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Interview: Michael Wolff On The Irrelevance Of Media Reporters

Adweek has recently undergone an image overhaul, merging Adweek, Mediaweek and Brandweek into one, single brand and honing its focus in on the intersection of advertising, marketing and media. We spoke with Adweek‘s editorial director, Michael Wolff, about the brand’s changes… and on what he thinks about media reporters. (Hint: He may or may not find them “completely irrelevant.”) [Ed. note: Update at bottom]

Wolff explained that the decision to fold Mediaweek and Brandweek into Adweek comes from focusing “not about the subject so much as the brand,” with Adweek being the much better known, and more successful, of the brand’s former titles.

We’d noted that the official press release about the brand’s changes focused quite a bit on Wolff himself, as had the bulk of media coverage surrounding Adweek. Was this, we wondered, a conscious decision – to equate the Adweek brand with one particular personality?

“Well,” Wolff replied, “I am the editor. I have to take responsibility, whether it’s a win or a lose.” He added that he feels magazines definitely “should have strong editors” who are willing to speak of and essentially become “the face” of the magazine.

In the past, Wolff has continually brushed off comparisons between Adweek and AdAge – another ad-focused publication. In fact, a recent Yahoo write-up about Adweek‘s revamp quoted The Observer‘s Elizabeth Spiers – who, it’s worth noting, became embroiled in a particularly nasty feud with Wolff. Said Spiers: “You’re not going to compete with [rival trade] AdAge by having Michael pick fights with small circulation regional newspapers.” Wolff, however, insists the two magazines are not “rivals” in the least. AdAge, he argues, is a trade publication, and Adweek is decidedly not.

“The trade category has problems,” he says. “It’s too niche, and general business too broad.” Adweek, then, is trying to create a product that is about journalism. “It will tell the story of this industry,” Wolff continues. In this way, he believes his magazine is more like, say, Fortune than AdAge.

But, seeing how Mediaite isn’t terribly invested in the advertising world or day-to-day operations of magazines (as beautiful – and plump – as the new issue of Adweek happens to be), we wanted to know a little more about the media’s contentious relationship with Mr. Wolff.

Covering media, we tend to gauge our own little bubble’s thoughts and reactions to news items through twitter, where we noticed that the general consensus among media reporters seemed to focus, primarily on Wolff rather than on the magazine itself, and that this reaction had… a negative tinge, to put it mildly. We asked Wolff whether he sees a difference in the way the ad industry views Adweek versus how media reporters view the brand, pointing out that the revamp was generating negative buzz on Twitter.

Wolff believes that, actually, the buzz around the magazine’s new path has been overwhelmingly positive, and his focus is on his readers, not “the 26 people writing about media.” As he sees it, “Most people writing about media have no idea what they’re talking about.” [Ed. note: Gasp!, thought the media writer for Mediaite. First, Keith Olbermann announces my co-workers and I don’t have real jobs, and now Wolff believes my ilk is good for nothing. Also, totally chipped some dishware yesterday. It’s been a bad week.) Yahoo! noted Wolff’s sometimes contentious relationship with those inhabiting the media world:

Of course fighting is what Wolff is known for. Here he is butting heads with Rupert Murdoch; sparring with former publishing doyenne Judith Regan; shooting spitballs on the grave of late Upper East Side restaurateur Elaine Kaufman; getting kicked out of at least 10 other restaurants in that neighborhood, where he used to live.

And, Wednesday, mediabistro’s FishbowlNY blog [Ed. note: Full disclosure – I used to be editor of FishbowlNY] featured an interview with Wolff that… well. Got a lil’ tense:

US: “Wait. We gotta discuss the typo on the cover before you go.”

HIM: “Actually, you already passed up your opportunity to ask that.”

US: “What does that mean? You won’t discuss it?”

HIM: “No. That’s YOUR story.”

US: “Can you at least explain it to the audience? That’s a pretty big typo, and people are talking about it.”

HIM: “No. That’s YOUR story.”

US: “Ok. Well, let’s ask a couple more general questions just so we have enough content for the final video.”

HIM: “I think you’ve got enough content.”

Wolff would later refer to the post’s author as a “putz.”

Then, there’s Jeff Bercovici, who writes Forbes‘ in-depth Mixed Media column, and who – while offering congratulations (kind of, sort of) – had a couple of critiques concerning articles from the new Adweek.

But Wolff isn’t losing sleep over it. “They are of absolutely no concern or interest to me,” he says. “They’re completely irrelevant. They have no audience, make no contribution.”

So how, then, are media reporters different from Adweek staffers – whose numbers will soon rise from 32 to 50? “Here, reporters are covering a beat, and they do an honest job,” explained Wolff. “Unlike Jeff Bercovici.”

We asked Bercovici to comment. First, he pointed us to an article he’d published (pre-Forbes, while he was still at Aol) which documented a particularly heated exchange between the two:

I ran this scenario by Wolff, whose unpleasant personal manner is so famous as to be perversely endearing. “Let’s not have this conversation,” he said. When I pressed him for a comment, he reminded me of a story I wrote last year saying that he was preparing a column for Vanity Fair about how his personal life had become gossip fodder for the New York Post — a column that was never published. I asked him why he’d brought that up. “I’m saying get some stuff right for once,” he snapped, and hung up the phone. (In fact, Wolff himself confirmed to me at the time that he was writing the column, but cautioned that it was a work in progress and might not turn out as I expected.) He didn’t respond to a follow-up email seeking clarification, and an E5 spokeswoman was unable to shed any light.

“The upshot is,” Bercovici told us via email, “a couple of times now, he’s gotten pissed at me because I wrote about something he had in the works before he was ready to talk about it. I think if you follow the links and read the items in question, you’ll see that everything I wrote was 100 percent accurate. So unless he has some other example of my supposed dishonesty, I’d say it’s just him being thin-skinned.”

One thing, at least, if for certain where Wolff is concerned: If it’s true that all publicity is good publicity, then the man most certainly knows how to market himself.

As for Adweek, the reinvigorated magazine’s latest issue is now on newsstands.

Update: Originally, this article noted that Wolff had mentioned he’d “neglected to hire” Bercovici, a claim Bercovici denies. In an effort to determine whether we’d misheard Wolff, we followed up with him via Adweek. When asked to clarify, Adweek said the publication does not discuss those it has neglected to hire. When it was pointed out that Wolff may not have been referring to Adweek specifically, a spokesperson for the magazine relayed that Wolff never said he had neglected to hire Bercovici.

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