How does UK Wired celebrate the merits of Free? With a spread of specially-commissioned illustrations, printed on a metallic ink background – one of the MOST EXPENSIVE FINISHES KNOWN TO MAN – of course:The Free theory isn’t much more than loss-leader marketing gussied up, and it’s something that Wired has been particularly good at. Running several active blogs and a busy Twitter account keeps them in touch with a readership whose interest in technology makes them less likely to head to the newsagent; the excellence of the mag makes it worth buying, even if Condé Nast have made enough of the content free-to-access online for purchasing to be optional.
And the things which make Wired desirable all cost money. The design. The inks. The artwork. The editorial process is multi-layered: according to the commissioning guide, editors select pitches, compete for space in the magazine and work with their writers throughout the research and writing period – and the resulting features are smarter and better-written than almost anything else you can read.
Not everyone thinks this approach is working. Newspaper Deathwatch, writing about the US edition, points to a fall-off of advertising and an awkward market position as it predicts a troubled future for the title:
Wired Stuck in the Middle
And what about Wired, the hip digital lifestyle magazine that chronicled the dot-com revolution? Surely it has figured out how to bridge the print-digital divide. Nope. Its business is in the tank, and even Chris Anderson, the new-economy guru editor whose books have foreseen foretold the emergence of hyper targeted media and free content, doesn’t seem to know what to do.
Ad pages are off 50% this year, making Wired the third worst performer among the 150 magazines tracked by MIN. The problem may be systemic. Wired serves the digerati, whose natural preference is online media. The publication’s website is operated almost entirely independent of the magazine, and despite multiple design awards, the print version of Wired has been unable to find the popular appeal that could make it a million-circ powerhouse. At 704,000 subscribers, it’s one of the smallest magazines in the Condé Nast portfolio. It lacks the scale to support giant branding campaigns by luxury products, but is too large to deliver efficiency for smaller advertisers. It’s an uncomfortable place to be: in the middle. And Condé Nast, which has already shuttered two major titles this year, is probably not in the position to invest in it.
“Major titles” is a bit of an oversell for Portfolio and Domino – well-regarded titles within Condé Nast for sure, but relatively new. Still, the CN empire looks like the sort of thing that the internet ought to kill off, and when the Observer profiled Si Newhouse and his company, the article adopted a nostalgic attitude towards a company that’s still a terribly long way from dead (even if many of its major personnel aren’t).
What Wired and its parent company specialise in is excellence. It is increasingly possible for an excellent magazine to be a boutique production, so perhaps publishing houses like CN will prove shortly to be redundant. For all the pleasure there might be in gloating over Chris Anderson, though, I would like to see Wired do ok; and I think the potential for CN to use Wired as a test case in surviving the internet means it makes business sense to look after it.
© Sarah Ditum, 2009