@ CMS2010: A Dose Of Wolff: Rupe’s Mad As Hell, Newspapers Are Over

Nothing like a good, hard dose of scathing reality to scare the hell out of a media audience. Michael Wolff – the Vanity Fair columnist, Newser operator and Murdoch biographer – happily obliged at MediaGuardian’s Changing Media Summit in London…

That Wolff is both a media realist and an increasing thorn in Murdoch’s reputation is little new. Today, he expanded on his comments last month that Rupert is “off the reservation”

On News Corp

“I think that he is only half-way (off the reservation). I think he’s mad as hell.

“Murdoch who has always been the defiler of journalism and newspapers is (now) the last defender.

“This is the business he has grown up in – it’s the only business that he loves and knows – he may own movie studios but, really, he’s never, to my knowledge, sat through a movie besides Crocodile Dundee. He doesn’t watch television although he’s the largest creator of television programmes in the world. All of those businesses exist so that he can be in the newspaper business.

“It’s incredibly painful for him to see that, actually, he might not make it to retirement (with the business in tact).

He sees himself as the only guy who might save this business. That’s what he wants to be. If he saved a British newspaper business in the late 80s, that’s what he thinks he’s doing now.

The interesting thing is that no-one else in his company thinks like this. They have to indulge him because he’s Murdoch and that’s the way the company is organised. There’s not a mechanism to really challenge him. It is Rupert alone who is out there waging this battle. The paywall battle – totally Rupert. Up till little more than a year ago, Rupert had never been on the web unaccompanied.

“When he’s talking about the technological future, it’s entirely based on the technological past. He’s not in a position to materially affect this world. Rupert is almost irrelevant to this discussion.”

On why we’re all screwed…

“The chickens are coming home to roost. Most of the people who run traditional media will not be the people to step in to this new world.

“There is a line and people are not going to get over it. It used to be, up until 18 months ago, ‘there is a line but I hope I get to retirement before I cross that line’. This recession has meant people really understand that they won’t.

“Every big-city newspaper in the U.S. is either in bankruptcy or will be in bankruptcy in the foreseeable future – that’s 12 months. The newspaper industry in the U.S. is over.

“It’s been happening since before the internet – it’s not because of it.

“This has happened again and again and again in every industry – new technology has come along, and you just can’t make the change; it almost inevitably never happens. It’s easier to start with people who have no historical bias.

“If you’ve spent your career in one technology, in one business model, it’s just not efficient to have to undo that.

“The primary source of news is not going to be newspapers, is not going to be television, it’s going to be in the digital world.”

But there is track record for business transformation in massively disrupted companies, I said from the audience – IBM became a services company, Kodak got serious about digital. Assuming media have a bright side, Is there an equivalent transformation point for them?, I asked. “IBM is an interesting example – it found another niche off its track – it did not become Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT). Some media companies will move in another direction – different from the one they are going in and from where their competition is after them. Radio should have died” when TV came along – but reinvented itself by getting out of programming and instead running rock ‘n roll and traffic news, Wolff said.

This moving aside is the same thesis forthcoming in Simon Waldman’s book.