System Crashing

Buying Wired magazine may align you with the digerati, but buying its stock might sink you into poverty

Editor at Large Katrina Heron calls Wired downright "liberating" compared to the more traditional publications where she has worked, including the New York Times Magazine.

"At the Times, if someone was doing something kind of edgy or new or impolitic or iconoclastic, the editors would watch that person's progress though other media until one of the gray-suited men would decide that the New York Times could pronounce on that person," Heron explains. "And they very much felt that until it happened, that person had no standing. The great irony of more traditional magazines is that they hire young people because they are seeking innovation, but then they have a problem dealing with it. It's the exact opposite at Wired. It's not about covering a group of people who are considered worthy of journalistic attention. It's about going out and finding interesting stories, wherever they may be. A lot of subjects in Wired have never gotten that much, if any, press attention before. I find that really kind of thrilling."

For many of the roughly 130 workers at HotWired and SUCK, the troops at Wired are viewed as their more stable -- but less hip -- older siblings. While Wired's initial, frenetic turnover has slackened considerably since the magazine's early days, HotWired is virtually a revolving door.

"It's understandable that there's a lot of turnover," says Carl Steadman, who created SUCK with Joey Anuff. "The technology is moving so fast that no one is quite sure what they're doing. We're all just throwing stuff up and seeing what sticks. Everyone's job description and what you do on a day-to-day basis changes. Your relationship to people who are at least nominally your managers changes as well. ... That makes for a very Darwinistic environment. It makes for a very Wired environment. The pages of Wired speak about this sort of every-man-for-himself new world. And not everyone is ready for that. It's really tough."

Anuff adds, "It's either totally exhilarating, or it sucks. And both can happen in the same day."

One former HotWired employee, who asked not to be identified, offers a more mundane view of labor on the digital frontier, describing life in the Wired compound as more akin to a poorly run cybersweatshop than a hotbed of creativity.

"You have two or three low-paid people struggling to do a job that one well-paid, more experienced worker could handle," the ex-employee says. "Some people find that exciting. Others find it unbearable. But whichever side you take, it's not a very efficient way to run a business. And that's fundamentally what the whole thing is -- a business."

Even a simple staff meeting can turn into an exercise in futility at Wired Ventures, where workers abound but leadership is apparently quite scarce. Another exile remembers a gathering called to discuss the weighty issue of HotWired's "editorial direction." It ran for three hours, and the bulk of the confab revolved around choosing icons and colors for a HotWired section. In the end, nothing was nailed down. Other meetings were scheduled for late afternoon but didn't get off the ground until midnight. Workers were expected to wait with no word on when they could finally head home.

"If a meeting was scheduled for 2 p.m., that really meant anywhere between 2 and October," the ex-employee explains.

Still another deserter -- they aren't hard to find -- now works at Hewlett-Packard and explains that the Wired working environment lacked just four things: "respect, dignity, trust, and courtesy."

But higher-ups counter that unpredictability is an inevitable byproduct of an expanding company. "HotWired has gone from a handful of employees to more than 150 in less than two years, so there are amazing opportunities here," says Catherine Litzow, director of marketing communication. "The stress and the change are the price we're paying for pioneering a new industry and working for a rapidly growing company."

That feeling is shared by some current employees at HotWired, who feel their cyberstation is often viewed as an on-line afterthought by the hard-copy magazine, where staffers tend to be more experienced and better paid.

When a panel of federal judges struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA) on June 12, Wired threw a South Park party with beer and a reggae band to celebrate. Todd Lappin, who edits the "Cyber Rights Now" section in Wired and also writes for HotWired, helped organize the bash while fielding calls from the media. In the process, he missed a deadline for a HotWired item on the court decision. Lappin points out that HotWired director David Weir gave him an extension, and he turned the story in the next day. But the move still irked the rank and file at HotWired.

"He was too busy talking to the old media to keep the readers of new media informed," says a disgruntled HotWired staffer who asked not to be named. "We didn't have something on the CDA the day of the court decision, and it made us look stupid. People here were really mad. [Lappin] is supposed to care about the Internet, but he's tapping a keg and talking to reporters instead of writing an important story. Too many people at Wired are using the Internet just to further their own careers and get their name out there."

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