Of all the dot-com publishing franchises, Wired seemed the most likely to end up as road kill on a superhighway it helped create.
The seminal artifact of the Web 1.0, it was bought by Conde Nast Publications in 1998 and then lost two-thirds of its ad sales during the bust from 2000 to 2002. Its newsstand sales dropped by over a third in the same period, and its Web site was no help because, well, it didn’t even own its site.
Chris Anderson, then of The Economist, was dropped into the crater in 2001 as editor in chief. A few months into his tenure, he and I sat in a booth in the Conde Nast cafeteria as he earnestly explained that Wired was not a confection of the digital age, but a magazine about the culture to come.
“This isn’t the domain of techies anymore. It has gone mainstream in a way that doesn’t diminish its power, but illustrates it,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” I remember thinking.
He was right. Magazines like The Industry Standard, Red Herring, Business 2.0, eCompany Now all went down the digital drain, but Wired rowed carefully and slowly away from its geek origins and survived. (Fast Company, another magazine I suggested was toast, is managing a similar feat on a smaller level.)
Wired had a very respectable 1,300 ad pages last year, and its ads are up slightly so far this year, an achievement in an era of secular and cyclical decline that is threatening all manner of old media. Newsstand sales are edging back to the boom years, and it didn’t hurt that along the way, Anderson penned a conceptual book, The Long Tail, that became the keystone for PowerPoints all over the land.
Perhaps most important, in 2006, the company reunited Wired.com and Wired magazine by buying the site from Lycos for US$25 million, a fraction of its US$83 million price back when Conde Nast bought the magazine in 1998. The traffic has tripled since the acquisition and the Wired brand, which once was perched on a very thin reed, is now a sturdy plank.
You might think that Conde Nast’s headquarters at 4 Times Square — where the September issue of Vogue is viewed as one of humankind’s crowning achievements — would be the last place to look for Web innovation. With its fat, luscious magazines and elevators full of thin, luscious people, it would seem to be the antithesis of the sneaker-wearing run-and-gun aesthetic of the Web.
After all, rather than run the risk of dulling the luster of the printed Vogue or Gourmet, the company produced Style.com and Epicurious.com, which took some content from the magazines, but kept the Web at arm’s length.
But there have been signs that the company is serious about constructing a digital business that is less beside the point. Soon after getting his hands on Wired.com, Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of the parent company, moved to buy Reddit.com, a social news site along the lines of Digg, although smaller.
Last week, all the attention was focused on the US$1.8 billion grab by US television network CBS for eyeballs with the purchase of CNet. But during the same week, Conde Nast bought Ars Technica, a small but very influential Web technology site; Webmonkey, a site for Web developers that will be restarted Monday; and Hot Wired, a storied brand from early Internet days — which ran the first banner ad ever. The price was not disclosed, but the company probably spent another US$25 million on the acquisition, according to executives there familiar with the deal.