Question: What has the New York Times become?
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.
What will the impending pay wall do for the publication?
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.
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.
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
Recorded on May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman