February 15, 2018

When Kinsey Wilson was leading digital transformation at USA Today 15 years ago, WordPress was emerging from a single bit of code that helped pretty up typography for casual writing.

Since then, Wilson went on to spearhead digital change at NPR and at the New York Times, and WordPress became the world’s biggest self-hosted blogging tool, powering 29 percent of all sites on the web.

This morning, Automattic Inc., announced that Wilson would become president of its flagship commercial venture, the WordPress.com publishing platform. That effort integrates social and ad tools for some of the leading digital publishers.

So, we had a few questions for Wilson, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, a member of the Board of Visitors for Stanford’s John S. Knight Fellowship, and (disclosure) a trustee of the Poynter Institute.

His new boss, Matt Mullenweg, WordPress co-founder and CEO of Automattic Inc., has his say as well. This interview has been edited slightly for clarity:

Kinsey, first off, congratulations. How exactly did this opportunity come about?

Thanks! I’ve known Matt for many years through my work at NPR and The Times, both of which have used WordPress at one point or another. We’ve long had a shared interest in technology, product development, and of course the broader democratization of publishing that he helped lead.

So when he approached me about the opportunity to join the company, I was immediately intrigued. Like the news organizations I’ve led, it has a strong sense of mission and a clear business purpose, which is kind of a magic combination.

WordPress.com — the hosted version of WordPress run by Automattic — has been growing tremendously. But more than anything I was drawn by Matt’s vision. By the quality of the team he’s put together. By the WordPress culture. And by its broader global mission. It’s an exciting time.

You’ve worked most of your career at places traditionally led by news content, and you had reported, edited and led news-gathering at some of those stops, as well as overseen innovations like the NPR One app. WordPress grew the other way around, as support for many content providers and now businesses. What are the unifying factors for you?

There are many overlapping themes. From the commitment to free expression to the central role of product and technology. Even the business model — WordPress.com — operates a subscription service with both free and paid tiers.

More broadly though, I would say that the history of the internet, at least in the publishing space, is about the interplay of technology development and creative expression, whether that takes the form of news reporting, artistic endeavors, or small business development. Understanding how technology changes the way we create and consume information is at the heart of all these organizations. They simply come at it from different vantage points.

And in many ways, I don’t feel like I’m leaving journalism at all: WordPress powers millions of news websites, many focused on local communities. I think it creates an opening to work with others to address what is frankly an alarming crisis in local journalism.

At the end of the day, it’s about the opportunity to work with inspired talented teams on big, complex problems. Matt and Automattic have built a extraordinary global company culture to tackle these challenges for our users. Automattic has no physical headquarters — it’s made up of more than 600 employees working from more than 60 different countries, so it’s given them a real advantage in thinking about their platform as one that can serve diverse needs around the world.

In previous jobs, you have had to limit access to digital content to raise revenues, through subscriptions as one example, and often sought proprietary development. WordPress has been committed to open-source development, and its constant goal has been to democratize publishing, offering at its base free and easy-to-use tools. How does a company with this history navigate and develop the premium space?

Actually the differences are not that great. The news organizations I worked for have made extensive use of open source products. Where they turned to proprietary solutions, it was to meet needs that hadn’t been addressed by the open source community or to preserve some competitive advantage. WordPress, the open source software, is free for everyone to download.

But WordPress.com, the hosted service, includes unique proprietary features that are distinct to the business.

Similarly, on the business side, the media organizations I worked for made all or substantial parts of their content available for free, with the goal of promoting an informed public. To the extent that they charged for access, it was to drive revenue around their most engaged users.

Similarly, WordPress.com has a baseline free product, but also paid plans for people who have more intensive, complex needs.

What will be the scope of your duties here? Is one goal to offer even more of an all-in-one publishing solution for premium publishers, but somehow maintain the nimbleness and simplicity/intuitive design that has allowed WordPress to stay current with publishing trends?

The president role is a new one for WordPress.com, and it coincides with a period of tremendous growth and organizational change within the company. As the company has expanded, the leadership demands on Matt and the rest of the team have grown as well.

I think I can help the organization sharpen its focus, as well as evolve to meet the challenges that come with rapid growth and a competitive marketplace.

WordPress.com remains our flagship product. And the goal is to position it as a platform that provides both simplicity and ease of use as well as tremendous power.

But there are also many other growing enterprises inside Automattic that demand resources and attention. They include VIP, the enterprise version of WordPress.com, which powers sites for News Corp., Facebook, ESPN, and others, web services like Jetpack. The e-commerce platform WooCommerce. Then on top of everything else, Matt is helping shepherd a major new project across all of WordPress, called Gutenberg, which aims to reinvent the WordPress editing experience.

Recent articles point to concerns about security of WordPress sites, and mischief caused by hackers trying to put their ads everywhere, for example. About how much of your job do you think will be concerned with those issues, and highlighting security improvements?

I’ll defer to my new boss on this one …

[Matt Mullenweg]: Think of WordPress like an operating system: Customers on our cloud (WordPress.com) are fully protected. Those who choose to run their own hosting also take increased responsibility for running WordPress in a secure way, which the vast majority do, but there will always be those that leave their car unlocked, go on vacation, and complain when something is taken from it.

If WordPress weren't easy and common to run securely, the impact would be a front-page story, not the sensationalized articles of the type you refer to, typically seeded by companies selling security software.

In the past two days, Kinsey, you and another legacy media publishing star, Jarrod Dicker, have announced moves from a specific content company to one that will support a whole array of publishers and businesses? What do you think digital media veterans have to offer developing tech companies?

I think what we have in common is that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand our audiences. And to build products that genuinely meet their needs. Combining audience insight and design thinking with the kind of talent that tech companies have traditionally brought to the table is a powerful combination that gives us a better shot at building things that people can’t live without.

Matt’s vision of democratizing publishing built an extraordinary following. But as the number of publishing platforms has exploded, it’s essential that we understand intimately the needs of our customers, be they bloggers, news organizations or small businesses.

Dicker also mentioned a partnership with WordPress and his blockchain tech company. Will you be working on those fronts, establishing ties and workability with blockchain platforms that have sprung up with cryptocurrencies?

It’s an exciting space and one we’re watching closely. It’s premature to say whether there are partnership opportunities, but I’m sure we’ll be talking.

Thanks for the quick chat on a busy day. Can we check in in about six months to see how things are going?

Absolutely! Thanks again for your time.

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