For some, curation grew out of necessity.
Michael Wolff is a world-renowned writer and contributing editor to publications like New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. But even as he wrote bigger and more controversial articles, he began to feel that the future of editorial wasn’t in making content as much as it was organising and filtering it. Wolff had been an Internet entrepreneur before, as the creator of Wolff New Media, the company whose remarkable rise and fall was chronicled in Wolff’s 1999 era book ‘Burn Rate’.
But now he’s an aggregator, having created and launched Newser.com, a collection of news links and snippets. Wolff will find and filter, and write a bit, to build a new media enterprise.
So, in sitting with the writer turned aggregator the first question is an obvious one: why? Why take another bite at a web media start up when his last attempt ended so badly
“I love writing very long pieces for Vanity Fair. This turns out to be something much different,” explains Wolf. “It is a much different feel. It is a much different rhythm. I mean I think that arguably it is, it is more work.”
Newser searches tens of thousands of sources, according to Wolff, and then links and summarizes hundreds of links every day. The site just passed 1.6 million uniques with an accelerating monthly growth rate now over 10%. To the outside observer that would make him an aggregator. But it’s a title he rejects.
“I think that we’re getting away from aggregation because I don’t really see that as what we are. Actually, what we’ve done is we are creating a wholly original product. Everything that you read on our site is original content — we’ve created it, we’ve written it — and it is all about giving you an experience that you would not have in any other place.”
Wolff’s brand of journalism is mostly about synopsis, robots and humans.
“It is robots. It is an elaborate automated system. And then on top of that, there is a very conventional newsroom. Caroline Miller is the editor. She runs a very tight ship of young writers and editors. They are the people who take these articles in the New York Times, or articles across any source, clearly they are too long, and she and her team take those articles, twelve hundred word New York Times article and reduce it to 65 to 110 words, without losing one piece of information.”
For some in Journalism, taking New York Times articles and cutting them down would be considered sacrilege, not value. But Wolff isn’t buying that. “The New York Times in our old journalistic hearts we may say that there is something incredibly noble and incredibly valuable about being able to go as long as you want. In truth, that doesn’t work any more.”
“It’s machine-based discovery of crowd curation. The crowd actually does the curation. I think it’s a lot more pattern recognition by you understand how people behave online which is how we base our technology.”
So, if big quality media like The New York Times is doomed, then how can Wolff’s content gathering and filtering operation have any future? That’s easy, he says.
“The sources are shifting. When we started Newser two and a half years ago, 90% of our sources were conventional media outlets, that’s down to about 50%, with the rest native online sources.”
Wolff has made a career out of taking a hatchet to scared cows, and one of the largest figures in journalism today is a character whom Wolff knows well, Rupert Murdoch. During the course of writing an authorised biography of Murdoch, Wolff became more than an acquaintance of the mogul. Wolff won’t characterise them as friends, but describes their relationship during the writing of the book as “entirely convivial.”
Now, with the launch of Newser and Murdoch’s anti-aggregation campaign, they find themselves on opposite sides of a digital divide. For Wolff, Murdoch’s anti-search engine position is more than business, it’s personal.
“This is not for him an issue of profit margins. It is an issue of soul.”
As the economics change, Wolff sees Murdoch’s world slipping away.
“Rupert is looking at his world disappearing, and he never thought this would this would happen. So here he is in the, his last act and what he’s looking at is the business that that he grew up in, that his father grew up in, that he hoped his children would grow up in, the business which is really the only thing that he has, that he thinks about and has ever thought about. He sees this business at being absolutely imperiled.”
So with Wolff and Murdoch no longer on speaking terms, what happens to Newser if Newscorp sends a cease-and-desist and foils Newser’s plans to aggregate the Post and the Journal?
Says Wolff: “I would say: ‘Rupert, have you looked at my site?’ and the answer would be ‘no’ because he doesn’t go online. I have every right to read the Wall Street Journal and NY Post, and every right to summarize that information.”
Can Rupert have power over aggregators?
“Rupert is trying to use this leverage, wield this cudgel, but he doesn’t have all that much to offer.”
And if Wolff did have to take down Newscorp content?
“It wouldn’t have the slightest impact on our traffic, not a bit.”
If both the Times and the Journal are old broken mechanisms, Wolff doesn’t see Newser, or Huffington, or Topix, or any of the other news aggregators as responsible, as much as just expressions of a changing technology. But for Murdoch, the tragedy and loss are almost Shakespearean.
“I feel sorry for him. I mean I, you know, this is a guy; you know a lion in winter. He is raging against the dying of the light. All of those things. There is something, there is real pathos here, but he’s not gonna win.”
If technology is driving all this change, one might presume that Wolff sees the Apple iPad as good news for his magazine brethren, but not so fast.
“The iPad has nothing to do with magazines. And that’s not the way Apple and Jobs see it. That’s just the sort of a, you know, a promotional entry into this business. Why you should add another computer to your set of computers. But is about the magazines? Is it about the traditional media business? Not on your life. This is one of those moments in which everyone says, ‘Oh, maybe this is the way magazines will be saved.’ They will not be saved this way.”
Wolff does see the iPad as having an impact on magazines and newspapers, but hearkening back to Steve Jobs’s somewhat contentious relationships with the music industry, or wireless phone networks, he predicts that the advantages will be all for Apple.
“Whatever advantage there is, it will go to Jobs rather than to the magazine business or the newspaper business.”
And Wolff goes on to list the other imperiled institutions and devices. Of Google, the search giant that is currently at the top of the heap, Wolf says they should be looking over their shoulder.
“I think we’re also looking at a world in which platforms are changing rapidly. What’s the effect of Facebook? What’s the effect of Twitter? I think Google itself has to lose sleep because this business has changed very, very, very quickly, and nobody has stayed on top for all that long.”
So, if you were keeping score according to Michael Wolff, you’d short stocks for The New York Times, Newscorp, and maybe even Google.
So, what’s he betting on?
The answer of this long time practitioner of the written word may surprise you:
“If I had to make any prediction, it’s that the Internet becomes the main distributor of video. And that this happens very, very quickly. And that, you know, there is the — hardly any distance between here and a sudden understanding, a consensus that if you’re programming video, you ought to be programming for this medium. That the audiences are bigger, that the costs are lesser, and that the opportunity is absolutely wide open.”
Steve Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of Magnify.net, a NYC-based Web video startup. He has been building and growing consumer-content businesses since 1992. He was the creator and Executive Producer of MTV UNfiltered, a series that was the first commercial application of user-generated video in commercial TV.
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