Wired magazine rewires for a new age

If you're not someone who would typically read a technology magazine, then Chris Anderson wants you.

The editor in chief of Wired is revamping the publication that debuted in 1993 and became a must-read for techies and those trying to keep up with the digital explosion.

The audience he's after now – after the dotcom bust and the spread of technology coverage to outlets as varied as Rolling Stone and the nightly news – is much broader. Wired's new helmsman says it's time to make the publication more accessible, to embrace people "who might not normally think of themselves as reading a technology magazine."

Like the digital world it draws on, Wired is moving from revolution to evolution. Once known for its jarring graphics and edgy approach to culture and technology issues, the magazine today is easier to read – no crazy fonts in sight – and is settling into a more general-interest niche.

Consider the cover subject for the June redesign issue: Steven Spielberg – not exactly a poster boy for Silicon Valley. In fact, when asked if people who've never picked up the magazine might feel put off by its contents, Mr. Anderson points to the cover and asks, "Is that intimidating?"

What's inside the latest edition makes engaging reading. The redesign makes it easier to negotiate, though the changes are somewhat subtle. In the cover story, Mr. Spielberg discusses his new thriller, "Minority Report," which is based on a work by the same sci-fi author who inspired "Blade Runner." Also among its pages are features on technology being developed to help drivers see better at night, and video games – a hot topic and a particular passion of the editor.

As magazine expert David Abrahamson sees it, Wired is no longer shaping social reality, it's reflecting it.

"They still do a great job of reporting. It's still an editorially very viable book," says Professor Abrahamson, who teaches at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. "Now it moves to a less speculative ... slightly more conventional modality."

Wired was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in general excellence this year, but as Abrahamson points out, "No one today is doing what Wired circa 1996 was doing," including Wired. "How many years can you be the new thing?" he says.

Those who wrote for Wired early on say it excelled at discovering what was right under everyone's nose, but no one was seeing. One article, for example, drew attention to corporations, like McDonald's, that were slow to secure their company domain names (addresses) on the Internet. Some ended up having to buy them from quick-thinking competitors – or Wired authors.

Wired influenced Anderson from the start. He studied physics, and was using the Internet back in the 1980s, but says, "I really didn't get the power of the whole thing until I read about it in Wired."

After he became the technology editor for The Economist, he says. Wired often influenced his decisions about what to cover.

But Wired no longer has the field all to itself. Newspapers have entire sections devoted to technology; it's on TV and in Rolling Stone, which called its June 6 issue its "Video-Game Special." And despite the dotcom downturn, readers who want technology and business news can turn to publications like Business 2.0, Fast Company, and Technology Review, or to online outlets like Cnet.com.

Anderson even considers publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The Economist, as Wired competitors.

He's not ready to call his magazine – owned by publishing giant Condé Nast since 1998 – mainstream. But he acknowledges that Wired's message has changed. "Technology is now pervasive. We all 'get it' to one degree or another," he says while in Boston to promote the redesign. "As the message has become internalized, Wired has become less evangelical, less political ... less about looking at the subcultures and more looking at technology's effect all around us."

Among topics Wired reports on are the environment, and such advances as a pump that looks like a StairMaster and is helping Africans get water from twice the depth that they used to.

"What's interesting is that the greatest change doesn't actually happen in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley generates tools; where the tools really change the world is elsewhere, often outside the US," Anderson says.

The same forces that drove the Internet are also creating a revolution in nanotechnology, he explains. Advances in medicine and energy are also on the horizon. And far-reaching changes are coming in places like China, which now has the largest cellphone market in the world, possibly planting the seeds of political change, he says.

Wired is still the "bible of technology," Anderson contends. But some readers say it is trying to be all things to all people. "I'll pick it up occasionally, but I'm definitely not subscribing anymore," says Dave Weber, who runs the Management of Technology program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He suggests Wired "may be guilty of 'jack of all trades and master of none' disease."

Wired has a circulation of about 515,000, though its newsstand sales are down, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

It's had to weather ups and downs in the ad market. "February was rock bottom, and every issue from there has gotten bigger and bigger, says publisher Drew Shutte. "I don't think we're rocketing out of the recession," but we're heading in the right direction, he says.

As for the redesign, Abrahamson of Northwestern says Wired now looks more like the "standard model" for magazines. "That probably will be a good thing for them," he says, "because it will get them more readers."

• E-mail campbellk@csmonitor.com

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