when Wired magazine plunged into the Web site business two and a half years ago, it proclaimed -- brashly and also intelligently -- that it was up to something radically new. For its main effort on the Web, Wired wouldn't build a site that just duplicated what it was already doing in print. There would be no "repurposing" here, no brain-dead infobites or broadcast-media business-as-usual. Hotwired, its initial ad campaign stirringly put it, was "new thinking for a new medium."
Hotwired has had its ups and downs, but that commitment to the Web's unique nature -- profuse links, interactivity via reader response, multimedia and beyond -- has always remained a constant. Until now. At the end of a long year which saw the continued success of its magazine but the high-profile failure of the company's effort to go public, Wired Ventures shuffled its existing Web and print products, closed down some Hotwired departments, and came out with a new hybrid product -- a technology news service called Wired News.
Wired News represents a welcome step toward substance and usefulness on Wired's part. But for a company that's famous for thumbing its nose at the "old media," it's also a surprising step toward conventionality.
In its Web version -- which opened for business in November, at the www.wired.com address that had hitherto offered a kind of service site and text repository for the print magazine -- Wired News provides a feed of short-to-medium-length articles about the business and culture of the digital world. Also just launched is a Wired News channel on Pointcast, which takes the Web site's articles and pumps them directly to users' desktops. Later this winter, in a final closing of the circle from print to the Net and back, Reuters will begin distributing Wired News articles to its old-media customers.
At first glance, Wired News feels quite similar to its most obvious competitors in the technology trade news business, c|net, ZDNet and TechWeb. What -- beyond the hard-to-read white-on-black color scheme, which with any luck will disappear in the next redesign -- distinguishes the new entrant?
Executive producer Chip Bayers and managing editor Kevin Kelleher say that Wired News is not actually competing with the trades but has its own niche somewhere between c|net and general-interest news sites like CNN and MSNBC. "We aim to be as informed as the trade press about the technology, but to have the same kind of qualities and writers and narrative approach that the general magazine press does," says Bayers. Kelleher says that, though Wired News is trying to "steer away from the word 'attitude' a little bit," the service still intends to inform its coverage with Wired-style "analysis and perspective."
After six weeks of operation, with a staff of about 20 full-timers and more freelancers and stringers on contract updating the site three times a day (with greater frequency promised), Wired News has begun to break some good stories. Steve Silberman reported on a gay Maxis programmer who got fired for unauthorizedly adding some party-boy hunks to a simulation game for kids -- and the story got picked up first by the Associated Press and thereafter by TV stations, The New York Times and other outlets.
Here Wired News was indeed able to provide extra perspective. As the story got spun by The New York Times and others to suggest a hint of homophobia, the service followed up -- pointing out that, though the prank was indeed meant to highlight the one-sided prevalence of female blonde bimbos in computer games, the programmer in question was opposed to a proposed boycott of Maxis, did not believe homophobia inspired his firing, and didn't even want his job back.
Wired News emphasizes Net culture and free-speech issues, and it has been doing its best work in these areas. In the bread-and-butter technology business field, its coverage is more similar to what you'll see in the trades -- updates on new Web tools, or reports on the latest skirmishes between telephone companies and regulators. And Wired News is no more immune than its competitors to the occupational hazard of "put-it-out-fast" wire-service-style operations: the tendency toward repetition and short-term memory loss.
For instance, late last week you could find a brief report that the Microsoft Web 'zine Slate planned to discontinue its free print version distributed at Starbucks coffee houses and begin selling a $70-a-year weekly print edition instead. Accurate enough -- but the brief attributed the news to the New York Observer as if it were a breaking story, when in fact Slate editor Michael Kinsley had announced the move two weeks before in Slate itself.
Right now, the elements of Wired News that are most unique -- that distinguish it most boldly from the trades -- tend to be short features taken from the latest issue of Wired's print magazine or columns repeated from different Hotwired departments. You could say that this is simply a way to help readers find different avenues to your content. You could also call it repurposing.
Wired plainly wants to pool as much of its copy as possible from its different properties to provide a convenient flow of material for the hungry maw of "push" technologies like Pointcast. But for regular readers of Wired and Hotwired it can be a little disorienting to turn to a piece touted as "news" on Wired News and realize that you've read it before. Notice of such reuse, if provided at all, appears as a brief line at the end of an article. Often, the service will say, "Joe Smith is a columnist for Hotwired" rather than more forthrightly announcing that this column also appeared elsewhere.
Wired News is confident that its pooling of Net-savvy material will be attractive to the publications that pay for the Reuters wire when the joint Wired/Reuters service starts delivering articles to print editors some time in the next two or three months. "Reuters believes that their customers will look forward to receiving the tone and the point of view that we bring to our stories, and secondarily they see it as a way to reach younger readers," Bayers says.
Reasonable enough. But "tone and point of view" are the most fragile ingredients of a news story. And they are often the first casualty of a copy editor's hasty, unkind cuts. By the time a wire-service story arrives in print, it has usually been trimmed to within an inch of its life -- and provided with a headline that may or may not have anything to do with its original point.
As it grows, Wired News is likely to find itself tugged between accepting the functional realities of the traditional wire-service world and offering capabilities it can only provide on the Web. For instance, it will want to start automatically providing links to previous stories on a particular subject the way c|net and CNN do. This is one good solution to the biggest problem of news-service coverage: gauging how much of an ongoing story a reader needs to be filled in on. But such smart use of Web technology won't travel over the old-fashioned wires. Wired News will have to decide whether to leave the "back story" in the links or repeat it with each new addition to a breaking story.
Similarly, when Wired News moves out from the Web onto Reuters, it instantly sacrifices the two-way information flow the Net affords via e-mail and conferences like Hotwired's Threads, which Wired News stories link to. "We will be putting URLs into stories and encouraging those people to get onto the Web," Bayers says. But surely that's a poor second to the free-for-all, "many-to-many medium" Wired's visionary writers have constantly heralded as the key to the digital revolution.
As Wired News propagates its articles through the "old media," its most valuable role may be as a debunker of other publications' bad reporting on the Net. Remember those stories about a psychological malady known as "Internet Addiction Disorder"? A Wired News report last month by Janelle Brown pointed out that the concept started as a psychologist's joke and had little basis in fact.
Internet addiction was the kind of bad story that the "old media" latch onto from wire services and one another and repeat, hall-of-mirrors style, without ever checking for accuracy. It's a perfect example of what Wired founder Louis Rossetto likes to call "the cynical/mindless media distortion machine" when he attacks traditional journalism for being mired in the 19th century.
Wired News plainly performed a service by exposing the addiction story's flaws. But the publications whose mistakes it highlighted are about to become its own customers. If Wired's own analysis of the media industry's dinosaur-like mentality is accurate, the service may find that its most important stories are the ones that get picked up the least.