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If there's one thing that Michael Wolff is sure of, it's that people shouldn't listen to him. And that's a good thing, considering that his track record for accuracy is not exactly stellar.
The Newser.com founder and Vanity Fair columnist's predictions on the demise of newspapers may have yet to come to fruition, but that's not going to stop him from reiterating the failures of "Old Media" like the New York Times and "New Media" like, well, Newser.com.
Speaking at Barry Diller's IAC headquarters today, Wolff began by telling the audience that he hates the "relentlessly literal" nature of the Internet, which is especially a problem when you are prone to hyperbole and large declarations, as Wolff is want.
He continued by saying that "you shouldn’t take seriously what you hear from me."
Those opening comments at the Advertising 2.0 conference may have been aimed at his conference host and Diller's employee Tina Brown, considering that just a few months ago he was calling the IAC funded Daily Beast "preposterous" and Brown an "old magazine hack." Meanwhile, yesterday Diller spoke in the same space, saying that audiences better get prepared to pay for media content.
But Wolff doesn't think that old media will succeed in finding a successful paid model. Talking to Bloomberg News CEO Andrew Lack, Wolff said that newspapers will disappear: "And we won’t know the difference."
That's a bold proposition, considering that aggregation sites like Newser thrive on curating news and content from "Old Media" websites.
And while it's exceedingly likely that newspapers will not exist in their current format five years from now, the chances that large media brands are likely to survive in some form is much higher.
Lack, for one, is pulling for The New York Times:
"I love the New York times. I hope it survives and prospers as it is. I don’t want the New York Times' Baghdad bureau to go out of business. I don’t think there’s anything online that can replace that."
But the funding neccessary to support serious reportage is one of the big things that weigh down large media organizations today and is encouraging a lot of them to consider charging for content online.
Wolff doesn't think that is going to work. When Lack said that he would pay to read a regional newspaper, Wolff responded increduously:
"Why would you possibly pay for something that will come to you for free?"
The Newser model, of course, is free content supported by advertising. Beyond that, Wolff is bearish on the value of new content online. Newser sorts through and repackages content found elsewhere. He told The Observer last fall: "With a Web news product, no one wants you to write new stuff. No one wants new stuff. People want less, not more."
But not all web media owners agree. Gawker chief Nick Denton, for one, wants new information on his sites. He he said recently: "Original reporting will be rewarded."
And while The New York Times may be struggling to stay afloat right now, there is one thing that that organization has that Newser does not — a profitable website.
Internet revenue at NYTimes.com rose 12.8 percent in the second quarter of 2008 to $91.3 million, and online advertising at the site rose 18.3 percent, to $80.8 million. The problem of course is overhead. The New York Times as an entity needs to sustain an enormous staff and their $600 million Renzo Piano designed headquarters. Newser has a much smaller staff and expenses. But its website is not yet in the black.
When Lack asked Wolff how the process of making money off Newser.com was going, Wolff quickly shot back: "We're a privately held company." Later he hedged that Newser expects to be profitable by the end of the year.
The value in an aggregation entity like Newser is in its time saving utllity. A ten minute trip to Newser.com can save a reader an entire morning or evening spent pouring over the papers to find the most important news. But without original source reporting, Newser would have nothing to aggregate. And as shown in the chart below, original reporting is certainly not hurting NYTimes.com in terms of traffic, compared to aggregation sites like Newser and The Drudge Report.
The problem is that no one has yet figured out how to properly fund the gathering of quality news and information online. Not that people don't want it.
Image: NY Observer