Ian Burrell: How 'Wired' is pointing the way to the future of publishing

Media Studies: Wired’s offering of expert insight goes beyond tired awards ceremony formats based on dinners

Ian Burrell
Monday 29 October 2012 01:00

If anyone should know how to address the structural and technological problems facing the media it's Wired magazine, with its self-styled status as a soothsayer.

The UK edition of the title is at a pivotal point in its young history, transitioning from a monthly paper product into a business that supplements its revenues with exclusive events, bespoke consultancy services and a retail project, all trading on its reputation for being able to predict the future.

It's a journey that, to varying degrees, the entire print media needs to make but if anyone should know the way to the higher ground it really should be Wired.

At the end of last week, it held what editor David Rowan describes as "a pretty high ticket price" conference, Wired 2012, for which nearly 50 visionary speakers were brought to London from as far afield as the United States, India and South Korea. Wired doesn't go in for cosy discussions. "There are no panels, they don't work – I go to 30 conferences a year," said Rowan before the opening of the event.

The ticket price he referred to was £1,600. For their money, attendees received not just the wisdom of tech pioneers such as Tumblr founder David Karp but also forward-thinking creative artists such as the designer Thomas Heatherwick and the actress and social media entrepreneur Lily Cole. Rowan works closely with speakers to ensure their talks are well-conceived and not verbose. "Our brand is about tight editing and excellence of design and we have to convey that on stage as well."

Delegates had an opportunity to mix with hackers, computer security experts and brain scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We want to ensure the networking is fantastic so that everyone you meet is worth a long conversation."

Businesses with even deeper pockets can buy a "Wired Consulting" service, with prices typically in five figures. For this the magazine's events team will tailor an internal conference for an individual company. "We are hired by you and we will explain some of the stories and some of the trends that we know from our connections," says the editor.

Next month, Wired will partner with London First, the organisation which promotes business in the capital, to curate an event that will highlight the city's potential for investors and entrepreneurs founding start-ups. Rowan himself will give an address.

Publishers, especially those of trade titles, have long seen the value of events in supplementing their diminishing advertising revenues. But Wired's offering of expert insight goes beyond tired awards ceremony formats based on selling tables and three-course dinners.

Wired certainly hasn't given up on print. Indeed, it is diversifying within the medium by publishing this week a £5 product called The Wired World in 2013, a trends publication that will feature contributions from Sir Richard Branson, Sir James Dyson and other pioneers who the title claims as being part of a "Wired network".

Rowan acknowledges this isn't a wholly original idea, given that titles such as The Economist and Time already have a track record in annual trends special editions.

"We are not trying to take on other publications," he says.

Rowan recognises that Wired is still a niche title – some think of it as a gadgets magazine and others don't yet know it exists. The 2013 special thus has a dual purpose as a marketing tool for the monthly product. "The challenge is discovery," he says. "We are not a men's magazine and we are not a tech or a news magazine, so we don't have a natural home on the news stand."

Wired sales are continuing to grow, with the 52,136 print circulation for the six months to June being more than 1,000 up on the previous period. "For us, print is still central to what we do, partly because design and photography are key to the Wired mission and we can do wonderful things on shiny pages," says the editor.

It is an elegant product though I personally find the magazine's layout sometimes over-cluttered and not as user-friendly as it no doubt believes itself to be.

But more than 5,000 additional sales a month in the last period came in iPad apps and the digital proportion of total circulation has since grown even more. "It's exciting that it's a magazine but most of the revenues at some stage of the future will not be coming from the print product."

Indeed. Another of Rowan's big ideas for raising the brand profile is a pop-up Wired store where visitors will be able to sample products chosen by the magazine's editorial team. "It's more of an experience than a retail palace."

The store mirrors other Condé Nast ventures such as the Vogue cafes in Moscow and Dubai and a Russian GQ bar. It has a high-end location in London's Regent Street (rather than in trendy Old Street among the east London internet startups), as befits a title that takes advertising from the likes of Burberry and Audi.

Of course, not every publication enjoys such cachet and can command five-figure sums for the wisdom of its editorial staff or contributors. But Wired is facing the future by doing things differently and, like the magazine itself, it offers stimulating food for thought.

Cowell welcomes 'Mirror' man to his music empire

As celebrities continue to call for press reform ahead of publication of the Leveson report, at least the king of star makers, Simon Cowell, still loves the tabloids.

His Syco Entertainment has always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Fleet Street. Stories about The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent provide the oxygen of publicity that keeps interest in those shows running through the week.

Cowell gets on well with showbiz hacks and earlier this year appointed the Daily Mail's Ben Todd to head up the PR operation for his music and TV assets.

Now I hear the great television impresario has lined up the former Daily Mirror editor, Richard Wallace, for a senior role in his business, which spans London and Los Angeles.

Wallace, who had a long background in showbiz journalism before his eight-year stint as editor, left the Mirror suddenly in May in a management shake-up.

He is widely admired and was in talks with Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell empire before Cowell made his offer. Best of luck to him.

James Murdoch facing icy blast

James Murdoch flies into Britain for the first time in four months for Thursday's BSkyB annual general meeting to find much has changed in the British media.

The BBC, which he attacked as too-powerful in his aggressive Edinburgh Television Festival speech of three years ago, is in the sort of rare popularity crisis that he would have loved to have provoked back then. Trinity Mirror – despite its denials – has been sucked into the phone-hacking scandal with a series of celebrity legal actions but too late to deflect from James's own failings running News International.

Meanwhile, his father, a sorry figure before MPs last year, has bounced back. He swatted away rebel shareholders this month by telling them to buy other media stocks "if they don't like this one".

But James cannot afford such swagger. Rival media scion Richard Li (the son of Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing and an old adversary of Murdoch's from his days running Star TV) was back in the London courts last week challenging BSkyB's right to the name of its internet brand Now TV because Li's PCCW empire already uses the name.

And pensions groups will call on Thursday for James to quit from even his non-executive director's role at Sky. Next time he could be gone for much longer than four months.

Twitter: @iburrell

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