No one predicts failure like Michael Wolff

Media columnist Michael Wolff predicts The New York Times Book Review “will soon be merged” with the paper’s Sunday Review section:

And while the NYTBR has been at the very center of the book business in New York and has been the most influential voice in book culture for the better part of a century, it is surely hard to say quite what to do with this weighty history. Not to mention, how to squeeze a buck out of it. The New York Times has other things to worry about.

Entirely plausible, dripping with authority: a trio of perfect Wolffian sentences! And yet: The Book Review “quite simply has no ads,” Wolff pronounces. But this past Sunday’s 32-page print edition has nearly nine pages of ads by my (admittedly amateur) count. Which may not be the September issue of Vogue, but isn’t “quite simply” nothing.

The prediction is characteristic of Wolff’s media opinionating. It’s voicy. It states definitively that an entity must fail or be reduced, or — as he sometimes phrases it — does not exist at all.

I had to ask Wolff: What’s with the fixation on failure?

“I’m not so much fixated on demise as transformation,” he said in an email. He continued:

There’s an institutional bias towards permanence, which is obviously unjustified. When businesses lose their economic foundation, they close or transform. The challenge of digital competition is stark. Demise and nonexistence is, of course, relative. The music business continues to exist, but in shadow form. In the course of only a few years, virtually every big city newspaper has become economically equivocal.

He adds: “By the way, not so long ago — 2009 — I predicted that The Washington Post could find a way to make it. Seems like I was wrong about that.”

Another classic: 2008′s “If Newsweek is around in five years, I’ll buy you dinner.”

Herewith, a brief, alphabetically organized history of the targets at which Wolff has hurled his crystal ball.

  • Alt-weeklies: “And then, there is too the significant point that the Voice and its sister alternative papers don’t really exist anymore. … Nobody, alas, really cares about the Village Voice anymore.” (Guardian, Sept. 24, 2012)
  • Cable television: “And yet every sentient person in the media business not being directly paid to support this charade knows cable is on a fast train to oblivion.” (USA Today, Feb. 18, 2013)
  • Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism: “Columbia, raking in $58,008 in yearly tuition and fees from each student and then sending them into a world of ever-bleaker prospects, ought, more reasonably and honestly, to just shut its doors.” (USA Today, March 25, 2013)
  • Facebook: “The crash will come. And Facebook—that putative transformer of worlds, which is, in reality, only an ad-driven site—will fall with everybody else.” (MIT Technology Review, May 22, 2012)*
  • Jobs at The Huffington Post: “Her resume includes two years as a blogger at the Huffington Post, which, it doesn’t seem entirely churlish to point out, is not a job.” (Guardian, April 29, 2013)
  • Newspapers: “The existence of all newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, is in serious doubt.” (Guardian, June 25, 2012) COUNTERPOINT: “Some newspapers can continue to exist, albeit as vastly smaller and less profitable businesses.” (Guardian, April 1, 2013)
  • The New Yorker: “The idea that The New Yorker will be around in 25 years is rather preposterous.” (Big Think)
  • The New York Post: “But the end is surely here. It is just one more jarring adjustment for the 82-year-old Murdoch. The Post will not outlive him.” (Guardian, April 15, 2013)
  • Political coverage: “I’m not sure it’s possible to emphasize enough the point about how little people are interested in politics – that is, the people who are not paid to be interested in it, or the fringe who take their identity from it.” (Guardian, Sept. 4, 2012)
  • Time Inc.’s magazines: “Indeed, the likelihood is that painful sales and ultimate closings of venerable titles will play out again, as it has in the recent past. Hopeless auctions, dubious bidders, and sales for a pocket’s worth of change – with, just maybe, a generous billionaire in the wings.” (Guardian, March 7, 2013)

In another email, Wolff said he often made predictions with qualifications, and in another he urged me to read all of his work — including his three books — before characterizing his media criticism. The preceding examples are from the last year, which was about as much as I could get through in a day. I sent him most of the above list.

“All sounds remarkably sensible — almost incontrovertible!” he replied.

*Thanks to Brian Bergstein for pointing this one out.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darren-Johnson/1610561440 Darren Johnson

    I have to say, I agree with his list; as attention-getting as it is. He may be off by a few years here and there. Murdoch could go at any moment! But I just can’t see some types of newspapers disappearing quickly. Small weeklies that have a strong local base, for example. Even the big Metros — I can’t picture guys taking the subway to their labor job reading about the Mets on a tablet, even if that tablet is eventually cheap to own. All this talk has made for a self-fulfilling prophesy for newsprint, as the large ad agencies believe the hype and advise their clients to go more 21st century.

  • http://flavors.me/eclisham Elaine Clisham

    I find Michael Wolff’s writing invariably odious and I have not read this piece because I’ve already had a shower today, but unless the New York Times is charging a real premium, nine ad pages out of 32 is not enough to make the section self-sufficient on its own (need closer to 16-18 pages at the usual ratios). Of course, the New York Times may not care, and may be willing to subsidize the difference. But using the actual rate card to estimate actual revenue from Book Review ads would be a much more valuable service than Mr. Wolff is currently providing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=656715835 Andrew Beaujon

    Oh thanks! I’ll add it. Furious I missed this one!

  • http://twitter.com/BrianBergstein Brian Bergstein

    Your list also could have included Facebook http://www.technologyreview.com/news/427972/the-facebook-fallacy/