What Happened to Wirecutter? - 12 minutes read

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Joe Casabona’s love affair with Wirecutter began in 2013, when the site recommended a pair of inductive winter gloves—the kind that let you interact with a touch screen while staying toasty. They worked well, so he kept going back; he appreciated the rigor of the site’s product reviews. An exhaustive, nearly comical amount of research went into every category: Toilet-paper recommendations were backed by 50 hours of testing. The reviewers were bona fide subject-matter experts or enterprising obsessives who approached finding the best dishwasher with the fervor of crime-scene investigators. This work was documented in the form of sprawling posts, many the length of a magazine feature. Casabona, an audio-gear specialist, remembers thinking he’d found his people. “I really felt I could trust them,” he told me, “and Wirecutter became my go-to.”

I have a similar story, and you might also. It’s why Wirecutter has evolved from a niche website into a cultural phenomenon over its 12 years. (It’s also why you’ll find the same stuff in so many Millennial kitchens.) Wirecutter helped popularize a genre of lucrative recommendation content—where the site gets a cut of every purchase you make after you click on “affiliate” links to Amazon or other partner sites—and spawned a series of copycats. If you’ve ever searched online for the “best” anything, there’s a good chance that Wirecutter’s DNA was in almost every single article you found.

To make money from its guides and keep readers coming back, the site fundamentally needs to offer persuasive arguments for each recommendation; it needs you to trust it. Wirecutter, which is clearly inspired by publications such as Consumer Reports, must make the case that Seventh Generation 100% Recycled Extra Soft & Strong Bath Tissue is in fact materially better than Cottonelle Ultra ComfortCare (which was once the site’s top pick but has now been dinged for being the “dustiest and lintiest” of all the options tested). The site has to be comprehensive and cater to the preferences of mercurial readers. And, for reasons big and small, that seems to have become an impossible task on today’s internet.

While scrolling through product reviews for microphones, his area of expertise, Casabona started to feel that Wirecutter’s recommendations were off—“too obvious,” he told me. Then, after a string of underwhelming purchases based on the site’s recommendations, he got fed up, tweeting in January 2022 that the site’s recommendations had gotten worse.

Similar gripes have become common across Reddit comments, message-board threads, and social media. The testing processes and articles, some people argue, seem less exhaustive; others contend that the recommended products are of a lower quality in recent years. Many point out a specific moment when things changed, as Casabona did in his tweet: in 2016, when The New York Times acquired the site for more than $30 million. But it’s not quite evidence; it’s a gut feeling, a vibe.

The claim is unsatisfying, lacking the meticulousness and precision of, well, a Wirecutter review.  Why do people insist that the site has declined since the Times took over? How would one measure such a thing? In the spirit of the site, I decided to do some research. I reached out to a group of subject-matter experts who have an uncanny and uncompromising ability to evaluate the product. Has Wirecutter changed meaningfully since its inception in 2011? The people who helped build the site and write its most popular articles certainly think so. But Wirecutter’s story is also about the evolution of the internet, the way we consume, and how products are made.

The Methodology:

I spoke for roughly eight hours with four former Wirecutter writers and editors, plus the site’s current editor in chief. Their tenures span nearly a decade and capture the periods before and after Wirecutter was acquired by the Times. (As a point of disclosure, I should note that I worked at the Times from 2019 to 2021, but never for Wirecutter.) I spent about 20 hours reading archived and current Wirecutter reviews, and pored over dozens of articles, posts, commentary, and interviews about the website published from 2013 to 2023.

Why You Should Trust Me:

I’ve followed Wirecutter since its launch, when it was part of the Awl network of websites. And I’ve spent a not-insignificant portion of my disposable income on Wirecutter-recommended gadgets: air filters, water bottles, headphones, ring lights, stationary bikes, coffee makers, toasters, coffee grinders, utensils, mixing bowls, thermometers, monitors, printers, a kitchen scale, the OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Multi-Purpose Scraper & Chopper, socks. When I moved to Montana, in 2017, I bought a new Mazda CX-5 sight unseen after reading a Wirecutter recommendation. I am fond of the website—even as I’ve also felt, deep down, that it isn’t quite what it used to be.

The Research:

What you just read above is the bread and butter of Wirecutter’s format. Rather than evoke trustworthiness through sleek design, Wirecutter gleefully asserts it through its prose. The reviews can take the tone of an eccentric writing a letter to a dear friend. “It’s about understanding things on a deeper level and then using that to help people not feel so annoyed or stressed about getting or using the things they need,” Brian Lam, the site’s founder, told me. “Your pain as a reviewer translates into another person not having that pain.” When a particular product category was bad, the site refused to write about it or would explicitly tell readers to stay away. Lam was especially fond of reviews that employed a lateral mode of thinking—What’s the Best Cat? Well, Have You Considered a Dog?—and argued that this early approach set the site apart from other reviewers.

Once, Lam assigned a reporter to review bike locks by talking with prolific bike thieves; the writer ended up interviewing a man who’d very likely stolen his old bike. The piece was a hit. “Every extra hour we put into a piece, I still argue it added to the revenue a post would generate,” Lam told me. “The better it is, the more money it brings in over time.” Wirecutter paid freelancers hourly, often spending thousands of dollars on sprawling features that generated money through the site’s affiliate-link model—commonplace now, but a drastic departure from the banner advertising that was standard at the time. With this model, Wirecutter exploded and expanded, adding a companion site, The Sweethome, in 2013, which focused on home and lifestyle.

Read: America is drowning in packages

By 2015, the Wirecutter brand was popular and lucrative enough—in four years, it had generated a reported $150 million in online transactions—that potential buyers came calling. In 2016, the site sold to the Times, as a service-y complement to the newspaper’s own journalism. It didn’t take long for Wirecutter staffers to realize that the Times’ ambitions for the site far exceeded Wirecutter’s own expectations of moderate, steady growth. According to multiple former employees, whom I am keeping anonymous because they still work in the industry, the Times’ leadership wanted the site to double the amount of content it produced in order to juice revenue. Those employees said Wirecutter’s top editors argued that the site’s business would not scale directly, because a minority of articles, many of them for big-ticket items such as appliances, generated the bulk of the company’s revenues. But the mandate remained: Wirecutter would need to double its staff and double its output.

Asked about the strategic shift post-acquisition, a Times spokesperson connected me with Ben Frumin, Wirecutter’s current editor in chief, who told me that these changes had indeed been made, and that they were successful and for the better. He noted that the site has gotten substantially larger in recent years; according to Frumin, it has tripled the size of its audience and doubled its staff during his five-year tenure. The company has also expanded from a singular focus on product recommendations into broader areas of coverage such as digital privacy, environmental impact, and aging. “I see this growth as expanding our mission in order to serve a much larger and more diverse audience,” he said, adding that he’s proud of the site’s continued commitment to its early mission of journalistic rigor in testing and reporting. He argued that the site continues to employ the Wirecutter standard of product-category skepticism, pointing to a 2021 post titled “Why Your Toaster Will Eventually Fail You.”

But growth brought with it other adjustments. Times management also adjusted the freelance pay structure from an hourly rate to a flat fee per article, which two former staffers argue likely contributed to less time spent on researching and writing product recommendations. Frumin strongly rejected the notion that the flat-fee pay structure has contributed to a decline in quality and argued that the site now relies less on freelance labor, opting to hire more paid staffers for this very reason. A former staffer alleged that in 2019, an employee on the Times business side changed the copy of a post in the Money vertical without telling the editorial team—a major ethical breach in an industry where the separation of Church and state, so to speak, is sacrosanct. I asked several former staffers about the nature of the tweak, but no one was able to share specific details. Nor did a spokesperson for the Times, who told me, “The employee was immediately told that he had committed a serious ethics breach, and he subsequently left the company.”

To hear former staffers tell it, Wirecutter’s founding spirit was diluted over time as a result of the Times’ effort to chase scale: Doubling the site’s staff and content goals so quickly naturally led to a quality drop, they reasoned. But the people I spoke with were hesitant to pin the blame solely on the acquisition. That’s because although Wirecutter changed, everything else did too: The internet of 2023 is not the internet of 2011, nor are the products, nor are the consumers.

Since Wirecutter launched in 2011, many of the tech items the site specialized in (such as televisions) have simply gotten better; it’s harder, in many cases, to make a compelling claim about what’s actually the “best.” At the same time, Amazon-ification has meant that many product categories are bloated with functionally identical items, most of which are good enough. On top of all that, the web has evolved, in part because of Wirecutter’s success: Competing sites such as New York’s The Strategist and scores of other, less reliable knockoffs have emerged. Frumin himself told me that “the internet is so awash with reviews now that it can make the genre feel like a commodity.” Wirecutter readers started using the site differently too; die-hard users like Casabona said they trusted the site so much that they stopped reading the reviews and merely clicked the top links, ignoring some of the painstaking caveats that might dissuade a person from buying a product.

Read: The death of the smart shopper

And many people are now inclined to “do their own research.” Multiple former Wirecutter employees told me that they see a broad shift, with people migrating to trust influencers and people they know (or feel that they know) over institutions. Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube have become reliable destinations for product reviews in video formats, which appeal to younger generations of consumers.

Ultimately, Wirecutter’s mission to “tell you what the best particular product in a category is at any given moment” has become a herculean, if not impossible, task; the internet is too big, and it’s filled with too much stuff. And, as many online shoppers learned during the height of the pandemic, purchases don’t always follow the cold, rational logic of a Wirecutter recommendation. We panic-buy; we impulse-buy; we buy to fill a hole in our lives. “The ideal review is that you test everything and then there’s one product that works well for most people,” a former Wirecutter editor, who asked to speak anonymously because they still work in media, told me. “But who is ‘most people’?”

Every former Wirecutter employee I spoke with recounted stories of their teams wrestling with this exact question. Reviewers told me that their work evolved and broadened when they moved or had children: The best washer and dryer, for example, is different depending on whether you’re a bachelor, an ultramarathoner, or a homemaker.

Today, defining most people is an existential question for recommendation sites like Wirecutter, which does not ruthlessly harvest user data or offer targeted personal recommendations the way larger retailers such as Amazon do. It’s unclear what role a site like Wirecutter might play in one possible version of the future internet, where generative-AI assistants sift through information from recommendation sites and tailor them to their user’s detailed interests. For now, the site is doing an internal review to see if there are more effective ways to format reviews—Frumin cited Wirecutter’s “22,000-word” air-purifier review as a triumph of the form and a work of great journalism, but he also noted that it’s not a style that all readers might prefer.

The mere existence of a novella-length air-purifier review helps illustrate what may be the truth about Wirecutter, which is that it is a victim of its own, very real success. Wirecutter’s trajectory is the story of what the internet does to most great ideas: It forces them to scale, and then others replicate the concepts at varying levels of quality until, eventually, an economic, algorithmic wildfire is burning. The original is consumed and left in a scarred landscape. Has Wirecutter become less reliable? Or did the world and everyone around it change? Is there a place on an ever more commercialized web for long, obsessive letters from an anti-consumerist, gadget-loving friend? Or is the craft and care of the meticulous product review now a digital antique? The answer, like any good Wirecutter review, is full of contradictions: Yes.

Source: The Atlantic

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