Ars Technica

The old guard of tech news, mixing context, the long view, and a sense of humor

ars_technica.pngNEW YORK, NEW YORK — Since its founding in 1998, Ars Technica has grown to become a trusted, go-to source for news, reviews, and information about scientific advancements, technological breakthroughs, video gaming, tech policy, gadgetry, software, hardware, and everything in between. However, Ken Fisher, the site’s Massachusetts-based founder and editor-in-chief, claims Ars Technica’s success as one of the oldest and largest tech-focused websites isn’t due to some glitzy marketing campaign. The site never spent a dime on self-promotion. Success, Fisher says, has been driven purely by content.

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    • “We don’t have a single editorial vision nor do we have single editorial principles,” says Fisher, who got the idea for the website as a graduate student working in Harvard University’s IT department. “We don’t have anything of the sort aside from just general slavishness to accuracy and integrity. That throws people for a loop because we’re not a bland publication. We definitely make calls and put our own assessments into articles–that’s what people read us for–but we’re in no way monological.”

      The website primarily emphasizes its authenticity, accuracy, and analysis over breaking news coverage. An example of the site’s thoughtful, forward-thinking approach can be found in Peter Bright’s June 1 piece about a recent study’s findings that three banks handle 95 percent of spam-related transactions. Citing efforts in the US to mitigate illegal e-gambling by not honoring certain credit card transactions and money transfers, he states: “Killing spam won’t be easy, but going after the money could be our best bet for an end to the junk-mail menace.”

      Fisher, a scholar of ancient cultures and religion, was running a couple of less successful websites centered around antiquities such as Greek and Roman philosophy when he first envisioned an intelligent, tech-focused website. While he was studying past forms of communication in school, the world was teetering on the edge of an era of exponential scientific and technological advancements. However, there weren’t many websites catering purely to science and technology. So, he sent a mass e-mail out to people he thought might be interested in contributing to his web-based endeavor and, in December 1998, Ars Technica was born.

      The quirky, Latin-derived name, which roughly translates to the “art of technology,” has caused Googlers to punch in a wondrous array of spelling attempts when searching for the website. Regardless, the site has continued to grow with the help of people like deputy editor Jon Stokes and managing editor Eric Bangeman, both co-founders of the site. Stokes worked in Harvard’s IT department with Fisher in 1998 and received that initial mass email inviting interested participants to join the venture. Some thought Fisher’s initial idea had as much staying power as a floppy disk drive, but others signed on and, as Fisher tells it, “within two years we formed into an LLC (limited liability company). The people that were most interested and most productive were brought into the ownership structure.”

      The website has been financially sustained mostly through advertising since the beginning, but, in 2001, it launched a paid subscription service that offers some revenue. For $50 a year, “premier” subscribers get very little compared to non-subscribers, but that hasn’t stopped some 10,000 subscribers from paying their dues because, says Fisher, “they like us.” Subscribers get a special place to post comments but, for the most part, the entire site is free to the the site’s sizable audience. (Its own analytics numbers for March of 2011 put monthly uniques at just over 6 million users, but those numbers do not count people blocking ads or people opting out of being counted toward total traffic. Periodic studies conducted by the site estimate that those users are 30-45 percent of total traffic, causing Fisher to put his high end estimate for monthly uniques at a whopping 11 million.) The site recently launched an experimental service offering free e-books based on the site’s journalism to those who opt into the site’s premier subscription service. The first book, titled Unmasked, an Ars Technica Special Report, is a compilation of the site’s Anonymous/HBGary coverage and is available as an ePub in several formats. Fisher says more books are on the way.

      The website has, in the past, dabbled in merchandising, selling promotional items like Ars Technica T-shirts in response to reader requests, but Fisher says demand for such things has fluctuated and it was more an answer to requests than a money maker.

      In 2008, Condé Nast (CN) Digital, a facet of the magazine publications company, acquired ownership of Ars Technica at a price-tag reported to be in the $25-million range. Without giving actual numbers, Fisher admits the sale “made me independently wealthy.” Despite the sizable pay out, the Harvard scholar has and will stick around because “I love it. I love Ars Technica. I love the readership.”

      Fisher claims that CN has been completely “hands off” since buying the site. Whether running the servers or hiring editorial staff, Fisher says the “only thing we use Condé Nast for is their sales team and their lawyers.” There was interest from multiple parties back in 2008, but the team went with CN because “we thought ‘wow, these guys aren’t going to screw it up.’ They’re not going to come in and turn us into Wired.”

      Three years later, Fisher is still the editor, and though there may be a business and sales overlap with fellow CN properties Wired and, he says there is zero editorial collaboration. Articles are occasionally cross-posted with Wired but Fisher says CN realizes Wired and Ars Technica cater to different audiences, and “as far as tech sites go, Wired and Ars Technica are at very different ends of the spectrum.” CN, he continues, was attracted to the fact that while Wired provides reports for a mainstream audience, Ars Technica catches the detail-oriented interest of scientists, IT specialists, and technologists.

      Ars Technica now has ten full-time editorial staff members and a “large stable of freelancers.” CN has a corporate sales team in New York that keeps the revenue rolling in, but Fisher still calls the editorial shots from his Massachusetts-based home office. The rest of the team members are spread out across the nation and generally opt to work from home, communicating largely through Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

      Fisher, who has two master’s degrees, jokingly described himself and his staff as a bunch of “liberal arts losers who use words like ‘problematic.'” Either way, the writers’ academic expertise emerges in articles that express opinions, review products, and bring context and storytelling to tech news.

      “We’re very familiar with the liberal arts world. Be it identity politics, theory, historiography, critical theory–we love this stuff and we try to approach everything we do as an academic department. The way we envision ourselves, as a working group, is more like a department of religious studies than, say, a newsroom. By that, I mean I am the chair of the department but each person in the department has their own sub-area of expertise and they need autonomy to go out there and say what they need to say.”

Ars Technica Data

Name: Ars Technica


City: New York

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Isaac Olson is a contributor to CJR.