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E-Mail’s Mouthpiece : In Just a Year, Wired Magazine Has Become <i> the</i> Guide Down the Information Superhighway

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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

The magazine broke a lot of rules in typography and design, Battelle says (too many, complain some readers, of the battling typefaces), utilizing fluorescent inks and an unusual type format. The result is a glossy, techno-trendy package that has received both praise for its creativity and grumbling from readers sometimes forced to pick through two stories juxtaposed like the teeth of two combs.

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But they find lots to read. While other computer magazines focus on technical bits and bytes, Wired offers in-depth reporting, fiction and profiles of the “digerati.” Its busy pages are packed with insider updates, reviews and gossipy features, such as “Jargon Watch” (“ Dittoheads : People who are in perfect alignment on an issue, an idea or a belief system.”) and gossipy “Netsurf” bulletins from life on the Internet.

Wired has featured novelist William Gibson (who first defined cyberpunk ) viewing Singapore as “Disneyland with a death penalty,” technology guru Michael Schrage’s examination of the future of advertising, and “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton’s proclamation of mass media as the new dinosaur.

The magazine’s December cover story, an in-depth look at video game giant Sega’s plan to dominate the world of interactive entertainment, spotlighted Sonic the Hedgehog as Wired’s Man of the Year. And January’s first anniversary issue was highlighted by “Microserfs,” Douglas Coupland’s much talked about fictional diary that chronicles the routine of computer nerds at the Microsoft empire.

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The magazine examines both the dark side of the wired world (how the government is playing Big Brother with your driver’s license) and its brighter aspects (the real revolution in health care will be technological).

And its April issue caused a stir in Canada this week with an article discussing how Canadians are getting around a media ban on a sensitive murder trial by reading about it on the Internet. Concerned that the article itself broke the ban, a number of Canadian distributors removed it from the newsstands. Charging “free speech violation,” Rossetto issued a press release announcing that the banned story is available on the Internet.

He is editor-publisher and Metcalfe is president of Wired, but, he says, “we sort of slop over into each other’s territory in hopefully synergistic ways.”

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Their office, in San Francisco’s “multimedia gulch” south of Market Street, is an open loft one visitor described as “a mix between journalism and nerd heaven” with its sophisticated desktop equipment and absence of paper.

“We do all our work with authors electronically,” says Executive Editor Kevin Kelly, former editor of the Whole Earth Review. Like Battelle, Kelly had been eyeing the world of digital technology as the next frontier when the Wired project came along.

“I knew there was an intellectual niche, and our circulation explosion from nothing to more than 100,000 in a year confirmed there is an unsatisfied hunger for this kind of information,” Kelly says.

Wired’s pioneering extends to electronic communications. With its own presence on the Internet, the magazine offers electronic texts of back issues, accepts subscriptions by electronic mail ( subscriptions@wired.com ) and encourages feedback from readers.

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Readers also find it easy to interact with authors, Kelly says. “We were the first magazine I (know of) to list the on-line addresses of people who write in and also all our authors.”

Steven Levy--author of such books as “Hackers” and writer of the second issue cover story, “Crypto-Rebels"--says he got a huge amount of E-mail feedback.

“I even heard from people who wanted to ask something about one of my books or articles for earlier magazines but just hadn’t written to the publisher,” he says. “You’re much more likely to write to someone’s E-mail. I’m still getting queries about that article, because it’s available electronically.”

He likes to write for Wired because the magazine, he thinks, is “really onto something. Like Rolling Stone in 1968, they’re a little ahead of the culture in general.”

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Ad Week magazine concurred and named Wired its “Start-up of the Year” winner: “Wired got there first, got there smarter, and is going places faster and more engagingly than anyone else.”

Staying ahead of the culture can be exhausting. “I’m here eight hours a day, which is part-time,” Kelly says. “There were people sleeping here for a while.”

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The original staff of 12 has grown to 40 full-time workers and a handful of additional consultants and free-lancers, programmers, writers and editors.

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“We’re still short staffed,” Rossetto says. “There is nobody scheduling what’s happening with the media right now and yesterday we had five different companies parading through our offices--everybody from Oprah to Australian Television.”

Metcalfe and Rossetto, a couple in personal life as well as business partners, live across the Bay in the Oakland Hills with a “bunch of laptops.” They try to juggle their time between running a magazine and keeping tabs on the communications revolution.

“I spend about 18 hours a day awake, trying to run this stuff down and also run a business,” Rossetto says. “I spend time on-line talking to all our editors and contributors. I read magazines and newspapers. I could literally go to conferences all the time--I’m trying to do the ones that seem the most valuable.”

And how does the spokesman for the Wired revolution envision life in another decade?

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“I have a hard time predicting what’s going to happen in a year,” Rossetto confesses. “The challenge of this era is to keep on top of it. My sense is that everything is only going to get more complicated.”


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