Chris Anderson on the Economics of 'Free': 'Maybe Media Will Be a Hobby Rather than a Job'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of US technology and culture magazine Wired discusses the Internet's challenge to the traditional press, new business models on the Web and why he would rather read Twitter than a daily newspaper.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Anderson, let's talk about the future of journalism.
Anderson: This is going to be a very annoying interview. I don't use the word journalism.
SPIEGEL: Okay, how about newspapers? They are in deep trouble both in the United States and worldwide.
Anderson: Sorry, I don't use the word media. I don't use the word news. I don't think that those words mean anything anymore. They defined publishing in the 20th century. Today, they are a barrier. They are standing in our way, like 'horseless carriage'.
SPIEGEL: Which other words would you use?
Anderson: There are no other words. We're in one of those strange eras where the words of the last century don't have meaning. What does news mean to you, when the vast majority of news is created by amateurs? Is news coming from a newspaper, or a news group or a friend? I just cannot come up with a definition for those words. Here at Wired, we stopped using them.
SPIEGEL:Hang on a minute. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers have changed the meaning of "media." But without the traditional news media they wouldn't actually have much to do. Most of the amateurs comment on what the quality press report. So did you read a newspaper this morning?
SPIEGEL: Your local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, is fighting for survival. If it was to disappear tomorrow ...
Anderson: ... I wouldn't notice. I don't even know what I'd be missing.
SPIEGEL: So how do you stay informed?
Anderson: It comes to me in many ways: via Twitter, it shows up in my inbox, it shows up in my RSS feed, through conversations. I don't go out looking for it.
SPIEGEL: You just don't care.
Anderson: No, I do care. You know, I pick my sources, and I trust my sources.
SPIEGEL:As millions upon millions trusted the classic media previously.
Anderson: If something has happened in the world that's important, I'll hear about it. I heard about the protests in Iran before it was in the papers because the people who I subscribe to on Twitter care about those things.
SPIEGEL: The New York Times, CNN, Reuters and others can publish their best reporting on the Web and you'd never read it?
Anderson: I read lots of articles from mainstream media but I don't go to mainstream media directly to read it. It comes to me, which is really quite common these days. More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters. We're tuning out television news, we're tuning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it's just that it's not like this drumbeat of bad news. It's news that matters. I figure by the time something gets to me it's been vetted by those I trust. So the stupid stuff that doesn't matter is not going to get to me.
SPIEGEL:But you could also describe the endless stream of words coming from Twitter as stupid. Limited as they are to 140 characters, Twitter messages result in this mad, unfiltered and unproven impression of what is going on. The twittering can't be any kind of replacement for fast, comprehensive, and thoroughly researched reports and analysis from quality media. And with all due respect, you're producing this yourself. You're a member of the news media, you're working for a magazine, you're doing interviews and you're creating news -- or information, or content or whatever you want to call it.
Anderson: True. But the problem is not that the traditional way of writing articles isn't valuable anymore. The problem is that this is now in the minority. It used to be a monopoly, it used to be the only way to distribute news.
SPIEGEL: Because media companies used to control the printing presses and the airwaves?
Anderson: Exactly. So now that you don't need this access to a commercial channel to distribute (news), anyone can do it. What we do is still useful but what other people do is equally useful. I don't think our way is the most important and it is certainly not the only way of conveying information. So this is why we're in a funny phase. It's going to take us a decade or two to figure out what it is we're doing.
SPIEGEL:But even with this infatuation for new formats and Internet-based media, the demand for quality journalism is growing rather than shrinking. The online media has won over a huge, new audience. And for all the talk of the press becoming extinct, circulations have remained remarkably stable. The problem is the drop in advertising revenues.
Anderson: Newspapers are not important. It may be that their physical, printed form no longer works. But the process of compiling information and analyzing it, and adding value to it and distributing it, still works.
SPIEGEL: But where's the Web-based business model for it?
Anderson: We're still figuring that out.
SPIEGEL: Good luck -- a future that won't support itself.
Anderson: The banner ad was invented right here in this office in 1995. That was the first answer to your question. But there's not one business model, there are thousands. Each one of us has to figure out our own. We all make money but we don't make enough money -- and not as much as we made in print. Facebook is trying to figure it out, Twitter is trying to figure it out. We'll get there. It's so early.
SPIEGEL: What's your answer at Wired?
Anderson: Across the hall, there's wired.com. It has about 120 million pageviews a month, it's one of the biggest sites in the world. We pretty much run it and break even. But that's completely arbitrary; we decide how to do it. We have paid journalists, we have blogs. There's user-generated content and then there's magazine content with six months of research and 8,000 word stories. Some parts are edited, others are not. We make millions of dollars in revenues, and we decide whether we want to be profitable or not.
SPIEGEL: Others don't, or can't, take it that easy. They made money in print and used it to build and fund their online products. Now many, like the New York Times, are losing big parts of their print revenues and don't generate enough revenue from their Web sites. Fast-forward and you have a big problem.
Anderson: The math of profit is pretty easy, revenues minus cost. You do your best on the revenue side and if you are not making money you lower your costs. The problem is not that there isn't money to be made online, it's just that our costs are too high.
SPIEGEL: Or maybe revenues are too low. Why do advertisers pay less online than in print? Is the audience of wired.com less attractive than readers of Wired magazine?
Anderson: It's about efficiency. Online people tend not to look at banner ads. In print people tend to look at the ads just because they're better integrated, better looking ads. They're big, full page, beautiful photography. In many ways they are content. That's why advertisers spend $22 to reach 1,000 people on wired.com -- and $100 at the magazine. I don't think we have discovered the perfect online advertising vehicle yet.
SPIEGEL: Except for Google. They make billions with text ads placed next to search results.
Anderson: The Google idea is fantastic. But you can only do so much with text. It's very good for transactions, but it is very poor for brands. It's very good if you are trying to drive an action immediately, but it's poor if you are trying to instil a desire that plays out weeks later. We need to develop a form of advertising that works as well online as glossy pages work in print. And we don't have it yet. Again, it's very early. This is only a couple of decades after the invention of the Gutenberg press and we're trying to figure out what we've invented. But we will.
- Part 1: 'Maybe Media Will Be a Hobby Rather than a Job'
- Part 2: Can Classic Journalism Compete?
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH