes as well. Quartz have just launched a paywall as well.
Yeah they have, and they have a really interesting model. So, the Quartz model is this combination where there’s both a meter, and there’s some content that is only available to subscribers. That was the big debate we had at the New Yorker, which is should you gate some content, or should you put a meter up? And if you do put a meter up, should you count some content differently from others? Should you count a Larissa MacFarquhar feature that took nine months to write as a hundred times as much as an Andy Borowitz story that he did in seven minutes, or should you count them the same?
The advantage of counting them differently is that you put more value on the thing that took more time. The advantage of doing it the same is that it’s much simpler. The reader will never understand if you weigh things differently. So, we had that debate at the New Yorker, where we had the debate at WIRED, in both cases we resolved it to the side of counting everything the same.
Quartz has done – I think it’s the first publication I’ve seen, I’m sure it’s been done by others – where it’s, ‘Let’s do both. Let’s have some content that is the most valuable content we have. And you have to pay for it to get it. But let’s also have a meter.’ I don’t know how their meter works, I think it’s a little opaque, probably deliberately.
So, that’s another interesting trade-off, which I like, right. Do you have a clear meter, so the reader understands, ‘Oh I have two stories left,’ and maybe they’re more likely to subscribe. Or do you have an opaque meter, where you actually just put the paywall down when you think they’re most likely to subscribe?
The problem with a clear thing, is that if you know you have one story left, the meter might come down on a story that you’re not likely to subscribe to, it might come down to a story you just clicked into through Google that isn’t a really high value story, and you really want the meter to come down on the Genius Neuroscientists Who Explain A.I. story. If you have an opaque meter, you can bring it down on the stories where people are going to have the strongest likelihood of subscribing, if you have a clear meter it’s just going to come down when it comes down.
So, that’s another interesting trade-off.
I suppose you’ve got some of those A.I. paywalls that are coming in now that it varies for each person as to when they’re most likely to subscribe.
Yeah that’s exactly what I would like. So my dream would be a paywall that can identify as much information about the reader as possible. Not just about the reader, but about their likelihood of subscribing.
So, are they in a place where they actually have some time? A reader on the subway is never going to subscribe because you have no time, and you might lose your Internet connection, you never going to get out your credit card number. A reader on a mobile device is less likely than a reader on a desktop device. A reader who’s just come in from Google probably doesn’t even know what site they’re on, they’re probably not going to subscribe. A reader who’s come in from a newsletter who came in yesterday, really does know what site they’re on.
The story they’re reading has some effect on the propensity to subscribe. So, if you could weigh the time of day, the day of the week, all these things have some effect on your propensity to subscribe. If you could weigh all these factors, you could have a very efficient paywall, but it also…give me 30 engineers and we’ll build it.
So, what we’ve done instead is, ‘You know what, we’ll just do this simply!’
And you just mentioned about newsletters there, you said that they’re quite important in driving subscriptions. I’ve read that you were launching newsletters in all sorts of different verticals and topics?
Yeah, so we have a regular WIRED newsletter, which will say, here are the five best stories we’ve published today, but we also – in part because they do such a good job of driving subscriptions – are launching newsletters on different verticals. Here is a subscription for our gadget coverage, here is a subscription for our coverage on the Mueller report, and we hope we can segment audiences, reach new people who don’t want the daily WIRED e-mail, or who want both the daily WIRED e-mail but don’t open that but will open our Mueller Report newsletter. We’re experimenting with that, but it is definitely the case that newsletters are great for driving subscriptions.
Would you ever launch a paid newsletter?
Oh yeah definitely. If we had the right person and the right voice, if we had somebody who could write a daily newsletter that would feel essential to our readers, we would surely do that.
If you had to give one piece of advice to other publishers who might be eyeing up paywalls in the great pivot we’ve had, what would that be?
The most important curve to study, is to sudy your engagement curve, and look at the percentage of your traffic that comes from people who read the story once, look at the percent of the traffic that comes from people who read two stories a month, people who read three, and we’ll have some kind of a downward slope. But at some point the slope will start to smooth out.
So, at the New Yorker it was very clear that if you read one story, you’re probably not going to read two. If you read two, you’re probably not going to read three. If you read three, you’re probably not going to read four. But if you read four, you going to read five. If your read five you’re going to read six. You read six, you’re going to read seven. So, let’s put the paywall there.
Finding the point on your curve where the slope changes, is the right place to put a paywall.
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