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Michael Wolff, On His Own (But Not Really)

The columnist Michael Wolff becomes a blogger and weathers the storms he created.

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But he regrets nothing he said about Carr, who reviewed the Murdoch book in the Times. (“Historically, one of the problems with Wolff’s omniscience is that while he may know all,” Carr wrote, “he gets some of it wrong.”) In May, after Carr worried in his column about what might be lost without newspapers, Wolff insulted him on Newser and added, “It is really worth remembering that most newspapers are rubbish and that even the Times itself is quite often pretty dim. It won’t be hard for the future to be better.”

Kurt Andersen calls the two columnists “two alpha dogs in that little part of the dog run…circling each other and sort of snarling.” Beyond competitiveness, it’s a case study in Wolff’s dislike for others’ sacred cows, chief among them the Times. Wolff now argues that Carr, as an employee, can only defend the interests of his employer (Wolff’s words: “the in-house flack”). The salty, idiosyncratic Carr has mostly refused to take the bait. He does liken the Newser posts to “staring into a furnace.” Wolff, he tells WWD, “has credibility. I just don’t think he’s spending it very well.”

Wolff sees all of old media’s woes as vindication for his predictions. “It’s not a bad time to be a bear now that chunks of the sky are really falling,” concedes Carr. “But I’ve never understood the glee of it.”

“I like being engaged or at risk,” Wolff says. “What’s the level of excitement? How do you make something meaningful? If you’re at risk….I put my money and time at risk [with Newser]. I am trying to figure out what happens in this business.”

As for proclaiming the death of magazines, Wolff concedes he does it less often because he still gets paid by one, but also because “other than a very select few, they have died.” Crucially, the ones that have survived, including the ones he has written for, were subsidized in recent years by a luxury economy that has since proven ephemeral.

If that period was to be short-lived, it treated him well. By now, he’s living closer than most to the mogul life, and not just because he has a younger girlfriend: he is a businessman insulated from startup instability by what looks like the last generation of fat magazine contracts and possibly the last million dollar media book advance (for his Murdoch tome).

Much of the media world has been remade in Wolff’s image, more than even he might have expected. As his friend and New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki notes, whether out of choice or necessity, more journalists are now interested, as Wolff has long been, in being both “capital and labor,” and in trying to find a new business model to replace the old, broken one. And there are fewer employees.

Writing online, says Wolff, is closer to doing television (which he has long done at CNBC) — more news-pegged, less information required to assume authority.

For him, grabbing eyeballs in an accelerated, competitive news cycle has meant the cheap high of a provocative headline and choosing a hot-button subject based on its momentary buzz, not on whether he has an argument about it. And if he lacks the command he had when opining on New York power players, well, the old days of cocktail party chatter as feedback are mostly gone. The noisy post on David Carr got 1,000 pageviews, but “Is Barack Obama a Bore?” got 80,000. That few care as much about the media as it cares about itself is now measurable.

Newser has old-fashioned elements, assuming people want professionally sourced news digests. The business model is ad driven (Wolff says the site will be profitable this year, his chief executive told PaidContent it would soon break even), and its success depends on drawing a wide audience rather than a deep one. (It gets 2 million monthly visitors; he wants 20 million.) “I don’t really want to replace The New York Times. I want to replace the network news,” Wolff says.

While media behavior is changing, Wolff argues that “establishing a daily baseline of news” will remain a constant. Critics point out that even as Wolff is dancing on newspapers’ graves, Newser relies on their content. He responds the site is increasingly relying on native online sources like Politico, though it overwhelmingly features newspaper content summarized by paid writers.

And for all the entrepreneurial self-styling, Wolff says he cares more about being a good writer than anything else. (He is, a friend remarks, a creature of old New York, mud-throwing and all.) “The thing I do, and the only thing I do, is write the damn sentences,” he says. “So whether or not it falls apart, I am blissful to have someone pay me to write the sentences.”

Wolff’s online presence seems to be talking at people, indifferent to the conversational or interactive aspects that define Internet media. He says in his own defense, though, he responds to reader comments and e-mails. But when pressed, he shrugs and concedes he thinks all this social media and tech stuff is “talking, not writing.”

But what if that’s what the Internet is good for? What if, this time, he just doesn’t get it?

“This is what I do, whether it works or not,” he says finally. “And it may be that no one is interested in sentences anymore.”

What then?

“Then I go down with the ship.”

 

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