Question: Describe a day in the life of Rupert Murdoch.
Michael Wolff: It's an incredibly boring day. He gets up, he has his bowl of oatmeal, he heads to the office where he stays right up until dinner and then he goes home or there's some event, more and more, because his wife Wendy likes to go to events. Then he'll go out to an event of which he will struggle to stay awake through and then he will go to sleep and get up again and have his bowl of oatmeal, and commence the next day.
Question: Why did your biography make Murdoch so angry?
Michael Wolff: Well one of his key lieutenants called me up and said, after reading the book, and said, "But it's all about him." And I said, "Well, it is a biography." And then he says, "But it's so personal." So I think that one of the things that happened is Rupert was just surprised by the nature of the book. I really think... there was a point actually I interviewed Rupert's mother who's 102 years old and she lives in Australia and I arrived there and she said, "Oh, it's very curious that my son is helping you with this book because you know he's never read one."
So, I actually think that this is part of the issue that he really was a kind of unfamiliar with what a modern biography might be like and was rather anticipating sort of a recitation I think of his deals and the course of his career rather than a book that tried to understand who this man is and actually give a taste of his true character.
Question: Have you reconciled?
Michael Wolff: We have not. I think the cold war between us has just gotten colder.
Question: What was it like running into Murdoch’s son at a restaurant?
Michael Wolff: Tense. It was one of those moments where I think, well, James turned to me and said something like, "Oh, not you." And then there was a moment in which—I mean, James actually has kind of a hair-trigger temper and you could see him measuring whether he should fly off the handle or stay in control and he in fact stayed in control and I was with my son who he turned to and was polite and charming to, turned away from me.
Question: You’ve said Murdoch’s moral center is different from yours and mine. Why?
Michael Wolff: I think his family matters, his company matters, his newspapers matter to him. His moral center is different because he doesn't feel necessarily part of our world. It is his world that he is a part of. I think he sees himself as relatively remote from the rest of us. He is in a sense a nation/state unto himself and so his first interest is protecting his world.
Michael Wolff: Remember, for 100 years the Murdoch family has been among the most important and prominent and powerful families in Australia. So I think he's always had a sense of himself as a person apart and as he's built his company, and he built it for more than 40 years, has been building this company in countries other than his own. I think that it has been a very key aspect of how he regards everyone else and himself that he is not quite of the communities he lives in.
Question: What’s Murdoch’s future?
Michael Wolff: Well the future for Rupert himself is death. He is 79 years old; this is inevitable and that will be the key factor in the future of his company. This is a kind of unique company because it's a very large company, it's a public company—but nevertheless is the expression of one man. It's about his interest, his obsessions, his point of view. So it necessarily changes dramatically, radically, and quickly when he's no longer there. One of the key focuses of his company, one of the key businesses remains newspapers and there are very, very few people in the media business and few people in his own family who believe that there is much currency or economic life left in newspapers, whereas Rupert himself believes that they are continued to be singularly the most important influence in his life, our lives, and in the life of his company.
Question: What was your first job at the New York Times like?
Michael Wolff: Well it was the only job I ever wanted to have, I wanted to work for the New York Times and that seemed to me the zenith of anything that you could accomplish and so I was quite pleased to have gotten this job. Now, oddly for the zenith of all things to accomplish, I sent them a letter and said I'd like a job and 24 hours later I got a phone call from them and they said, "When can you start?"
So life was different at that point in time. But I just felt on top of the world when I got this job and I arrived there and within 10 minutes I knew that this was all wrong. I had miscalculated everything. I never experienced a more depressing place, and I can remember it still vividly of gray filled with smoke up and row upon row of editors all seemingly with facial tics. And I thought, not only if this is not for me but if this is life I knew I was not going to make it.
Question: Did you learn anything there?
Michael Wolff: You know, I'm struggling now to remember. What could I have possibly learned except the really most important thing, which is that I did not want to work at the New York Times? Beyond that, I learned how a newspaper works. I learned that a whole set of skills which have not been the least useful in my professional life.
Question: How did your story on Patty Hearst jumpstart your career?
Michael Wolff: Reaching back. I was working at the New York Times ruing every second of my life, thinking how was I ever going to get out of here, and thinking that one could only do it the way newspaper people have always done it. I needed a scoop and I would go out and I would dream upon coming upon fires or the sky falling in front of me or anything. And lo and behold, one day my mother called me; my mother was a newspaper reporter herself, and she said, "Did you see the news?" I said, "I probably had but what did she have in mind." And she said Angela DeAngeles, who was a girl who grew up with me in my hometown of 7,000 people in New Jersey kidnapped Patty Hurst. "She's the girl who kidnapped Patty Hearst," my mother said. And I said "Whoa!" and my mother said, "This is your article!" which had not crossed my mind. And I kind of just stopped and I thought, "My God, maybe it is." The newsroom at that time at the New York Times was on the 3rd floor and I ran up to where the magazine was, the New York Times Magazine, which was, if I remember correctly, the 9th floor. I knew one of the editors there and I went and I was very young; I was 19 years old actually. I quickly told him this story and he said, "Okay. We'll commission it."
And that was it. And I wrote this story; it actually turned out to be a very successful story and I sold the movie rights and it gave me actually the wherewithal to leave the Times and become a freelance magazine writer, which I seem to have been ever since.
Question: Do you agree with people who say your best work came while you were at New York magazine?
Michael Wolff: I don't know why that would be. I produced some very good work at New York magazine. And if they say that, it's probably because I produced more work at New York magazine. So I was writing a column every week at New York, at Vanity Fair I write a column once a month. But I rather think that I'm producing my best work now at Newser where I write a column every day. It's bulk... is ultimately the real currency in our profession.
Question: You failed at your attempt to purchase the magazine. What would have happened had you succeeded?
Michael Wolff: I think I probably would have gone bankrupt as most magazines seem to be going. When that happened, I actually thought that I was going to be able to buy New York magazine right up until the moment I lost it and so my feelings afterwards were deeply conflicted. I loved New York magazine; it was a place that I felt particularly at home but I had a feeling of also of immense relief that this quixotic enterprise of buying the magazine would not end up as my terrible fate.
Question: Do you like what New York magazine has become?
Michael Wolff: One of the things about having worked at certain places is that it becomes very hard after you stop working at them to continue a relationship, to continue even reading them. So I must confess that I don't read New York magazine anymore. It's like a lover spurned.
Question: Your first internet company failed. What was that experience like?
Michael Wolff: It was a great experience, actually. I sort of wandered into this business inadvertently. I was in the book publishing business and I started to publish books about technology and about the Internet. I suppose earlier than most, through this product that really had nothing to do with the Internet or technology, nevertheless being about those subjects, introduced me to this business. And in New York I became sort of very early one of the few people who had any claim on knowing anything about this business; although, I'd like... a footnote that I really knew nothing at all.
But as this business started to heat up, anybody who had any claim on it was suddenly at center stage, and it was opportunity knocking, venture capital came my way, and I began to build a company, again, having no idea what kind of company I was building or really idea about the business in which I was building this company.
So this was truly learning on the job. And I can only say in my defense that virtually everybody who was starting Internet businesses at that point in time was also learning on the job. And I learned... not enough, but nobody in those days learned enough and everyone, virtually everyone, went under and I went under as well. I was in the fortunate position to be able to tell the story and I wrote a book called “Burn Rate” and that, which I still think serves as one of the great cautionary tales of the period, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Question: Did you fear the same fate with Newser?
Michael Wolff: I took certain steps when I started Newser to ensure that I had gotten somewhat older and I didn't think that my system would be able to tolerate the highs and lows of the first experience in the Internet. So I went into Newser with a few safety measures; my partner in Newser is someone who absolutely knows what he's doing, who has started two successful companies on the Internet. He founded Hoovers.com and took that public and then sold it to Dunn & Bradstreet and he started HighBeam which another news database company, which he sold.
So I feel in remarkably good hands. The editor-in-chief of Newser is also Caroline Miller who was the editor-in-chief of New York magazine; an incredibly, professional, and tenacious and accomplished woman. So in reality, at Newser I do very little.
Question: What do you think of Steve Jobs?
Michael Wolff: Well I think he's one of the more brilliant and interesting figures of our time.... I think also Steve Jobs is an incredible weirdo. I actually question whether he is altogether sane. He seems to be kind of a paranoid figure, certainly a mercurial figure. I can't imagine why anyone would want to work for this guy. And the fact that many, many people in the media business are now counting on him to save them seems dubious to me. But having said all that, I would still stand by... he is the most interesting and among the most brilliant figures, too.
Question: Why do people think Jobs can save media?
Michael Wolff: They think he can save the media business because they think he has a magic machine. They think he has a magic touch and think he has a magic machine. I think many people have come to think of his as, and he to some degree represents himself as the alternative to the cursed Internet, which has threatened to destroy the media business.
Question: What has the New York Times become?
Michael Wolff: Well I think that's a different question whether they're irrelevant or out of business. I think, and they certainly admit this also, that they're in a deeply, deeply problematic and perhaps intractable business environment for newspapers. The Times is on one level different from all other newspapers but on another level absolutely the same. The economics of the newspaper business are not different for the New York Times than they are for the Chicago Tribune, which is in bankruptcy as are so many big city newspapers. So I think the New York Times has a sort of a Hail Mary strategy, which is that they will somehow leave their physical body and they will migrate in an act of transubstantiation to this new electronic world. The problem with this new electronic world is that it doesn't support what it costs to support the New York Times. And, again, here they are in the Hail Mary mode of basically saying, "Well, maybe at some point in the future it will support." Now there's no evidence to indicate that and no sense of how long it will take to get to that point, when it might support a news gathering budget of $300 million a year.
So this is nothing less for the Times... not just the business crisis, but an existential crisis being in nothingness with nothingness a very real possibility.
Question: What will the impending pay wall do for the publication?
Michael Wolff: I think it will reduce readership online by something on the order of 90 or 95 or 99 percent. So, it's another existential moment. What does the New York Times become without its readers? And I think that you can say, "Well, yes, but there's still a million people who read the paper every day in paper form," but that's an odd rationale because then it sort of cancels out that other view that we would of transubstantiation into this new electronic world.
You know, again, I think it's another one of the Hail Mary process at the Times: "We were going to morph into this electronic product and we sort of have but that's not doing it for us either, so now we'll suddenly try to charge for it and maybe that will work." It's a position that... it's in a non-business-like position. It's just at this point wishfulness.
Question: Where will people get their news?
Michael Wolff: It's very clear where people are getting their news. They're getting it online. I mean, in the last number of years we've been witness to and participated in the profoundest change possibly in the history of the news business. That news consumers have largely abandoned a traditional news outlets for electronic delivery, either on a PC or on a digital device, a handheld device or through the myriad of new delivery forms and mechanisms. So, people are not getting less news; quite the opposite. I think they're getting more news. I think this is for a news consumer rather a golden age. You get more, you get it quicker, you get it cheaper. So what could be bad? And I would argue that for the consumer, nothing is bad. For the producer, it's much less of an optimistic time.
Question: David Remnick told us he’s not worried about the future of the New Yorker. Should he be?
Michael Wolff: He obviously should be worried. And he is worried, so he was just... I don't know, just exercising some particular sense of propriety in his discussion with you because he's worried and everybody's worried and more importantly his owners are worried. Print, as a model, is at a moment in time where virtually all assumptions about the business are changing. The assumptions about reader habits and reader behavior are changing. The assumptions about the nature of advertising, about who should be advertising, about the pricing of advertising is changing.
So the idea that The New Yorker will be around in 25 years is rather preposterous and I'll certainly buy him dinner if it is.
Question: Is Graydon Carter worried?
Michael Wolff: As David exercises a certain propriety in talking about his magazine, I will probably do the same about mine. But I do think people at Vanity Fair are attentive to what's happening and the changes that are going on and trying to look for ways to stay on top of what's clearly a sense of changing expectations about magazines and about print. I mean, one of the things, and again this is the magazine I work for so I'm not objective here, but I think one of the things that Vanity Fair has succeeded in doing and it's a lesson for all magazines is to think of magazines as an object, which we curiously don't. We think of magazines as ideas and journalism and storytelling, instead of as a literal object that goes on your coffee table, which you're proud to have there.
Question: What do you say to people like Sharon Waxman who call Newser a parasite?
Michael Wolff: Well I say, and I think I did say it, that that's ridiculous. She’s a parasite. She's first a monumentally moronic woman who got fired from The New York Times, who went into her business having written about someone in the New York Times who then invested in her company. This woman is beyond the pale and I assume she's just saying this kind of think about me because she knows I will rise to the occasion and she will get more publicity. So I don't think that I have to be the... this is a de-facto case of the parasite calling the parasite or black or whatever the metaphor would be. Anyway, I think she has a ridiculous site, which contributes nothing and serves no function and she will shortly go out of business.
Question: What is Newser’s ultimate function?
Michael Wolff: The ultimate function is to give you the news in a more efficient and more entertaining way than you get it now. So, we certainly would argue it offers real and certain value.
Question: Why would someone choose Newser over the Daily Beast?
Michael Wolff: The Daily Beast is very good, but I don't think you're going to your news, a comprehensive picture of the news in a very quick and entertaining way. You're going to the Daily Beast to read its articles, many of which are good, many of which are way too long and the Daily Beast is a source of commentary and good and less-good writing. Newser is the news, quick and fun.
Question: If you couldn’t be a writer or Internet entrepreneur, what would you be?
Michael Wolff: I guess I would be on television, I don't know. I would be the President of the United States.
Recorded on May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman