Wired’s New Editor in Chief on Why Tech Reporting Is More Important Than Ever

Nick Thompson is shaking things up at the iconic magazine

Technology platforms, AI and technological change have “profound impacts on society,” Thompson says.
Chris Loupos

Adweek: I recently read that when you worked at Wired the first time, as a senior editor from 2005 to 2010, you actually edited the story that became the movie Argo. Did you get a little piece of an Oscar or anything?
Nick Thompson: No, unfortunately. I didn’t make any money. I didn’t get an Oscar. And I’ve never met Ben Affleck. But I got the glory.

True. And you also co-founded The Atavist, which is pretty cool.
Yes, we came up with the idea in the fall of 2009 and we started making it in 2010 and so it had just launched when I got The New Yorker job [in 2010]… I learned a lot from running The Atavist that was helpful to my job with The New Yorker.

Like what?
I learned how to hire developers. I learned how to make product roadmaps. I had the experience of helping to run a tech company before I was even in charge of The New Yorker’s website [from 2012 to this past January]. And so at The New Yorker, I also was involved in hiring developers, managing developers, setting the roadmaps, figuring out what the timeframe of a project should be. Having worked at The Atavist gave me a lot of knowledge about that.

So you’ve been running the website for The New Yorker since 2012. Why go to Wired? Apart from the editor in chief gig, obviously.
This was in January, right after Facebook has played a huge role in the election and the sort of destruction of American political discourse. That led to a realization of something I’ve been thinking for a long time, which is that the debates over the way technology platforms work, the way our artificial intelligence works, the way all of technological change works has profound impacts on society and the way we relate to each other and the way we think about everything. It all is influenced in deep ways by technology companies. These are amazing issues, and the chance to be in charge of a publication that’s weighing in on all of them constantly was pretty exciting.

So are you planning on delving deeper into how social media played into the election? 
Maybe not that specifically, but for instance, we did three stories [the week of the] Facebook Live murder. Did the existence of Facebook Live possibly motivate that guy in Cleveland? If you are a platform company and you don’t want to encourage this kind of behavior, how do you change your algorithms? How do you even tell the difference between an actual murder versus an eyewitness who’s bearing witness to a shooting? Those are really interesting questions, and they’re questions I don’t think Facebook has thought enough about.

What’s your plan on the digital side?
The first step is to try to figure out what our paid content model will be. We went to a paid content model for The New Yorker and that was hugely successful. One of the reasons The New Yorker got so big was because we started making so much money on our website from our subscription model that we were able to hire more writers who write more good essays, and that makes you more money so you hire more writers and you sort of create this virtual cycle.

How about the print magazine? Any changes there?
My two conflicting goals are to bring back crazy design of early Wired and to make everything more readable. Those are somewhat in tension with each other because old Wired would put the page numbers upside down in the middle, right? I’m working with the restraint that I want everything to be readable. But you’ll notice there are no more jump pages so can read the story to the end… You probably lose a third of your readers every time you have a jump page. But most of the design changes will come when we do a larger redesign.

Wired, April 2017

You also got rid of the editor’s note in the magazine. 
I have read a lot of magazines in my life and I don’t think I can remember one where I said, “Wow, that’s wonderful.” There’s something about the form that doesn’t work, and I didn’t feel the need to promote myself in that way. And you can replace it with a really beautiful image, which is what we’ve done.

There was a recent period when Wired was running a lot of celebrity covers, but it seems like you’ve been going in a different direction.
Yes. It’s highly unlikely that there will be many celebrity covers when I’m the editor. There were celebrity covers planned and there was a possibility for celebrity covers in both [the April and May] issues and we decided not to do them. We could have put a celebrity on the April cover; we have a good comedy package. Instead we put an eyeball on there.

Why?
Because there are lots of magazines with celebrities on the cover and there aren’t a lot with red eyeballs.

Tell me about what’s going on with video.
Video is kind of a pretty cool success story at Wired. It’s a mix of, you know, our own nerdy videos, like six minutes on AI or the “Queen of Shitty Robots” making stuff in her lab, and then we have an arm working at Condé Nast Entertainment that does celebrity driven YouTube stuff, like Morgan Freeman answering people’s autocomplete questions about him. That mix works on YouTube, and we get millions of views.

I read that when you first took the EIC job at Wired, you had a meeting with the magazine’s original founders. What advice did they give you?
They said to always look for the edge. When [Wired] started, it was all about championing the outsiders. [Amazon and Google] were small companies trying to make it big. Apple was about to go out of business. And now these outsiders are the overlords. One thing that I remember [founding executive editor] Kevin Kelly saying is that even though these companies now dominate the world, there are still people on the edge of technology doing interesting things. Even if AI has had a trillion dollars invested in it this year, there are still people on the cutting edge of what AI is. Our job is to find those people.

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This story first appeared in the May 22, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.