Last night, on April 20, Michael Wolff, the Vanity Fair columnist and founder of Newser, was sitting on a chair—arms folded, legs crossed—on the third floor of the Time Warner Center while a downpour rumbled outside. Surrounded by flickering television screens, mobile phones and mp3 players in the “Samsung Experience” room, Bennett Zier, chief executive of Air America Media, asked him a question: “What do traditional media companies need to do to stay relevant?”
“Yeesh,” Mr. Wolff responded with his signature bite. “That’s the question they ask themselves every day, they run around in circles and they scream at each other and they pull out their hair and they say, ‘What do we need to do to be relevant? Who can we call?’ The answer is there is no answer there, or the answer is probably that there is nothing that they can do.”
Mr. Wolff, who wore in a black suit and burgandy socks, was sitting across from Craig Newmark of Craigslist, the soft-spoken, self-proclaimed “nerd” who flew in from San Francisco and has been dealing with some Craigslist drama this week. Both were invited to speak on “Media 3.0 – What’s Next” for Gotham Media Ventures’ Innovations speaker series.
“I mean … we’re in the Time Warner Center,” Mr. Wolff continued. “Believe me, in a very short time, in the next five years, we will not be in the Time Warner Center anymore and there will be no Time Warner, and there will be none of these companies.” It’s the end of everything!
Actually, Mr. Wolff predicted that 18 months from now, 80 percent of newspapers will be gone. “The New York Times will not be owned by the people who own it now,” he added. “Washington Post? Because it’s a subsidiary of Kaplan, it’s a subsidiary of a testing company now, will still be in business because the testing will be in business.”
Even broadcast television, Mr. Wolff said, will disappear. Eventually, “broadcast will essentially have audiences the size of mid-city newspapers.” So, NBC will have the same audience size as The Observer? Hey, now!
And what about the companies that are putting up a fight against aggregators, like the Associated Press? Do they have a future in news? “It’s bleak,” Mr. Wolff said. “They are looking at a world in which, again, information is not limited. You know, actually, anybody whose got a news fee, I’ll give it to them for free. I would be hard-pressed to say what AP offers at this time.”
He paused for a moment before adding: “Photographs. We license AP photographs” for Newser.com. “Because, you know, photographers are such dicks. You’re stuck with licensing this stuff. What do they do? They click the thing,” he said, miming clicking a camera.
Mr. Newmark’s view of the future of the news business is slightly less dismal, perhaps. He sees most news going on to mobile devices and text messaging with phones becoming an even more important form of communication. He also envisions fact-checking professionals becoming an essential part of a newsroom, “in my dreams.”
So will trained and educated journalists hired by newspapers now become the journalists of the Web?
“No,” Mr. Wolff said. “You know, it’s an entirely new medium, or a partially new medium that requires a completely different skill. The people who went into television were ultimately not the same people in print. I think in most businesses, the guys who were in the business that’s going out of business don’t get to be the guys in the new business.”
So who will be left standing? Well, old-schoolers will be replaced by tech-savvy writers/bloggers/podcasters/slideshow makers and he’ll aggregate their content on his site Newser.com, of course, which launched in October 2007 with the slogan: “Read less, know more.” “On the New York Times Web site, you could just get The New York Times. That seemed kind of ludicrous in this time, it kind of harkened back to the day, which seems long ago, in which to be a well-informed person all you had to do was read The New York Times. And that’s clearly not true now.”
Both agreed that the aggregators are the future of news. Mr. Newmark checks on the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast and his Twitter feed for news and plans on keeping an eye on HuffPo’s Investigative Journalism Fund. Mr. Wolff, of course, owns an aggregator, but also nodded to sites like Ben Smith’s blog on Politico.com as an example of what media folks should be watching. But if all these aggregators take over, will content still be king?
“Sometimes context is king,” Mr. Newmark said. “Filtering and criticism and all that are worth something to us. For example, a movie critic or a TV critic is offering some context to some other information, and I would be willing to pay for either. I’d be willing to pay for someone to do professional-level fact-checking on news, too.”
“The big issue is not how to get information, but how to look at information, get the right information, get information in efficient ways,” Mr. Wolff added. “What Craig is saying here is that the real value is not in the information itself but the people who make that information more efficient.”
“We take The New York Times‘ 1,200-word story and we reduce it to 100 words, and be damned if you don’t miss anything,” Mr. Wolff continued. “This is actually what’s going to have to happen because we need to take in, in this day and age, more information, not less information. Only there’s only so many hours in a day so to get more information, you’re going to have to read less.”
Mr. Newmark agreed: “As you can tell, I’m built for speed,” he joked, and said that he often writes back to people who send him long emails and tells them to get to the point: “Just tell me what you want,” he said.
What Mr. Wolff wants is to reinvent the news business with the Newser way of doing things. “If it’s me or it’s one of the other ones, we’re going to figure this out,” he said. “I’m having more fun than I ever dreamed of. … You know, I always wanted to own The New York Times, and maybe that’s not necessary anymore.”