Politics & Media
May 21, 2009, 06:10AM

"People Are Morons": An Interview With Michael Wolff

The Vanity Fair columnist and Newser founder explains why reputations can be deceiving.

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Michael Wolff, founder of Newser, is a man who doesn’t mince words, which makes him either an iconoclast or crank, depending upon your opinion of journalists. He’s an unabashed disciple of the view that “print is dead” and doesn’t particularly care if newspapers survive in any form, even as he’s made his living, in part, chronicling the difficulties of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He has no time for smaller newspapers. A onetime columnist for New York magazine, author of Burn Rate and The Man Who Owns the News, Wolff also writes for Vanity Fair about media, moguls and, on occasion, politics. The following interview was conducted via email earlier this week.  

SPLICE TODAY: Do you think Maureen Dowd will take a fall at The New York Times for her five-fingered discount of a Josh Marshall paragraph? Bloggers were (mock) appalled, and I'm wondering if somewhere down the line, maybe in a few months, she'll be given the bum's rush as an offering to the new digital world that the Times has, until recently, sniffed at.

MICHAEL WOLFF: Noooo. I rather think The New York Times exists now for Maureen. She's their key brand, the symbol and substance of what an “important” elite values and protects (by the way, I just stole that line from my friend Michael Schrage).

ST: Your book about Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, was an excellent read (as I wrote in Splice Today). I'm sure you were happy with the reception, both positive and negative, to the book, but do you think a lot of people missed the point of it? Some called you a Murdoch apologist, some a gossip, others felt the style wasn't dignified since you used what were once called "barnyard epithets." Now that the dust has settled, are you satisfied with the job you did?

MW: Yes, people are morons—or at least those who read books. I'm not sure how somebody can be both an apologist for Murdoch and, at the same time, be vilified throughout the Murdoch organization for great heresies. And what is it about my undignified prose? When did people come to insist that writing had to be so official—conservative, conventional, cautious, without personality or humor? Let me throw this out: I'm the best writer of nonfiction prose in America today. I may be the only writer of nonfiction who's even alive. Everybody else wants to adored by The New York Times—hell, they want to work for the Times (I guess there aren't too many other places for writers to work)—so they all sound like the Times. I'm from the old school that believes a writer's job is to break the form, or at least light a fire under it.

But I digress. Yes, I'm satisfied. Everybody's irked with me: the left; the right; the Times and the rest of the journo establishment; and News Corp. and the Murdoch family (though I'm told certain Murdochs are quite delighted with the book). You can judge a book by its enemies.

ST: Tell me more about Newser. I read that it's close to breaking even and that you took the prudent approach of a low-cost website model. But will the mostly-aggregated content—with the exception of your almost daily column—keep people's attention? It seems there are more and more splashy sites that aggregate news, so will you add more original content or is that necessary?

MW: As I say, I'm a journalist who comes from another era. I believe in engagement. If it means enough to write about, you ought to do it too. The sidelines don't interest me. So if I'm going to be writing about the collapse of the news business, I ought to put my money where my mouth is in an effort to reinvent it. Here I am in the fray—back in the fray. Newser is about trying to imagine and invent mass-market news for the future. Its goal is to address much of the new expectations about what news should be—a funnel of all voice and sources, a user-controlled experience, a supermarket of choices (something you don't get from the Times online—which is still just the Times). And yet, some aspect of news behavior will surely stay the same: news has to be efficient and entertaining (something you don't get from Google News—which is an undifferentiated mess).

In other words, at Newser we'll give it to you all; we'll give it quick; and you'll enjoy it. Now, I've done the Internet business before, as you know, with unfortunate consequences. So now I'm trying to do it right. My partner, Patrick Spain—who has two hugely successful start-ups to his credit, Hoover's and Highbeam—may be the most competent manager in the Internet business. He's also an incredible cheapskate. So we're doing this by the numbers. We've got two million views now. We're doubling every six-to-eight months. At that rate we'll be profitable by the end of the year--no credit to me.

ST: New York Times reporter/columnist David Carr wrote on May 18, in a strange puff piece for his own paper, that the Times, because of Carlos Slim's investment, is safe from hostile/friendly takeovers for at least two years. This strikes me as either naive or just a case of brown-nosing his bosses. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if an investor, vanity or otherwise, does offer a premium on the lousy (non-controlling) stock, say even $12/share, wouldn't the Sulzberger clan would be in a real mess if they declined?

MW: Carr is a man desperate to keep his job—he rather admits that. Much of his writing is now devoted to flacking for the Times and the news business. Good luck on that. The truth about Carlos Slim, one of the more questionable fellows walking the earth, is that he's buying up the Times right now and he's doing it in such a way that he could own it before anybody has a chance to object to this dubious character buying it. Having said that, if you offered $12 a share, the Sulzberger family would polish your silver, in addition to giving you their newspaper.

ST: I've thought about buying a small amount of Times stock, say $5000 worth, for my sons, as a learning exercise, one, and a possible little profit, two. Smart or dumb?

MW: Without the Sulzbergers’ controlling class of stock, the value of the New York Times Co. at least doubles. If, however, Carlos Slim comes to control the company through further acquisition of its debt that could have the same depressing effect on the common shares as the Sulzbergers’ hold. I've argued before, however, that Murdoch will try to scare Slim out of town with a drumbeat of bad press, paving the way for Murdoch himself to make a premium offer, perhaps in partnership with David Geffen. So go for it—make a bet for your kids.

ST: Do you have any residual bitter feelings about losing out on your attempted purchase of New York magazine? What do you think of that magazine today, and how would you have done things differently editorially? Or is that question, as Hillary Clinton, rather embarrassingly said about ideology, "so yesterday"?

MW: Oh, no bitterness at all. Relief perhaps. I continue to love magazines, or, for obvious reasons of self-interest, hope at least some of them have a long life, but I surely would not want to own one now. Pity the poor bastard who does. I think New York is as good as it gets—although the magazine does seem a little challenged in the columnist department—and I don't know how I'd ever get find a decent meal in New York without its website.

ST: A new website, The Awl, run by Gawker refugees, seem to have you in their crosshairs as a perennial target. In fact, you take a lot of guff from media writers, both online and print. Does this bother you? I imagine not, but perhaps it gets under your skin.

MW: This is a first. I'm in someone's crosshairs and I don't even know it. The Awl, you say? Gawker refugees? Aren't the Gawker people themselves refugees? Anyway, I suppose being targeted by the refugees might bother me if I paid attention, but that's one virtue of having a disconcertingly short attention span, I miss a lot. Also, since I have dished it out, I rather think I'm honor bound to take it.  

ST: When do you think the hand-wringing and sighing about the print media's demise, mostly by people over the age of 50 who won't be part of whatever the new media is, will end? I read a lot about the media, but I'm really tired about debates over paid content (as if that isn't a moot question), non-profit newspapers, and the certainty that democracy will go down the drain if newspaper companies don't survive. Do you feel the same way? And do you think this is reasonable mourning or a group session of self-pity?

MW: Newspapers deserve to go out of business. Other than the Times and a few others, newspapers really suck—they do the bare minimum amount of reporting; they mostly get it wrong anyway; and the writing is execrable. News, delivered in digital form, is faster and cheaper, not to mention searchable, redistributable, saveable, and linked to other relevant information. There's no contest here. I would anticipate that almost every urban daily will be in bankruptcy within the year. And within a very short period of time after that almost everyone will act like of course newspapers weren't meant to survive. Indeed, they will become a funny, can-you-believe-they-ever existed idea. (I read today that airlines are more popular than newspapers.) Nobody will mourn, except a few people, like myself, who actually remember what it was like to grow up in a newsroom.

ST: It seems that the communications industry will remain in flux for about 18 months or two years, with a lot of chaos and successes and failures, and then the landscape will become clear, perhaps led by entrepreneurs and adaptable current journalists who will embrace the future and figure out a way to both make money and have reporters overseas and in Washington. What do you think the industry will be like in two years?

MW: As newspapers shut down, new news organizations in all shapes and sizes will be popping up online—they're already popping, Politico, Globalpost, TMZ, Smoking Gun. Very few of them will have much to do with newspapers or existing news organizations. Most will be advertiser supported—some will try paid models. It will probably be a world of targeted, specialty content united by a handful of big aggregators—which will not only centralize the content, but also centralize the traffic and the advertising. There's no reason to believe that the future is bleak. Personally, I think it's rosy.

ST: What's your opinion of The Huffington Post? Daily Kos? Power Line?

MW: I think each represents a leap forward in gathering, analyzing, and packaging news. The old media idea that they do little or no reporting, that it's just aggregation and commentary, is specious. Old media comes from a world where information is precious; we're now facing a glut of information. The real value in new media is the development of forms to navigate and mediate that glut. Reporting is fine, but what we need now are news organizations that can mine, sift, highlight, streamline, present, and make accessible the Niagara of information that is disgorged on an unstoppable basis every day.

ST: You wrote on May 11 that soon there will be "neither Frank Rich nor Rupert Murdoch nor cheap, crabbed, slow-to-respond, protect-their-own-ass, news organizations. It's good." Did Rich or Murdoch take note of that comment?

MW: Well, I said that in one of my online columns, so Rupert, who's unable to find the Internet, surely would have missed it. As for Frank, I get the feeling he only reads himself.

ST: How will a monthly like Vanity Fair, for which you write a column, survive both the recession and news transition?

MW: Surely, young man, there will always be monthly magazines!

ST: Have you tired of Barack Obama and his administration yet? What do you think Obama's successes have been so far, and his most notable failures?

MW: No, not yet. I find it a remarkable performance—and unrelenting too. His success has been his own image—to have become a hero for our time. I'm not sure there are any notable failures yet. If I had to worry on the President's behalf, however, I'd say that Afghanistan is going to end in tears. But I imagine he knows that and is just trying to figure out when to declare victory and get us out.

ST: Who are your current favorite writers, men or women who'd you hire if money was no object?

MW: God, is there ever a harder question? Let me return to what I was saying before: I think most writers are painfully cautious, pantywaist earnest, and stubbornly literal. No risks, no jokes. This is, I believe, because there are so few places now to practice our craft. My friend John Homans, at New York magazine, refers to the 1970s, when I first started in the business, as the last renaissance of magazines. There were something like 19 independent magazines in the city at that time, most trying to outdo the others with stylistic verve and journalistic innovations and personal voice. Now, the premium is on diligent, dogged, faceless prose. Anyway, my favorite writer is Rod Liddle who writes for the Spectator in the U.K. He's sharp and withering and it doesn't at all matter what side of the argument he's on—it's not about the position, it's about the writing.

ST: James Wolcott, in the current Vanity Fair, wrote a nostalgic piece about New York City in the 1970s. What did you make of that column, and what would make today's Manhattan more palatable in your opinion?

MW: You've caught me. I didn't read it. But I will. Really.

ST: Would you say that your list of detractors and enemies is thicker than Manhattan's phone book?

MW: Well, the people at News Corp. are not my friends. And the people at The New York Times are not my friends. But, I have always found that, in this business, for every enemy you make, you get 10 times as many people suddenly cheering you on. So, actually, I think I'm ahead.

ST: Who do you think is the most impressive player (to use a 90s term) in the media today?

MW: Tina Brown.

ST: Finally, does Twitter make it?

MW: No. But they are onto something.


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