Media Matters: A Q&A with Michael Wolff
Author and columnist Michael Wolff is out with a new book, “Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age,” which undercuts the popular narrative that online media is making its older competitors obsolete.
Wolff, who contributes to USA Today, Vanity Fair and other publications, spoke with City & State’s Jon Lentz about his new book, the state of the newspaper business in New York City and Michael Bloomberg’s chances as a potential presidential candidate.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: In late May, you floated former Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a potential Democratic presidential candidate. Would he actually have a realistic shot if he got into the race?
Michael Wolff: My argument was that he would be the only person with a realistic shot if Hillary’s campaign cratered at some point well into the campaign cycle, because nobody else could raise the money. He’s the only candidate who has $2 billion, the $2 billion it takes to run for president, in his pocket.
C&S: Do you have any sense of whether he would actually be interested in running?
MW: Michael Bloomberg? Yes. There is no question in my mind and there is no circumstance under the sun in which Michael Bloomberg would not be interested in being the president of the United States, if he could be.
C&S: Any observations on how the Republican presidential field is shaping up?
MW: Well, I think it’s shaping to include every Republican in the country. Beyond that, there’s certainly a top tier to a relatively absurd field, and in that top tier they all seem like people who could run a competitive race.
C&S: You have a new book out, “Television Is the New Television,” in which you argue that there really hasn’t been the digital revolution that everyone is talking about and betting on, at least from an economic perspective.
MW: That’s quite a fair summary. The argument in the book is that digital media, certainly from a business and revenue standpoint, has remained quite a disappointment and I don’t see a model emerging that would ever make it competitive, certainly with television. Meanwhile, television in the 15-year course of the creation of digital media has become an ever stronger business—stronger on an advertising basis and stronger too because it has built itself a very powerful subscription business.
C&S: In The New York Times, you mention the example of James Murdoch, the son of Rupert Murdoch, and how you were initially skeptical of his belief in the future of television, but over time you came to the conclusion that the medium is thriving. Was that a key turning point that led you to this conclusion?
MW: When I had that conversation with James in 2008, that was a moment in which everybody believed that we were all profoundly toast in the conventional media business. That certainly is true if you’re in the print business or the music business. It was one of those interesting things in which you could believe that television was just a thing of the past until you suddenly realized that the only thing that most of us do is watch television. Partly this has to do with the incredible propaganda talents and velocity of digital media, that digital media uses digital media to promote digital media, and to do it so effectively that you could literally not see what’s in front of your face. And what’s in front of your face is television, but it takes a reminder to realize that it isn’t digital media that is preoccupying your thoughts but in fact television.
C&S: You mentioned print media. How does that fit into the equation?
MW: It’s a stark contrast between television and print media. Television stayed to its fundamental business strategy, that if you want television you have to pay for it. And television never panicked and has always been used to fighting a turf battle and knew to dig in for the long haul, whereas print began to panic almost in the first days of the growth of digital media and gave itself away and I think fundamentally ruined its own business. The interesting existential question is, could print have saved itself? I think there’s a reasonable argument that yes, it probably could have.
C&S: You know quite a bit about The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, having written “The Man Who Owns the News,” a biography of Rupert Murdoch, and you know Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman well. What’s your take on the newspaper business in New York City?
MW: One of the interesting things about the New York City newspaper market is it’s really no different from any other newspaper market. It used to be different. It is not now. The New York Times is under the same pressures as every other newspaper. The tabloid newspapers, the Post and the Daily News, are not only up against the same pressures, but also up against the pressures of there being two tabloid newspapers in a town that probably cannot even afford one. So it’s a fairly grim picture. Obviously the Times has responded to this by becoming a national paper and looking toward making its business a digital one. To me that seems like some serious pie in the sky. The digital New York Times does $15 million a month in advertising revenue. It can’t run its business on that. Obviously the Daily News is up for sale. It’s a very, very, very precarious moment, if not a last stand moment for newspapers everywhere—and newspapers in New York, heretofore one of the world’s great newspaper cities.