Jason Tanz came to New York after college, working for a trade magazine before moving on to Smart Money magazine, Fortune and Fortune Small Business, and healthy doses of freelancing before landing at Wired as business editor this year. He is also the author of a book, “Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America.”
PRWeek: You wrote a story recently about VBS.tv, an alternative online video journalism site. Do you think their model could translate well for other media outlets?
Jason Tanz: Absolutely. One of the things we talk about at Wired a lot is the “Meganiche.” These are sort of more targeted pockets of readers or consumers or what have you—the great promise of the Internet is you don't have to appeal to a huge, mainstream audience to be successful, you can take some more chances and target more specifically and do things you can't do with broadcast media, as is the famous “Long Tail,” which we're obviously all big fans of by decree. But one of the things that struck me about VBS was that the methods seemed to fit the medium so well. It's a lot of get in, get out real fast [journalism]—there's something about the approach that felt very “internet video” to me. There's a punk rock edge to it that I don't think you could necessarily see in any other medium.
PRWeek: The decline of newspapers because of the Internet is a perpetual theme, but another theme these days is the corresponding decline of magazines. Do you think magazines are in the same danger as papers?
Tanz: Yes, of course I do. It's kind of a surprising paradox that Wired is weathering the dot-com storm better than most. I think we have a philosophy that, the Internet can do a lot of things really great, so focus your magazine on the things the Internet can't do really great—write long stories, print it on nice paper, have beautiful layouts. I think that a lot of other magazines are trying to make stories shorter and become adaptable to the web, and essentially make the magazine product something that dovetails quite nicely immediately into the web format. So why buy the magazine? Even though we do put all the content of our magazine online for free, people still do find a different experience in coming home and opening it up and spending time with it. I'm very proud to be working at a place that believes in that kind of flight to quality.
PRWeek: How does Wired handle the web vs. print breakdown?
Tanz: Wired.com [and the magazine are] under the same roof. But we are run as separate bodies. They have a separate staff. That being said, we do coordinate a lot—when we have stories in the magazine that we think lend themselves to a lot of web extras, or we want them to come out at a certain time or whatever, we of course work with the dot-com staff in that regard.
PRWeek: As a lot of media outlets move more online, it seems to amount to piling more work onto the same number of workers. Is Wired avoiding that problem?
Tanz: I think so. I don't edit a blog myself, [but] a lot of the magazine editors do double duty on the blogs. But I think they finds that feeds back into their magazine work as well. The fact that we do have a staff dedicated to keeping the Web site updated, I think removes some of that pressure. So I don't know that anybody feels it's a huge burden. And it's all stuff that we want to do—we're all at Wired because we're interested in the impact that the Internet and technology has on things like the media. So we're interested in being a part of that experiment.
PRWeek: You wrote a book about hip-hop. What's your take on the corporate infiltration of hip-hop and the extent to which it's being used as a marketing medium?
Tanz: I think the quote you probably want me to give you is about how hip-hop used to be this pure expression, and now it's something that's been infiltrated and sullied by corporate interests. But I don't think it's quite that simple. It was always about making a name for yourself with hip-hop. Hip-hop has always been, in some sense, about marketing yourself, so I think it's a little too easy to decry the greedy corporate interests for sullying hip-hop. For a long time, the problem was that the corporate interests weren't paying enough attention to hip-hop. But that being said, it definitely plays a different role in our culture than it once did. It's not the voice of protest that it was once seen as, and that's because you fight and fight and fight to get accepted, and then once you get accepted, where do you go from there? What happens if you win?
PRWeek: Is hip-hop now just a pop medium, essentially?
Tanz: Yes…that's not all that it is—you can dig and find all sorts of angles to it. But in terms of the public imagination, yea, it's pop music.
PRWeek: Where do you think hip-hop is going as a medium? Will it stay as prominent as it is now?
Tanz: We're at a time when everybody is worried about the state of hip-hop right now. The album sales are not what they once were, and so on and so forth. I think there are two questions: there's the musical question, and there's the cultural/ political question. Musically I think a lot of the language of hip-hop…that musical language is still going to be around. Justin Timberlake wouldn't exist as he does without hip-hop, but he's not necessarily hip-hop himself. In terms of the idea that hip-hop was the culture of people that you didn't hear from, I do feel like there are those voices that are once again not being heard out there. And I think that they won't stay unheard forever, whether it expresses itself through hip-hop or some other way. It's a cycle.
PRWeek: Wired editor Chris Anderson got a lot of attention recently for blacklisting PR people—do you have any tips for PR people to stay on your good side?
Tanz: Well I haven't banned anybody, or posted anybody's e-mail recently. It's tough, and I think different editors at Wired have a different approach. But at least for the magazine, and for middle of the book features, which is what I edit, it's rare that we will get a press release and then write about it. It maybe has never happened. But what we do do is we write about trends, and we write about where the world is going, and some of that we do learn from getting press releases or from talking to PR agencies or their clients. It helps us to know what is going on, and potentially as these ideas germinate and we take these meetings and we sit with these ideas, we do end up coming back to those people as part of a bigger piece, or a trend piece, or we think about it a month later and remember it and think that can fit into something we're doing thematically. So I guess I don't have real hard and fast advice on how to get your clients into Wired.