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E-Mail's Mouthpiece : In Just a Year, Wired Magazine Has Become the Guide Down the Information Superhighway

March 30, 1994|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe launched Wired magazine last year, they weren't just aiming for a successful publication--they wanted to make history.

"We realized we were in the middle of a (computer) revolution," says Rossetto, "but there was no journal for the people making it happen."

The business partners, who met in Europe in 1988, became immersed in leading-edge technologies while working on an Amsterdam-based magazine called Electric Word. While focusing on such exotic specialties as multilingual computing and speech synthesis, they were also watching technology spread into everyday life with the growing tide of PCs, modems, camcorders, CD-ROMS and other electronic equipment.

Says Metcalfe: "We began to realize that suddenly this technology was allowing people to accomplish things that had been the domain of giant companies with big budgets."

And that led to the vision behind Wired: Although there were 4 million readers of computer magazines, what Metcalfe and Rossetto conceived was something different--a lifestyle publication that gave an anthropological context to the high-tech revolution. So in 1991, they returned to the United States and pulled together a business plan for Wired, which boldly promoted itself as the "mouthpiece of the digital revolution."

Rossetto and Metcalfe then knocked on doors of publishers of mainstream magazines ("They looked at us with incredulity and pity," Rossetto says). Then they tried computer and consumer publishers without success.

They finally connected with Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab which, for two decades, has pioneered research on converging technologies and their impact on individuals.

"He totally understood what we were doing and signed on, both as an investor and a contributor," says Rossetto, 44. "That gave us instant credibility."

By July, 1991, they had raised enough money to rent a San Francisco loft and "worked like maniacs" to bring the magazine to life in January, 1993.

"We went right to the newsstands with no focus groups, no direct mail and no promotional advertising," says Rossetto, who has an MBA from Columbia. "We only did a low-cost campaign of bus billboards in major cities that Wired had arrived."

With a newsstand price of $4.95 (a 12-month subscription is $39.95), Wired's circulation has climbed to 110,000 in its first year. The magazine jumped from bimonthly to monthly ahead of schedule and it is averaging more than 50 pages of ads per issue, Rossetto says. "On all scales, we are around 50% over projection."

It seems Metcalfe and Rossetto were in the right place at the right time. Wired's first edition hit the newsstands the day President Clinton's inauguration ushered in an Administration whose new buzzwords included information superhighway . And for the first time, both a President and a vice president had E-mail addresses.

"There was so much talk about technology and the mainstream media didn't really know where to go," recalls Metcalfe, 32, an international affairs graduate of the University of Colorado. "We kind of wandered onto the stage with language they (journalists) could understand."

John Barth latched onto Wired early. He is senior producer of "Marketplace," American Public Radio's daily half-hour show produced at USC for more than 200 stations. Always looking for someone to discuss the economy in everyday language, Barth immediately signed up a Wired editor for a monthly interview.

"They have the same goals we do," Barth says. "Trying to get the big picture across to listeners who are buying this confusing electronic stuff and trying to understand what this technology is going to do to their lives."

Wired, which one magazine reviewer described as a cross between the counterculture's Mondo 2000 and Vanity Fair, has attracted readers in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, in Washington and throughout the entertainment industry. Their two largest reader groups are the 18-to-24 Microsoft generation and the over-40 crowd, Metcalfe says.

"Being Wired is not an age, it's a mind-set," Metcalfe adds. "We have the chairman of the board and his daughter."

"We're looking at the issues of our day which have to do with technology," says Managing Editor John Battelle, 28, who had covered the converging technologies for trade magazines during the 1980s. "What does it mean? Who are its idols and antiheroes? Its economics? What issues are being framed and discussed? What issues are being ignored?"

That information is packaged by Wired's designer, John Plunkett, in a break-the-mold graphic style that, Battelle explains, "indicates the way we are getting information--it's coming at us fast and from all directions."

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