OLD Media Moves

New Wired editor Lichfield says goodbye to MIT Technology Review

March 13, 2021

Posted by Chris Roush

Gideon Lichfield

MIT Technology Review editor in chief Gideon Lichfield, who is becoming the editorial director at Wired, sent out the following to the MIT Tech Review staff on Friday:

Hi everyone,

On December 4, 2017, my first official day at MIT Technology Review, with the magazine just two days from closing, I decided the cover story was terrible and promoted a piece of Antonio’s instead. In about two hours Emily Luong and I came up with a new cover, which later won an award. It felt like the most editor-in-chief-y thing ever.

Things went downhill from there.

I had come to TR all hot and punchy from New York with my rings and leather jackets and a bunch of big ideas about how I would “Quartzify” the place. I liberally copy-pasted from the Quartz style guide, a mutant hybrid of AP, Reuters and Economist style that drove Linda, our copy chief, quietly (and uncomplainingly) crazy. A few months later Martin Giles, then our West Coast bureau chief, pulled me aside and told me to stop talking about Quartz because it was like talking about your ex when you were dating someone new.

I stopped. I had also started to figure out by then that very little of what I’d learned at Quartz was applicable here. Media organizations may look the same on the outside, and sometimes even on the inside, but each one follows its own mysterious logic, dictated by its readership and subject matter and the cadences of its stories and the structure of its website and the ways it makes money. The weirdest little things that totally work in one place can totally fail in another.

I floundered. I had this vision about using journalism to “make technology a greater force for good,” but it was a vague and breathy thing and I couldn’t really figure out how to turn it into instructions: do this, don’t do that. Also, as people left and new ones arrived, I looked up one day and noticed that the editorial team had gone from having an equal gender balance to being two-thirds men, including all the editors and most senior writers. There were moments when having no women in the room led to stupid decisions. I was responsible for one of the stupidest. (Luckily, we trashed that cover before it ever saw the light of day.)

Also, I hated Boston.

Then there were the other things—the homebrew CMS, the impenetrable analytics, the fact that we, a technology magazine, did most of our subscription marketing by sending out paper mailers to people by the hundreds of thousands. (It’s a wonder we didn’t just ask them to tie dollar bills to the feet of carrier pigeons.)

And in September 2019, the month two of our best people quit—Will Knight to Wired and Martin to Forbes—I felt like the ground was crumbling.

In retrospect, it was also the moment things started to turn around.

I can point to a bunch of reasons, in particular the fact that we began a run of great hires that just hasn’t stopped—Jennifer, Will, Abby O, Amy, Eileen, Madison, Abby I-G, Anthony, and Siobhan, not to mention Lindsay and Cat as part of the Pandemic Technology Project and Stephanie on the art team, whose very first image was the unforgettable George Church as Cupid with a DNA bow and arrow.

But if there’s one thing that I think really made the difference, it was the worst thing that has happened in our lifetimes: the covid-19 pandemic.

In those first weeks it felt like the world was ending, and it was—the world we’d known before. “We’re not going back to normal” remains, to my knowledge, TR’s highest-traffic story ever, not because I said anything particularly brilliant in it but because by lucky timing I had put words to the dread that people were just beginning to feel.

But the day that story came out was also the day we started a new channel in Slack: #edit-print-coronavirus-may2020. The week before, a few of you had suggested that with the magazine just three weeks from closing, we scrap the whole thing and do a covid special issue more or less from scratch. It felt like the most editor-in-chief-y thing ever, except this time, the editor-in-chief was against it. We held a meeting; I pointed out the objections; I was overruled pretty much unanimously.

That was one of my proudest moments.

You pulled together to create that issue and then you kept on pulling. Everyone took on a covid microbeat™. Neel pivoted from space coverage to testing coverage and started cranking out a newsletter three times a week. Bobbie and Tate and Patrick launched the Covid Tracing Tracker. Tate and Benji and I launched Radio Corona, much of which now looks painfully slipshod and awkward, but everything was slipshod and awkward in those early days of the pandemic and there was a certain defiant pride in showing that you were barely holding things together and doing them anyway.

Still, I was constantly anxious. All the journalists in the world were competing on the same story, and I swung between elation at what we were doing and panic that maybe everyone else was doing it better. Too much breaking news or too little? Stay focused on covid or start moving on? I changed strategy, then changed it again weeks later, and maybe a third time too—my memory of that spring is hazy. Then George Floyd was murdered, and American cities erupted, and suddenly all the journalists in the world were competing on that story instead.

I don’t really remember when it happened, but I know that at some point I just started to relax and learn to trust myself, and all of you, more. In the past few months we’ve become more agile, more creative, more aggressive, more ambitious, better at the craft.

But much more importantly, we’ve become a crew that cares and looks out for one another and collaborates in ways that were unimaginable when I first got here. I’m sure many teams that worked through the pandemic have formed a special bond, but it’s remarkable to me that when a growing number of us have never even met in person, Zoom meetings on the best days can feel like a summer-camp reunion—especially when Charlotte starts giving running commentary in the chat window.

Meanwhile, TR itself has changed almost beyond recognition. We got rid of the old CMS, revamped the analytics, and stopped sending the paper mailers. (Maybe there’s still a carrier pigeon around somewhere.) We have a podcast that competes with the best of them, a second season on the way, and yet another series in production. Instead of a lone—albeit nearly superhuman—social media editor, we now have a crack three-person engagement team going out together to do battle in the wilds of the internet. The Pandemic Technology Project is turning out hard-hitting stories and giving us a template for future grant-led projects; we’re starting a fellowship; we’re collaborating with ProPublica. We’re finally back at gender parity and more ethnically diverse than we’ve ever been, though there’s still a long way to go.

Almost all of this is you, not me. I haven’t personally brought in almost any of our recent hires: Amy found Siobhan, Karen cajoled Eileen, Jennifer brought Anthony along, others came in through our now much-improved recruiting process. I hired Jennifer, but only because she started talking to me at a conference and won me over with the sheer force of her ambition. Tate just barreled in here like a locomotive and essentially refused to not be given a chance, and thank goodness she did. The Pandemic Technology Project and the grant for it—all Bobbie’s doing. When we plan print issues, I call meetings and mumble inchoate ideas and sometimes make decisions just because someone has to, but it’s then people like Amy, Konstantin, David, and Bobbie who roll up their sleeves and make them happen. On design, I act as a foil to Eric, but frankly my input has probably ruined as many magazine covers as it’s improved. Reilly, Niall, Tim and others do gigantic amounts of stuff in the background that I’m not even aware of.

Sure, I’m good at writing words, I’m even better at cutting them (sorry James, sorry Tanya), and yes, I do go in and sharpen up clunky headlines and deks and lazy captions and boring pullquotes when some of you aren’t looking. But you don’t need me for that part; you just need to care about the small stuff as well as the big stuff, the craft as well as the art.

It’s incredibly hard to leave just when things are going so well. It’s especially bittersweet in the week we published both Eileen’s latest exposé on Peter Diamandis and Karen’s blockbuster piece on Facebook. That story in many ways embodies exactly the vision I struggled to articulate for TR. It’s deep and nuanced and human, it unveils the inner workings of one of the world’s most powerful companies, and it shows how technology can end up doing harm despite the best attempts of very smart people to make it otherwise.

Facebook sent us a long, bullet-pointed list of objections to the story, and Karen and I reviewed and annotated them point by point. I sent back the document with a note: “Virtually all of your objections are either incredibly hair-splitting or direct mischaracterizations of what the story says. This confirms our confidence in our reporting, so thank you.”

Now that felt like the most editor-in-chief-y thing ever.

I’ll miss you all very much. I’ll be watching from Wired with a mixture of pride, nostalgia, and envy. You’ll do great. You’re doing it already.

Stay in touch,


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