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Wired's Scott Dadich Talks Tech and How Magazines Can Adapt to the Digital World

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Scott Dadich, the editor in chief of Wired, quietly makes his way through the glossy corridors of Condé Nast, past its art gallery to a semiprivate area with couches. His understated persona and measured, concise manner of speaking clash somewhat with his appearance. The editor, who is based in San Francisco, could double as the owner of a Brooklyn small-batch distillery or the most stylish member of Vice’s executive management team.

But Dadich is a longtime Condé Nast hand who started his Wired career as creative director from 2006 to 2010. He was elevated to vice president of editorial platforms and design for Condé Nast from 2010 to 2012, overseeing the development of the company’s iPad presence. Although the iPad didn’t turn out to be the financial and readership bonanza the magazine industry forecast, Dadich was brought back to Wired in 2012, this time as editor in chief. During his tenure, he’s helped transition the business to digital — not only does Wired boast the highest Web traffic at Condé Nast, but it also gets the lion’s share of its advertising revenue in digital, not print.

This story first appeared in the March 9, 2016 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Still, it hasn’t been an easy climb. In 2015, Wired’s Web traffic fluctuated wildly between 9.2 million unique visitors and 25.4 million, for an average of 13 million uniques, according to ComScore. In print, Wired’s total paid and verified circulation fell 6.6 percent last year to 845,596, and its total single-copy sales slid 25.1 percent to 44,159, the Alliance for Audited Media said.

Here, Dadich addresses how magazines can adapt to the Web, Apple News, if Wired will install a paywall, and all the hype surrounding emerging technologies such as virtual reality and wearables.

How has the role of the editor evolved since you’ve been at Condé Nast?

Even in the 10 years I’ve been at Wired — it will be 10 years in April off and on with the corporate work — the difference is pretty profound. The engagement that an editor in chief had in relation to the work was fairly prescribed and fairly narrow because you were doing, at least in the case of Wired, 40 or 50 stories of the month that were necessary for that issue. And then you were able to simultaneously interleave medium- and long-range assignments against planning. It was very focused on landing those appropriate stories in the moments that seemed best for that particular issue. We would look at the overall picture of a year, and say, “What’s missing here from our scope of coverage?” The way my day looks different than my predecessor’s is that the time scale has collapsed so profoundly. What has been a 45-day kind of conversation is happening in four or five days, and today, and this afternoon…And then the media proliferation that comes along with that demands the kind of decision-making that we used to have the luxury of unspooling over time.

The Internet plays such a big role in that acceleration. How does it affect Wired?

We’re not a news organization. Certainly, if there are news events that take place in the world that we need to weigh in on, we’re going to, but we’re not breaking news per se. That liberates us in some meaningful ways. We can take a deep breath when something happens, sit and talk about what that means for the Wired world and what the Wired perspective is going to be before we push the button. A lot of media feels obligated to rush to publish. I certainly feel that there are occasions where speed matters for us. But the norm is that we’re taking our time to publish the best content for the Wired audience.

Wired breaks news, and with that comes the need to own a story and chase it. How does Wired separate itself from news outlets?

The metric is — as journalists — is there something we’re bringing to the awareness of the world in a way that is meaningful to an optimistic, authoritative look at how the future is changing around us today? That’s one set of decisions. Or is this something where we have to embed for nine months to be able to characterize it appropriately in the greater context of innovation or design and technology? That decision matrix is really a play on how we’re going to assign.

Is there something about Wired that calls for that approach?

I’ve tried to encourage a more inclusive worldview in the scope of stories that we assign. The other fact that has nothing to do with me is that the world has come more into the framework that Wired covers — the fact that social media is going to play a significant role in the presidential election this cycle has nothing to do with what I’ve done. It’s about the way that the world has changed. From media to politics to sex and religion, and policy, and cultural issues like “Black Lives Matter,” we’ve been able to tap into a conversation that’s playing out on a national and international stage, and do so with some authority and a unique perspective of having been around that for a quarter of a century.

Edward Snowden and Scott DadichEdward Snowden (left) and Scott Dadich, from Wired’s September 2014 issue.

Wired seems to take a digital-first approach to stories. Should magazines adopt that model? What are the dangers?

One of the challenges for me personally — and I think a lot of my colleagues — has been finding a willingness to let a story go by, and not rush it, and find that right fit with either the Wired values that we define together or offering something that hasn’t been put forward in a meaningful way in the news community. That tension plays out every single day…but we have a finite amount of resources. There are only so many of us — but we are a lot more staffed than we have been in the past with the merging of the digital and print newsrooms. We have reorganized the whole editorial structure around subject matter and not media platform, by beats. There’s certainly nothing original about it, but that was liberating.

Are we in a digital bubble?

There’s a saturation point, definitely. The personal outlook of how many phone minutes I spend per day has increased past the point of my liking, for sure. E-mail drives so much of that. I think there are practical limits to how much we can take on. That will take shape in discarding certain platforms or moving deeper behaviors to others.

Are you seeing a shift now?

Just the emergence of Facebook video is something new. Videos will do two to three or four times better than on YouTube or on wired.com, and then we’ll see inverse behaviors on other videos where YouTube is the primary mode of traffic. It’s been interesting. We don’t have any real formula in play. We’re watching it because it is changing so quickly. Facebook is modifying its output algorithms and preferences and AutoPlay and everything that goes along with it. It’s so dynamic. It’s difficult to put a pin in where we are today or in a couple of weeks — only to say that it has to keep evolving and the pace is only going to accelerate.

Why hasn’t Apple News been a hit for publishers?

Apple never made any guarantees to us about audience size. Of course, with all things Apple, there is a secrecy around the installed base and rate of adoption. They’ll paint with the brush they want to. They were really helpful to us in the process of thinking about how to set up our feeds — what the technology aspects were going to be. They never involved themselves in the editorial components. They never inserted themselves in a way that I found objectionable — quite the opposite. They’ve been really terrific. But are we frustrated by the numbers stuff? I would say ‘yes.’ We had great metrics and plans, but I wish we had real-time understanding like we do on wired.com.

Is part of the problem that people already have a brand perception of Apple and it doesn’t include news?

I think there has to be a preconception. If you’re an Android user, Apple News doesn’t enter the equation for you. It’s not even a consideration. [With Apple users] you only get that one chance to surface our stories and those of our peers and friends to that new reader. Do they do a good job of capitalizing on that? I don’t know yet. I wish we had more data. The initial statistics were encouraging.

Wired has the best traffic of Condé’s magazines, and about 60 percent of your ad revenue is in digital. Why is the print version of Wired still important?

It’s meaningful in the way that it’s still hard to capture in digital, despite all our experimentation with technology, with moving a story through an audience member’s hands. Digital is lightning-fast. There’s something about slow and a craft. The fact that a group of creatives can go off and think about and chew through and argue about and design and tell stories, and then come out with that collection, is a really meaningful event. I like what print forces about that. Where 10 years ago when I started, it was the primary vehicle for telling stories, digital tends to take that place now. That doesn’t always mean that digital is the best place for it [a story]. The tactile qualities you see with cover stock and the way it feels and the inks, that’s something that Wired has always been known for. It’s something we plan on continuing, if not doubling down on.

As newsstand sales decline and subscriptions struggle to grow, what are your thoughts on paywalls?

I think it’s about the discreet offer of value. Wired has always been a free product [online], but that’s not to say we can’t come up with something that gives enough value to the reader for us to ask for some payment, whether that’s weekly or monthly. There are a number of scenarios that I can envision where we offer a paid digital product on wired.com.

Is that something you’re planning?

We don’t have plans to launch it yet, but we’re certainly in active modeling, working on the tech that it would require. I think the harder work for us is putting a boundary around the value proposition and the offer to make sure we are exchanging enough value to derive what we want for the subscription fee.

When it comes to fashion and tech, wearables haven’t really taken off. Are you seeing anything interesting coming up?

I think you’ll start to see bigger advancements when technologies like Google’s jacquard starts to come into play where the technology is hidden and woven into the fabric.

Are technologies, like embedding RFIDs into your skin and self-driving cars, going too far?

I think there is potential for going too far in just about every technology we cover. That was the primary thing we discussed in our car-hacking story. These are things we’ve always kept an eye on. It’s an important component in our coverage.

Scott DadichScott Dadich – Editor in Chief, Wired

Is virtual reality tech marketable for a broad audience?

Yeah. We’ve been spending time with just about every device maker and platform out there. The gaming possibilities are really fascinating. I’ve never been a gamer and I can see myself losing a few hours in there. We talk about this a lot. The devices are going to be like headphones; you can have your shitty headphones that they hang out on airplanes, which is where it feels like Cardboard is at the moment. Then you have your $600, living room-installed Oculus, ultrahigh-def piece of hardware that is more immersive and meant for the experience. In between there, you are going to have a range of devices.

So you think the average person is going to want to use VR?

I think the danger of the low-end device is that it turns the broader VR audience off to it because it’s uncomfortable, and that it’s a “good enough” experience, not amazing, whereas the barrier of entry for a $600 headset is going to be too high for a lot of people. Is that middle inclusive enough and are there content opportunities in gaming, storytelling, movies, travel that are compelling enough to become adopted widely? The [current] experimentation phase to me feels a lot like the early days of the iPad, where there were a lot of people doing cool stuff…it pushes the boundaries of our understanding of where the technology is going.

Interesting you mention the iPad, as it was once seen as the savior of the print media industry, but it flopped. What did you learn from that experience?

We learned a lot about presentation…and we got a lot of data about the real use of and reading of our stories on actual devices, and that informed a lot of the decisions we made on wired.com. One-third of the output of wired.com stories would be designed with that orientation in mind and with that screen in mind. I got a lot out of it. Wired has benefited from it. As an industry? A lot of experiments ultimately didn’t move the needle in terms of changing the dynamics of the newsstand or subscription modeling overall.

How active are you in Wired’s native advertising and live events businesses?

We started last year a division inside of Wired called Wired Brand Lab specifically to handle the question of native advertising and marketing patterns who had stories to tell on platforms others than Wired. The storytelling expertise that we have has been attractive to a number of our advertisers. We formed that division outside the bounds of editorial; it’s not staffed by editors, but it is staffed and run by people who have been associated with Wired. They used to be Wired writers and editors, but they aren’t presently. We set up guidelines for them and our marketing and sales team is engaged. It is something [publisher] Kim [Kelleher] and I talk about frequently, but Wired editorial is not involved in the articulation of the storytelling.

Events is growing for us. We are adding to the bandwidth as quickly as we can…most of the events are sponsored. Some are editorially driven [like Wired by Design]. “Live” is important for us. We like to have the ability to tell these stories in real time and meet the people who we cover in the pages one-on-one and our readers do, too.

Is Wired a testing ground for strategies at Condé Nast’s other titles?

There is an expectation that is put upon me and Kim and our colleagues that we innovate. Given our physical geography in the world [San Francisco], we can’t help but have what’s happening up and down the Valley rub off — whether that’s tools or processes or organizational methodologies. That’s something we’ve tried to take on board in the last couple of years. Kim and I took that on with the operational organization of Wired itself, and how we organize ourselves as a leadership team.

Now we see that play out in the code on the site and the expectation that our engineers want to do new things and they want to try new ways to tell stories in the same way our writers and editors did. It is cultural and it was written literally on the walls by the founders in 1993 in the original set of heuristics, that risk-taking and trying new things and adopting a willingness to fail were key components of what was defined as “Wired-ness.” Condé Nast has not only been supportive of that, but [president and chief executive officer] Bob [Sauerberg], in particular, has pushed us to accelerate our progress, to find even more new ways to experiment.

What tech can’t you live without?

Sonos. Not only is it wireless playback for your music, but it bundles all of your services into a single app.

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