Anna Wintour's haunted moonbase: Condé Nast, 'content' and the dread hand of editorial manifestos...
Wired has seen the future. Good news! It can still serve you ads.
It’s bad news when the editor writes a manifesto. Doubly so when the editor of a magazine subject to corporate restructuring writes one.1
Condé Nast — the glossy magazine Death Star with a fully-operational planet-killing commitment to pushing rapacious consumerism2 — announced “a new global digital-first content strategy” in April last year.
Behind the high gloss, chrome-plated corporate bullshit of that 8-word phrase is the usual bloody reality: Under CEO Roger Lynch — whose Wikipedia page describes him as “a guitarist and chief executive officer” because he plays lead guitar in an all-CEO band called The Merger — power is being re-consolidated in the US with Condé Nast’s international editions merged into the mothership.
As you might expect from a company where the closest thing real life has to Cruella de Vil — Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour — is Chief Content Officer, there’s a mix of cold calculation, pretension, and corporate flack approved ‘style’ at work.
The announcement of the new strategy in April was followed by an open letter from six of the company’s “global editorial leads and [their] deputies” — no call for such a pedestrian job title as “editor” in the brave new world” — in which Wintour and Edward Enninful for Vogue, AD’s3 Amy Astley and Oliver Jahn, GQ’s gentlemen-in-chief Will Welch and Adam Baidawi, and Wired’s Gideon Lichfield and Greg Williams promised the bloodshed was in service of “modernity”.
If the company was as dedicated to “local stories and global stories” as the editorial leads’ empty encomium to their remaining editorial staff claimed, it’s unlikely that it would have, for instance, dispensed with the services of the highly-successful Vogue China editor, Angelica Cheung, after nearly 20 years.
Similarly, if Condé Nast was truly interested in change and rejuvenation would it have elevated Wintour4 — who has been at the top of the company for 34 years — to become not just the Darth Vader of Vogue but the empress of all its titles bar one? David Remnick, the editor of the title where it is not endless Wintour, The New Yorker — which is edging ahead of Vogue in terms of sales and importance to Condé Nast — will celebrate his 24th year in the job in July.
But I don’t have the space, time or psychic bandwidth to pick at all the (terrifically chic) scabs of Condé Nast’s strategy and corporate self-image, so let’s just look at the latest title to ‘benefit’ from the consolidation: Wired.
On Wednesday, Wired announced that its US and UK editions are merging into a single Wired.com site and while two print magazines will still be produced they’ll “share many stories”. It doesn’t require superhuman cynicism to see which of the two will come out worse in that bear hug. Why does US Wired, the largest edition, not simply eat the others?
This is where the manifesto comes in.
Gideon Lichfield — a British transplant to the US, like Wintour5 — was appointed as Wired’s new Global Editorial Director in March 2021, replacing Nicholas Thompson who moved on a big-money transfer to The Atlantic in December 2020. Formerly the editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review, a member of the Quartz launch team and an ex-Economist staffer, Lichfield has the right kind of CV to be a ‘big thoughts’ guy.
That’s what you have to be to edit Wired… sorry, that’s what you have to be to globally editorially direct Wired: A big thoughts future-gazing guy; someone willing to throw colourful generalisations around with the abandon of Jackson Pollock locked overnight in a paint factory.
It’s also why the smooshing together of Wired’s US and UK operations — the latter having only re-emerged in 2009 after an ill-fated attempt in the mid-90s — has to be presented as something more than corporate shenanigans. And so we get Lichfield’s self-described “manifesto for Wired, an attempt to answer the question: what should a publication born as the bible of techno-optimism do in an age when attitudes to tech have become a lot more negative?”
If you’re a freelancer, the sensible response to one of these manifestos is to throw yourself to the ground before the editor’s genius and genuflect more wildly than a penitent in a wind tunnel. That explains why the miasma of quote tweets around Lichfield’s tweet is largely comprised of hacks making this commercially-astute move.
I’m not sensible. My collection of bridge ashes is world-class.
Lichfield begins by proposing that rather than thinking “the world is going to be radically upended [by] the blockchain” or that “[it’s] the bastard child of the Dutch tulip bubble…” you’re probably, like him, “longing for someone to just show you how to think about the issue intelligently and with nuance instead of always falling into the binary trap.”
But this is just another kind of trap. ‘On the one hand/on the other’ thinking can make you feel tremendously rational but lead you away from answers that your gut feeling had right all along. The fate of Theranos founder/gender-swapped Steve Jobs impersonator Elizabeth Holmes might have been quite different if early press coverage had been injected with a lot more cynicism.
Lichfield’s argument is that a ‘new’ Wired with a more moderate viewpoint is required because it started in 1993 as “the bible of techno-utopianism” but now “a great deal of media coverage focuses on the damage wrought by a tech industry run amok”:
[It’s] forced us—and me in particular, as an incoming editor—to ponder the question: What does it mean to be WIRED, a publication born to celebrate technology, in an age when tech is often demonized?
His answer is to “reject the binary” and conclude that “both the optimist and pessimist views of tech miss the point.” But what side of that debate is a title that still relies heavily on advertising revenue likely to fall?
Advertisers prefer optimism and as Wintour once said in a New York profile “commercial is not a dirty word to [her]”. Nor is it to the wider company. Condé Nast exists to sell lifestyles and Wired is a shop front for readers who think of themselves as less easily bought than GQ men.
Lichfield panders to the ‘smartness’ of the Wired readership in his choice of author and quote to bolster his argument:
As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, an intelligent person should be able to hold opposed ideas in their mind simultaneously and still function.
A lot of big talk about cognitive dissonance is a shield for cowardice. Making a decision and taking a stance is harder than stroking your chin and stretching the word “well…” out into a drone.
Gideon Lichfield @glichfieldToday we publish my manifesto for @WIRED, an attempt to answer the question: what should a publication born as the bible of techno-optimism do in an age when attitudes to tech have become a lot more negative? https://t.co/fEvwkbK8Pq
After a few hundred words of circling — less directing the editorial and more acting as an air traffic controller? — Lichfield descends on his point:
Which brings me to the question of what WIRED is for.
Fundamentally, WIRED has always been about a question: What would it take to build a better future? We exist to inspire people who want to build that future. We do it not by going into Pollyannaish raptures about how great the future is going to be, nor dire jeremiads about how bad things could get, but by taking an evenhanded, clear-eyed look at what it would take to tackle the severe challenges the world faces.
This is what makes editor’s manifestos such a problem. They are statements of grandiosity. When Lichfield was appointed, he was quoted in The New York Times calling Wired “iconic” — a word which should be on the banned list in any publication’s style guide — and his manifesto is, at its root, a claim to that status.
Lichfield is attempting to draw on the independence of the pre-Condé Nast Wired while operating in the world of “global digital-first content strategies”. Telling readers what you’ll give them and how you’ll give it to them is a throat-clearing exercise and an ego jerk off. A paragraph like…
Where the human and the technological meet: That’s where WIRED lives, and it’s where we aim to take you, every day.
… is embarrassing. It’s like catching someone psyching themselves up in a nightclub mirror.
Wired regularly produces good, in-depth reporting — I even wrote some for it in the ancient past (well, 2009) — and it’s understandable that a new editor, whatever their title, would want to put their stamp on a publication. But editors’ manifestos are too much tell and not enough show.
A manifesto at the best of times is cringeworthy. At a time of ‘rationalisations’, ‘strategic restructuring’ and old-fashioned sackings, it’s crass. But staff can’t say that and freelancers know they shouldn’t…
Yes, this is one of those editions when I set out to strike another title off the list of those willing to commission me.
Yeah, yeah, I know Teen Vogue does communist cosplay.
The posh buildings magazine formerly-known as Architectural Digest.
When Wintour was promoted again in December 2020, Lynch said: “Anna’s appointment represents a pivotal moment for Condé Nast as her ability to stay ahead in connecting with new audiences, while cultivating and mentoring some of today’s brightest talent in the industry, has made her one of media’s most distinguished executives.” That’s a lot of words to say: “I find her terrifying.”
His Wired author bio says he “left the UK in 1998 and has mostly avoided the place since…” Can’t blame him really.