Wolff to Newspapers: The Web is ‘Not Something You’re Ever Going to Understand’

If Michael Wolff had his way, he would have told newspapers a long time ago never to go online. Newspapers, he believes, are stuck in an old-fashioned mentality that prevents them from giving online news consumers what they want.
 
Then again, this comes from a man who told CNBC last year that he’s trying to put newspapers out of business. To say the acerbic Newser founder and Vanity Fair media columnist is a contrarian might be an understatement. Still, his comments — whether you believe they’re forward-thinking or just “out there” — offer an interesting perspective on the future of online news and the problems with print journalism.
 
“I might have advised newspapers: ‘Don’t go on the Web. It’s not something you’re going to be good at. This is not something you’re ever going to understand,’ ” Wolff told me in a recent phone interview. “Newspapers have gone online, and I think it’s brought people online, but their experiences have changed and their needs have changed, and I just don’t think traditional news companies are in a position to really understand that kind of change or to speak to it or to deliver it.”

Wolff depends on newspaper content for Newser, his aggregator site that features short summaries of the day’s news and receives 2.5 million unique visitors per month. Newser, which Wolff said is “in sight of profitability,” has steadily increased its traffic in the two and a half years since its inception. The site is becoming more popular, he said, precisely because its approach to delivering content online is different from that of mainstream news organizations.

News consumers want content that’s short and to-the-point, Wolff said, rather than long-form stories that have too much background and are downright cumbersome. Newser features short news summaries — each about 100 words long — which the site’s staffers write based on outside sources.

Wolff’s position runs counter to others’ argument that the problem with news coverage nowadays is that stories need more background, not less. Matt Thompson, Jay Rosen and Tristan Harris made this point recently in a panel at South by Southwest Interactive called “The Future of Context.”

Wolff, however, told me that there’s more value in news summaries precisely because there’s no background weighing them down. The fact that you don’t have to have it in the “old-fashioned way,” he said, means you can consume more information in less time.

“I think that one of the things that’s most interesting to me is the change in the form of what we do as journalists,” said Wolff, who has authored five books. “The idea that you can just put up stories online and expect that that’s what your audience wants … it just doesn’t work that way.”

Just last month, the site launched a “Newsers by Users” grid, which enables people to post links to stories they find and write their own summaries. The stories are generally about politics, entertainment and celebrity gossip. Wolff, who has referred to the grid as “Rupert Murdoch’s worst nightmare,” said he hopes it will give Newser an even better idea of the types of content that interest readers.

The media moguls of the future, he said, will have expertise in both technology and content and will find ways to marry them in innovative ways. And they won’t be afraid to start with a blank page.

“You’re either a content person or a technology person, and if you’re a content person who becomes a technology person, you often become just a technology person,” Wolff said. “It’s a new temperament and a new set of skills that have to be combined in one sort of person.”

As Wolff alluded in a column last fall, mobile news presents new opportunities for this marriage between content and technology. Newser launched its free iPhone app in September, and it has since gotten about 10,000 downloads. Wolff admits that he’s not entirely confident that the app, or mobile media in general, will be profitable.

“It’s clearly speaking to a clear demand in the market, and it speaks also to the obvious change in the behavior of news consumers; they’re mobile,” Wolff said. “Having said that, however, it is almost as if we went from $100 dollars in traditional media advertising dollars, which got turned into $10 on the Internet, and in mobile form it’s really now turned into $1, so it’s a little alarming, and worrisome.”

Wolff, who wrote a book in 2008 about Rupert Murdoch, understands the concern that news organizations have about making money in a digital world. Unlike Murdoch and The New York Times’ Arthur Sulzberger, he said he doesn’t believe that the majority of people will be willing to pay for news online. He referred to pay walls as “a wishful business model that has no basis in experience.”

Though Newser regularly relies on newspapers for its content, Wolff doesn’t plan to use their stories as much in the future. When he started Newser, about 90 percent of the content was from the mainstream media. Now, about half the content is from native Internet sources. “I expect that native sources will continue to grow and form the bulk of the news that we curate,” Wolff said.

Last spring, during a panel discussion with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, he predicted that 80 percent of newspapers would die within 18 months. A half-dozen or so daily papers have closed, and 2009 was the worst year for newspaper revenue in decades, but Wolff’s prediction is still far off — and perhaps far out.

Eleven months after making that comment, he hasn’t changed his opinion all that much. He acknowledges that print media are an important part of his past and his work today. Will they play a big role in his future? Don’t count on it, he said.

“I’ve grown up in the newspaper business … so this is not something I say lightly,” said Wolff, who started his career as a copy boy at The New York Times. “Newspapers are my life and livelihood, but I think that at some point, you say, things are changing here and the changes aren’t necessarily bad.”

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