How I Wolff’d down the Murdoch book

After nearly setting off my tilt mechanism at Thanksgiving dinner by eating twice my weight in food, I spent the earlier part of Friday gorging on as much of Michael Wolff’s new Rupert Murdoch biography as I could. I read just enough to think of some questions for Wolff that wouldn’t come off as sounding too stupid, and then we got on the phone.

First, a short reminder of why we care about Rupert Murdoch and want to read Wolff’s book, “The Man Who Owns the News,” which Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House’s Doubleday label, is releasing on Dec. 2 (after passing some copies around to people like me):

    Murdoch is the legendarily aggressive Australian businessman who built News Corp into an international media empire. He owns this crazy collection of stuff, from MySpace to the New York Post to Sky Italia to stakes in companies in countries you’ve never even heard of. He did it despite — and perhaps because of — his treatment by more well-heeled media contemporaries as a vulgar, Antipodean mutant form of themselves. He’s a big risk-taker, as evidenced by his $5.6 billion purchase of Dow Jones & Co and its crown jewel, The Wall Street Journal. That price was 65 percent more than the company was worth. His love life with the much younger Wendi Deng causes constant speculation about who will run his empire when he is gone. Some people think he uses his news outlets to advance his business interests, something that in utterly unremarkable in certain parts of the world.

Now for some Q&A with Michael Wolff. We moved one or two items out of chronological order to preserve a bit of continuity with the questions.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: My primary aim was to get Rupert on paper, to get a real sense of who this guy is. I wasn’t really interested in whether he was a good guy or a bad guy or good for journalism or bad for journalism.

Q: He saw an early copy of the book, according to the blogs. Has he tried to contact you?

Icahn helps himself to some Yahoo

Activist investor Carl Icahn helped himself to some early Thanksgiving turkey, buying more shares in Yahoo on Wednesday.

Here’s Silicon Alley Insider’s Henry Blodget with the basics:

Well, don’t accuse Carl Icahn of cutting and running. After losing $1 billion on his massive Yahoo bet–he bought 69 million shares last spring at about $25–Carl Icahn has (figuratively speaking) doubled down.

In the past three days, the raider has bought another 6.7 million shares of Yahoo for about $65 million, bringing his total to 75.6 million shares. At today’s closing price of $10.58, Carl’s stake is worth $800 million, about $900 million less than he paid for his original position. The 76 million shares amount to 5.4% of the company.

Moody’s reads newspapers

Moody’s thumbed through the newspapers of the United States on Monday and concluded what many of us know: the outlook is negative. The summary: ad revenue falls, less money comes in, newspapers have to cut back to survive and it gets harder to pay their debt.

Having said that, this newspaper beat reporter found signs of a thaw, just like a crocus peeking through snow.

First, the negative:

The negative outlook for newspaper-ad revenue has worsened in the past six months as bleak data on the economy mounts, says Moody’s. Rising job losses, the weak housing market and tighter credit availability raise concerns that consumer spending will weaken further, extending and deepening the economic downturn.

Crunching the New York Times numbers

The New York Times Co’s announcement on Thursday that it’s cutting its dividend by almost 75 percent is a pretty grim indicator of the fortunes of the storied newspaper publisher. It also is fraught with implications. It prompted us to put some of the numbers in perspective, but first, here’s a recap of the news:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The New York Times Co slashed its dividend by almost three-quarters and plans to cut spending and reevaluate its assets to cope with an advertising decline that is gouging U.S. newspaper publishers.

The trustees of the Ochs-Sulzberger family’s shares in the Times said on Thursday they support the company’s actions.

A new journalism career path: mailroom

I usually believe everything I read in Editor & Publisher, but this one seemed almost too good/horrifying to be true:

When a newspaper cuts its staff, those who remain in the depleted newsroom become valuable. But as The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. slowly says farewell to 151 newsroom folks who took buyouts last month, at least two longtime journalists have been reassigned to the mailroom.

Reporter Jason Jett and Assistant Deputy Photo Editor Mitchell Seidel have been filing, sorting, and delivering mail for more than a week, according to sources.

Huffingtonpost to fund investigative journalism

Just got back from a panel discussion at Michael’s restaurant in Manhattan where Huffingtonpost founder Arianna Huffington said that the news and commentary website is going to raise money to fund investigative journalism projects.

I asked her for more details afterward. She said there wouldn’t be any for another three months or so. That leaves me with precious little more to deliver than context. Her plan comes as the news business itself faces dire code-orange-style threat levels — many U.S. newspaper publishers are mired in debt and their ad sales are thinning, making it hard to see how they will soldier on. Not only that, investors are fleeing from them like the proverbial rats from a sinking ship and their equity value is hitting the low single digits.

For all media companies, whether or not they’re in the hands of investors, the ad revenue decline is hitting them hard, and all sorts of publications are axing staff. It leaves many media talking heads and bloggers wondering whether news will survive into the 21st century, at least in the way we know it.

Hey Media, don’t cross Barney Frank!

Here’s a fun one from my colleague Emily Kaiser, who’s reporting from Capitol Hill today (she’s monitoring the hearing on TV. Turns out we have someone else there. That’s what you get when you write about DC from New York), specifically from the Financial Services Committee in the House of Representatives:

Committee Chairman and Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank was convening a hearing on how the government is using the $700 billion rescue fund, featuring some serious economic star power in the form of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp Chairman Sheila Bair.

Long story short, when the financial future of the nation is at stake, you gotta let the hearing get started — especially when Rep Frank wields the gavel:

Play time is over at The New York Times

We always thought that being involved in the professional sports world was like owning your own mint… which explains why we’re not independently wealthy.

For The New York Times, it looks like things didn’t quite work out. FishbowlNY broke the story that the Times was shutting Play magazine. Here is the blog quoting Play Editor Mark Bryant:

In October Bryant told us Play was scheduled to produce four issues in 2009, but apparently the worsening advertising climate and the ever-sinking NYT Co stock price altered that plan.

Newspapers, not out of the ‘wood’ yet

The American Press Institute went through with its plan to bring top U.S. newspaper publishers together in a room this week to figure out how to keep themselves alive despite all the financial evidence showing that hospice care might be their best bet at this point. It also, as we reported before, was closed to press, and none of the 50 executives who went were named. (UPDATE: Thanks to a good friend who supplied me with the list, it appears at the end of the post.)

Here are excerpts from the report. Go to the bottom of this post to read about why we couldn’t go:

The general feel of the conference:
“At times akin to group therapy and at other times resembling a business-school class… (Aren’t these folks business professionals already?)”

Scripps scraps jobs, not spelling bee

Newspaper publishers throughout the United States are cutting dividends, paper size, circulation, coverage, reporting jobs, editing jobs, advertising salesman jobs, copy editing jobs. Yes, even copy editing has to fall under the newspaper delivery truck sometime. Despite that, publisher EW Scripps — itself shedding workers — still is churning out tomorrow’s precision-focused language geeks for the copy desk.

We were curious to find out what kinds of discretionary spending cuts companies are making, and newspapers are no exception. When thinking about publishers, the most high-profile event we could think of was the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Could they cut the beloved Bee? I asked spokesman Tim King:

We are enthusiastically going to continue running the spelling  Bee — we’re eager to host the next one that’s coming this coming spring.