Vanity Fair’s Wolff Predicts ‘Death of Newspapers’

Delivering the Thursday keynote at the annual Editor and Publisher/Mediaweek Interactive Conference in New Orleans today, Michael Wolff–Vanity Fair columnist, Murdoch biographer and founder–again predicted the “death of newspapers,” adding that he’d been having “fun” pushing the proposition in recent months to the point of being considered a “Dr. Doom.”

Newspapers “not only will go away but they should go away,” he said, adding that today’s talk would “cap” his statements and then he would “never speak of the death of newspapers again.”

He said that newspapers going away would not be a bad thing and might even be a great thing, with replacements promising to more than fill the news role and hole. The problem, he admitted, was a financial model.

“So, how to turn this into a business?” he asked. “What is the next step for all of us? The answer is uncertain.” But he proposed: “To make it work we need really, really, really large audiences.” What he called “television size,” maybe 50 million for a few sites.

What he sees coming and needed are giant “networks”–a few major Internet players, like the TV networks with tens of millions of users.

He repeatedly said that those who worry about the valuable work of newspapers going away are overstating the case, and should look at newspapers with a “cold eye.” Few papers, he said, do such work nowadays and can be replaced by networks of bloggers, local or niche experts and journalists. He called a column earlier this week arguing the case for newspapers by The New York Times’ David Carr “completely idiotic, fatuous…Biblical.”

Wolff noted that he has a strong newspaper background himself: His mother worked at a New Jersey daily, and his father sold ads to papers. Wolff started his career in newspapers, and so did his daughter. But he said his arguments months ago that newspapers would disappear from many major cities is now “conventional wisdom.”

“We are in a situation where no one is willing to pay for content but at the same time there is an outpouring of content. …So the idea of not enough content if the Boston Globe is screwed is silly.”

Among his other points: “Advertising is going away from newspapers, and it should. There are better ways to sell your products.”

There was some pushback from the audience on Wolff overstating his case. Another participant asked him to name a current site that he thinks is really doing terrific work. He mentioned

Wolff also noted the giant losses Rupert Murdoch is now taking on his newspapers, calling him a man “devoted to newspapers beyond reason.” He scoffed at Murdoch’s call yesterday to make more of his news sites go behind the pay wall. “Have you seen the New York Post’s site?” Wolff asked. “They barely have computers there.”

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