Michael Wolff
Author & Columnist, Vanity Fair
05:08

The New York Times' Pay Wall: A "Hail Mary Strategy"

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Once the paper begins charging for online content in January, the question will be: What does the New York Times become without its readers?

Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the founder of news aggregation site Newser.com. He is a two-time National Magazine Award winner, and his latest book, "The Man Who Owns the News," is a biography of News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Wolff's work has been widely anthologized and appeared in numerous publications, including New York Magazine, where he was a long-time columnist. He has also been an entrepreneur involved with the start-up of several online businesses.
Transcript
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. 

Recorded on May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

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