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Newser hopes to be a bit old, a whole lot new

October 15, 2008|Maria Russo | Times Staff Writer

Michael Wolff is over journalism.

The media columnist for Vanity Fair thinks that the ailing vocation has gotten in the way of what modern info seekers really crave: news. As he tells the story, in recent decades the people who call themselves journalists have bloated the news with their self-importance and their desire for prestige, losing sight of what's interesting. Then the Internet arrived and gave people a faster, more efficient way to get their info fix.

In a decade that's seen the expansion of the Internet, cable news, cellphones and social networking, most young people are about as likely to buy a newspaper as a Walkman. As newspapers have scrambled to keep readers, Wolff has been among those -- the list includes Arianna Huffington, Matt Drudge, and Web impresario Jason Calacanis -- who are trying to offer a purely Web-based way for people to get news. Wolff's effort,, is a year-old customizable news aggregator website that condenses the news into entertaining tidbits. The site's editors search the Web for stories, then a team of writers summarize them, with links to the original sources. September was a milestone month for the 20-employee site: It had over a million unique visitors for the first time, according to Web ratings service Comscore.

That's a relatively modest readership -- for comparison's sake, solo gossip blogger Perez Hilton had 2 million unique visitors last month; the 50-person Huffington Post had 4.5 million. As Wolff well knows -- his 1998 book "Burn Rate" chronicled his misadventures starting another Internet media company, which grew to 75 employees and then failed -- the future of any small Web operation is iffy, especially at this moment of financial uncertainty, with Silicon Valley venture capital leaders warning start-ups that cash is looking like an endangered species.

I met Wolff recently to talk about Newser's prospects and the transformation of the news landscape. Despite all the anguish at the big newspaper companies, he is bullish on the news business. "More people want news than ever before, they're consuming more of it," he said. "This ought to be the best time for our business, not the worst. But the problem is people don't want newspapers anymore."

Compact and wiry, with a shaved head, prominent features and electric-blue eyes, he exudes a calm relentlessness. In his decade as a media columnist, he's taken a pitiless, often harsh view of the foibles of New York media's power elite. Yet he's often frankly expressed awe and even envy of his subjects -- he wants to be one of the big guys too.

To do that, he'll have to sprint to the front of the pack trying to make sense of the evolving habits of online news seekers. "We're in this period in which all the news media that has shaped our idea of news, and not to mention the culture, not to mention the political world, is going away," Wolff said. "And the news consumer is moving to this new medium which is still unformed."

Filtering the flood

Web news filters do make sense in an info-drenched world. As Mark Cuban, the Web entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner, put it in an e-mail: "As information expands, the amount of work to capture it all expands as well." Many readers now scan several sites, several times a day, including some that are themselves scanning other sites for fresh material.

But while we want someone "to act as an editor and aggregator for topics we have a marginal interest in," Cuban wrote, "we are becoming far more information-capture literate." So the choice we face now is "between the time it takes to find stuff at a more granular level on the net, versus going to a trusted source."

Cuban said he likes what Wolff is trying to accomplish, but that filter sites like MyYahoo that allow users to add even more customized features (such as photos and RSS feeds) could create a challenge.

The formula Wolff has in mind is a bit of a two-headed beast: part MyYahoo, with its technology-enhanced news experience, and part Rupert Murdoch, the irrepressible 77-year-old patriarch of News- Corp and now Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. Wolff just spent a year researching and writing a biography of Murdoch, whom he calls "the only guy left in the traditional news business" -- no Ivy League pretensions, no looking down on the entertainment value of news. "He's never been a journalist," Wolff said approvingly. "He's a newspaperman."

But Murdoch has the platform of established and well-known news brands. I asked Wolff if he was concerned that Newser has no discernible brand identity -- that it's not the kind of site that, say, a glossy magazine media columnist would bother mentioning.

" 'Buzz' doesn't get you the kind of traffic that you want," Wolff said. He's comfortable, he said, with Newser's incremental growth of traffic over the last year. "The businesses that make money are the ones you don't hear all that much about. It costs too much money to get buzz."

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