Crossed wires at 'Wired'

The mag sells 240,000 copies in the States. Why, asks Charles Arthur, did the UK version flop?
Kevin Kelly, the editor of Wired magazine in the US, was recently running through some of the concepts in his new book about computer programs that mimic evolution. Kelly was preparing a conference speech, and he suggested to British design consultant Peter York that the programmer is in the position of a god - "and we must do all we can to be a kindly god".

York replied: "You can't stand up in front of a British audience and say that."

Kelly looked at York. "You're right: they'll think it's blasphemous."

"No, they won't," said York. "They'll think you've flipped your lid."

Are the Americans who run Wired unable to understand how the British mind works? That's one popular explanation for the fiasco that followed the much-hyped launch of Wired's UK version in March. Despite an advertising campaign on billboards and TV, initial sales of 60,000 reportedly fell to 25,000. After just three monthly issues, the US head office abruptly filed a suit requiring the Guardian group, which had an equal stake in Wired UK and had in effect run the magazine, to cease publication.

Disagreements within the magazine's UK editorial office - and, more importantly, with the head office on the other side of the Atlantic - meant that something had to give. Wired UK announced that its July issue would also be its August issue, and closed down for a brief power struggle. The shutters are about to come up again, and a new management structure has been put in place - but is the idea fatally flawed?

Wired US was launched in January 1993 from a small office in San Francisco, just an hour's drive north from Silicon Valley, the strip of land where small computer companies spring up almost daily, nourished by seemingly endless supplies of venture capital.

The new magazine tapped into the West Coast zeitgeist effortlessly, with its bold - some would say eye-bending - graphics, long articles about personalities and issues in and around the digital world, and snappy news items on products and events. Over there, it is the perfect lifestyle magazine, as long as your life revolves around things digital. Jane Metcalfe, the magazine's co-founder, says that it speaks to the "digerati".

Word spread fast, helped by use of the Internet. Within a year Wired was selling 160,000 copies in the US. (The figure now is 240,000.) It then began shipping 4,000 copies each month to Britain to be distributed by Comag. To the British reader, the magazine had the cachet of coming from a far-off place where they did things differently, spoke a different language, looked at different adverts, read different writers. Word spread in the UK just as it had in the US.

But Wired UK had none of that cachet. It was prepared in Britain, had British adverts and was written by people whose names were already familiar. It lacked buzz: it was 2point4 Children instead of Roseanne, Washington, Tyne & Wear rather than Washington DC.

Alun Anderson, the editor of New Scientist magazine, has read every issue of Wired US. He describes it as "a magazine whose time has come". But, in a review of the British version for the trade publication Magazine Business, he wrote: "This is not a competitor [to Wired US], but a strange, bastardised version ... editorially it's a hopeless mess." Anderson also believes strongly that "a British edition should reflect the British cynicism about all this stuff".

Besides, the thing about cyberspace is that everything is the same distance away - no further than your computer screen. Why try to put local flavour into a product that deals with something that is global? The US version of Wired has never limited its constituency - reports from Japan, Singapore, Britain, the Continent, even Africa, crop up regularly.

"The aim is to create a global pool of editorial material," says Metcalfe. This is already happening, with Wired US using a profile of Richard Dawkins (author of The Blind Watchmaker) that has appeared in Wired's UK version. "But the real thing is that in magazine publishing you have paper, and you have to truck it around."

There are plans, though, to print some copies of the US issue in Europe. Metcalfe justifies this with the seemingly self-contradictory statement. "If you take seriously the idea that the Internet is breaking down national boundaries," she says, "then the national reactions to that are interesting."

The great British public, it seems, remains to be convinced. As Anderson says, "It needs to be cynical and gritty." Perhaps they should move the offices out of London. Any prospect of relocating to Washington, Tyne & Wear?