Q&A: Nicholas Thompson looks to push Wired into the future by returning to radical roots

Image courtesy of Wired

Upon Nicholas Thompson’s return to Wired last month as editor in chief, one of his first actions was to bring together the magazine’s founding team, as well as former editor Chris Anderson. Over dinner at Millennium restaurant in Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge from Wired’s San Francisco offices, Thompson spoke with those who had made Wired into a vital chronicler of the early digital revolution. “I wanted to understand what Wired meant to them, how it has changed, what they think about the current Wired, what they would do,” Thompson told CJR.

Founded in 1993, Wired entered the field of technology reporting just as an embryonic internet was entering the public sphere. It quickly earned respect for its cutting-edge design, innovative technology coverage, and cultural relevancy.

Thompson, who worked as an editor at Wired from 2005 to 2010 before moving on to The New Yorker, spoke to CJR in Wired’s New York office at One World Trade Center. He discussed the importance of defending truth in the age of Trump, the “geeky” design changes he’s already instituted, and his plans to push Wired forward while also returning to the magazine’s radical roots. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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You’re returning to Wired after several years away, so I wanted to ask about your understanding of the magazine’s legacy. You recently had dinner with the some of the founders? (Co-founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe; founding Creative Designers John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhn; founding Executive Editor Kevin Kelly; and former Editor in Chief Chris Anderson.)

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Yeah. They have really smart ideas about how to make the magazine interesting and wonderful. Obviously what the magazine needs to be has changed because the world has changed, the way magazines work has changed, the way social media work has changed, and the role of the tech industry has changed. When they started it, [they were covering] a bunch of nerds on the outside; now it’s the people who dominate the world.

I left that meeting really inspired. I had always felt an emotional attachment to Wired because I remember reading it in my college dormitory in 1996. It was wonderful to get a sense of the whole magazine’s history and the love that these people have for it. I also left feeling like I have a real responsibility. It’s a responsibility to them. It’s a responsibility to the people who read the magazine at the beginning, and the people who wrote for the magazine.

What takeaways did you get from them? What throughlines exist and what does your version of Wired look like?

The thing I talked about a lot with them was optimism. That was, and has been, one of the core ideas of Wired. The view of the founders is that it’s easy to get lost in all of the negative stories about technology, and the ways technology is disrupting the economy, the people who will lose their jobs, the truck drivers who will be displaced by Uber, and the role of Facebook and Google in creating completely different sets of facts for people. All that stuff is very true.

On the other hand, technology and science continue to make the world a better place. So to not lose that core sense that the subject matter Wired is covering is subject matter that makes life better was really important to them at the beginning, and it was really important to Chris, and it was really important to Scott [Dadich], my direct predecessor.

It was also interesting that Kevin Kelly kept saying, “Push the magazine off a cliff. Make the magazine different, make it strange, do the opposite.” That’s something I’ve known, but it was good to get the founders to say don’t make it like everything else, don’t make it a slightly better version of everything else, don’t make that your goal. Make it your goal to have it be something very different.

 

When you talk about pushing Wired “off a cliff,” what does that look like? What changes do you want to bring in terms of design, content, and approach?

I don’t know where the cliff is, and I don’t know where we’re going to dive off of it. We’ll figure that out down the road, and it may be a series of smaller cliffs. At the moment, what we’re trying to do design-wise is a bunch of relatively small, relatively geeky things. We got rid of jump pages, we’re not going to have any more tiny fonts, and the philosophy of the covers will change. We’ve put bylines back on the index pages. That’s important to help people identify with writers, to identify those writers with Wired, and ultimately to help build a business model around that.

We also need to do a much better job of being a place for big ideas, possibly controversial, possibly crazy ideas. The core of Chris Anderson’s Wired [he was editor from 2001 to 2012] was a place for wild ideas about the way technology is changing the world. We need to bring that back.

Tech has become much more mainstream, so there’s nothing revolutionary about writing about Microsoft or Google. But even though those companies and those ideas are now at the core of our culture, there is an edge, and we need to find it.

 

You spent the last several years editing The New Yorker’s website. What did you learn from your experience there?

The most important thing I learned at The New Yorker website is that there’s wonderful value in aligning your business model with your editorial model. What makes most places money online is clicks. What makes The New Yorker money online is people reading a story from beginning to end, then reading another story, and reading six stories during the course of the month, deciding they love the publication, and then deciding they want to subscribe to it.

What the things you do if you want to get clicks? We all know what they are. Some of them are good and some of them are bad. What are the things you do if you want to get subscriptions? Basically they’re all good.

Having learned that lesson at The New Yorker, and taking it and applying it to Wired will work differently and will have a different kind of outcome. There will be some sort of paid content model; I don’t know what it is yet, but I will, as much as possible, work to align editorial incentives with business imperatives.

 

There’s been some criticism that tech coverage has been too tied up in the same ideals that Silicon Valley espouses, that it has been optimistic about changing the world without appreciating the costs that come with that. How do you walk that line between embracing the optimism, while also recognizing the costs of and the backlash against the tech industry?

You want to embrace the core optimism. You also want to reject the BS and conflict of interest-ism. There’s a big problem in tech journalism where writers become VCs. The lines between who is making money off this industry and who is covering this industry are often blurrier than you would like. We don’t want anything to do with that.

Then there is also the case that you absolutely want to be real. It’s very hard to be optimistic about the role that technology companies play in society after the election we just had. And whether you were for Trump or for Hillary Clinton, you should be for truth and for a common set of facts that people can agree on. The fact that we can’t agree on facts anymore despite having access to all the world’s information readily accessible is crazy.

The founders had the sense of a revolution, that technology is coming, and that it will make the world much better. Part of the role of Wired is to protect that. A whole bunch of bad things have happened, and so [our role is] to push the industry so that more good happens.

 

You mention that we are in a world in which people can’t agree on not only larger truth, but facts. How does the industry as a whole, and Wired specifically, address that?

One of Wired’s roles, which right now is more important than ever, is protecting the idea that there are facts, the idea that there are things we can agree on, and protecting science.

The President of the United States embraces things that are not true, scientifically. He does not seem to have an appreciation for the value of scientific research and scientific progress. Let’s take global warming for example. You can have lots of disagreements about whether there should be a carbon tax. You can have lots of disagreements about whether international agreements are fair. But you should also fundamentally agree about what is happening in the atmosphere, and you should support a system that, as much as possible, promotes research and modeling about what is happening in the atmosphere.

Part of Wired’s goal, and part of the role of all science and tech publications, is to report as best as possible on what is happening and to protect the people who want to tell the truth, to criticize people who do not want to tell the truth, and then to have engaged debates about the ideas that matter. The role of Wired and the role of journalism becomes ever more important in a Trump administration. Not to elect a successor or to elect more Democrats in the next congressional election; that’s not our issue. Our issue is to protect things that are within our field of vision: to protect funding for science, to protect truth, to protect net neutrality, and to have vigorous debates about internet policy and technology policy and to make sure that the debates are held in the most honest and open way.

 

Technology has caused huge disruptions in journalism in the years since Wired was founded. What are your concerns about the impact that technology—I’m thinking here about everything from internet content to the role of Facebook and Google—has had on the journalism industry?

I’m not as pessimistic about the place that journalism is in as most people are. You can look the number of jobs in the newspaper industry and see a massive decline, and the number of jobs in digital journalism has a small increasing slope. There are clearly fewer journalists employed today, but there are also all kinds of great new outlets doing real reporting and hiring new people.

It’s a constantly changing and evolving marketplace, and to just look at the decline in the traditional player isn’t quite right. I’m not one of the people who will make the argument that it’s all so much better right now. That’s not true. But it is also not true that the story is one of steady and simple decline.

The role of Facebook and Google…it’s true that their effect on our business has been really complicated with large negative elements. All of the digital advertising has gone to Facebook and Google. Instant Articles didn’t save us, and apps didn’t save us. But it’s also true that Facebook is an amazing mechanism for driving readers to your stories, as is Google. My job as editor of this publication will be, to the degree that I’m able, to work with those companies figuring out how their models evolve and how their new products evolve, to study them, to take advantage of them, to make sure that we get the most out of them.

 

They’re tech companies, but also publishers. As the editor of one of the journalistic outlets that covers those companies closely, do you have feelings about what they should be doing or could be doing?

Yeah. I do. I have very strong feelings. Facebook’s news algorithm is deeply biased towards humor, outrage, and celebrities. I think that, for moral reasons, they should figure out how to change it. And, actually, for their own business reasons they should figure out how to change it.

Now, it’s presumptuous for me to say Facebook would have a better product and would make more money. Facebook does not have a problem making money, I just think they’ve made a mistake in the way they’ve been measuring engagement.

This is hard to explain, but it’s really important. The Facebook engineers and the people who run Facebook want to serve their readers. But the way they measure engagement is basically a few obvious factors: the number of people who like it, who comment on it, and the amount of time people spend reading something. But there are a whole bunch of other factors you could measure. You could semantically analyze the words in the comments. You could come up with a meta-quality score for different publications, and thereby serve better content.

Facebook made a really interesting algorithmic change after the election, which was to measure the ratio of engagement after somebody reads a story compared to the engagement before somebody reads a story. If a story has lots of likes and shares before anybody’s read it, and very few after, that means it’s probably a bad story. If a story has lots of likes and shares after reading, but not before, that means it’s probably a good story as opposed to just a good headline.

As we get more data and understanding about what Facebook is doing, I think that my interests in serving and advancing higher quality content through Facebook are actually well-aligned with Facebook’s incentives of maximizing engagement if they were to study engagement more thoroughly. That’s a hard problem for Facebook, but I think its economic interest is actually aligned with my journalistic interest. I may be wrong, but I think it is.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.