NEW YORK — Since coming to New York magazine in 1998 as its media columnist, Michael Wolff has emerged as a kind of media world op-ed columnist on a really good (and really strange) acid trip with some sodium pentathol mixed in. His columns are a little bit fact, a lot of analysis and have a total disregard for the politics of journalism. And yet, five years at Michael’s restaurant has reinvigorated his own mogul desires. As Wolff attempts to become New York’s owner and as his book, “Autumn of the Moguls,” hits, WWD caught up with him to dish on the collapse of the conglomerates, the war in Iraq and the writer’s strange affinity for Martha Stewart.
WWD: Your book’s thesis is that the media is collapsing. What do you attribute this to?
Wolff: If I had to choose one word I would say incompetence. And I think people are standing back and asking the logical question: Has this worked? I mean, functionally this has been a huge experiment: Take 2,000 companies and reduce them to five. That has been done before in other industries, and that’s largely been the rationale in this industry. “It happened to automobiles and it happened to airlines.” But now people are standing back asking whether this has worked and there is a set of fairly standard measures by which it clearly has not. None of these companies has kept pace with the S&P 500, almost none of the core businesses in these companies is stronger now than it was when the consolidation started, and then, last but by no means least, you have audience flight. You have audiences who are saying “We don’t like these businesses.” Now, you can say that this is because the media business is fractured and there are so many new options, but it’s demonstrably true that no one is very happy with the products these companies are creating.
WWD: Such as what?
Wolff: Consumers are not watching television shows, they’re not listening to music or they’re going their own way to find the music they want to listen to and to find the television shows they want to watch. There is a sense everywhere in this business of restless consumers and not knowing the mind of the consumer if you are a creator or producer of media products.
WWD: Isn’t “Autumn of the Moguls” also about the difficulty in finding a second act? In much of the book, it seems as if this endless stream of bad deals is not even businesses that are outmoded but rather chief executive officers who just got bored and couldn’t sit still.
Wolff: I’m not sure that’s true. Time Warner was a terrible company when it merged with AOL. The merger of Time and Warner was never a success. What you have here is that one way to deal with your inherent problems is to do deals. So Jerry Levin did a deal, not least of all because he was in trouble. The first deal that probably saved him from being fired was the Turner deal. There’s a business philosophy of “if you’re in trouble do a deal.” Nobody wants to fire the guy that did the deal because it’s his deal. It’s his responsibility so you want to give him time to work it out because no one wants to take the blame for it. And so the media business became the business of making these deals and, in these cases, bad ones.
WWD: Do you think in the long term that we will learn anything from that or are we just in an off phase?
Wolff: I think probably both. I think we are coming into a period where we are rejecting the very notion of synergy and the very notion of mega companies and I think we will begin a process of returning to some other more rational foundation. But will we forget all this in a generation and begin the process again? Undoubtedly.
WWD: How does this relate to your own interest in buying New York magazine?
Wolff: My idea for New York magazine is a return to rationality. When I came to New York and got into the magazine business in the mid-Seventies, the city was filled with independent magazines that were owned by the people who published them and they largely owned one magazine. And I think that’s a pretty good model, and I think that’s the way you have to publish a magazine, especially one that’s about a relationship with its readers. There are certain magazines that cannot be produced by a formula that doesn’t benefit from being part of a company with countless other magazines.
WWD: There’s a rumor already that your bid has collapsed and that you’re not in it with Donny Deutsch anymore. True or false?
Wolff: Absolutely untrue. We’re in it, we’re going forward and we hope the price is right.
WWD: You’ve become known for deconstructing moguls and ripping them apart. But there are three figures you seem quite enamored of: one is Martha Stewart, the second is Barry Diller and the third is Walter Isaacson. What is it about them?
Wolff: Well, I think I have a greater universe of people than that and I do pick them [Stewart, Diller and Isaacson] apart. But what I like is that they’ve done their jobs well. Martha created a media company that was just smart in every way, except for [possibly] going to jail, that’s obviously not so smart. But other than that, she took a theme, she took her own personal interest and turned it into a media company. It’s exactly what media should be. It’s about “my” interests.
WWD: Is it also personal? That she embodies the branding of the talent itself? Do you want to be Martha Stewart on some level?
Wolff: No, I can safely say I don’t want to be Martha but I am certainly attentive to the fact that she starts functionally with nothing and having not much of anything and bit by bit on the basis of her own talent rather than financial engineering, by taste and presentation and a certain flip of the hair, builds a media company out of this. It’s coherent, you know what it’s about, it delivers. As for Walter, it is similar. Walter just does a good job and all of the ways you can criticize him — and I certainly have — but at the end of the day he just does it better than anybody and he does more of it. He runs companies and writes really exceptional biographies. There’s also a certain kind of inexhaustibility to these people, too. The same goes for Barry Diller. It’s just a remarkable career. Firstly, he just seems to avoid making the mistakes that virtually everybody else made. He’s personally successful, he seems to have a good time doing what he’s doing, he is always a step ahead of somebody else, everybody else, and he always manages to transform himself in unexpected ways.
WWD: You’ve been criticized for the book’s discussion of Steve Rattner’s Quadrangle Conference, the media conference that was supposed to be off the record. Are you worried that this is going to come back to haunt you, that there is no off the record with you?
Wolff: Well, there really is no off the record, everything one way or the other is material. Now the truth is that people go off the record with me all the time and if it’s an issue of respecting a confidence, of not hurting someone or protecting sources for all the reasons that one protects a source, I am as reliable as everyone else. But where I differ is that there is an enormous amount of off the record quote-unquote that’s complete bullshit. It’s people whose interest is their own agenda, it’s people who are manipulating journalists, it’s people also interestingly enough who don’t even care about off the record, they just say it’s off the record on the vague chance that something will be uttered. So in this instance, I said, “Well that’s a problem.” And this conference wasn’t even off the record until five minutes before it started when some bureaucrat decided it was off the record. And then the organizers of the conference went around to all the journalists that were there and said, “Well, we would still like to be written about.” Finally, no one said anything that was confidential. Anything that anyone said there they say all the time in other forums. In any type of NDA (non-disclosure agreement) there’s always a provision that you can’t protect things that are already in the public, which all of this was. So I said, “Screw this.”
WWD: That was also your reaction to much of the war coverage and at the war center, where you said we were basically being snowed. But do you think it’s also possible we just didn’t care, that Americans just were less outraged by the war here than they were in England?
Wolff: Well yes, at the same time I think we are becoming more interested as this becomes more problematic, and I think we weren’t interested largely because the media accepted that this was going to be very quick and that this was great patriotism at very small cost and now it turns out not to be and now more and more people are upset by this. And I think the Bush administration lied or at the very least oversold, but I think the media just rolled over.
WWD: Do you think we’re winning?
Wolff: I think we’re losing. I think that there are two ways to view this but I think that where we are right now is that the Bush demands on the American public is not the way they are prepared to see it. In other words, the American public is not prepared to pay the cash price or in terms of the number of lives lost and, in fact, they’re not prepared to devote the psychic attention it would take to go the distance.