Burned Once, but Starting Up Again

Burned Once, but Starting Up Again


Published: August 6, 2007

“How many people have you got on staff now?”

Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Michael Wolff is part of a Web site that aggregates articles.

“Over seventy,” I say with pride, even though I realize that each person is another parcel the boat cannot handle.


“What’s your burn rate?”

“All in, a half million a month or so,” I shrug.

“Rest in peace, baby.”

— From “Burn Rate” by Michael Wolff

There he goes again.

his 1998 book “Burn Rate,” the journalist Michael Wolff describes his
misadventures in starting and abandoning a technology company in the
1990s. The book became a parable for an era and elevated the term in
the title, which refers to the amount of money a company blows through
each month above its revenue, into the popular lexicon.

Now, Mr. Wolff is throwing caution to the wind with a new Internet start-up, a Web site called newser.com that aggregates news articles for convenient reading.

irony is not lost on Mr. Wolff, the media columnist for Vanity Fair.
“I’m appalled by the prospect, frankly,” he joked, adding that he was
moving forward “with enormous trepidation and self-loathing.”

which is in a test version and will not be finished until October, uses
a proprietary algorithm to select “the day’s most important and most
talked about stories from the 100 top news sources,” as the site puts

It highlights nine articles at once — from outlets as varied as The New York Times,
The Sydney Morning Herald and the Smoking Gun — with summaries and
links to the original articles. The site says it will also override its
algorithm to feature “overlooked points of view, angles and scoops.”
The editor, Caroline Miller, is a former editor of New York magazine
and Seventeen.

Mr. Wolff is producing the site with Patrick
Spain, chief executive of HighBeam Research, a digital research company
that publishes encyclopedia.com.
Mr. Spain, who is financing the newser.com site, was already thinking
about starting something like newser.com when he and Mr. Wolff came

While Mr. Wolff said that hundreds of visitors with
special access to the site have been viewing and critiquing it for
months, it went live on Wednesday, and he did not expect bloggers to
discover it so quickly.

“We’re in New Haven,” he said, using
the metaphor of a theatrical production that is staged elsewhere than
New York to get the kinks out before opening on Broadway. “We’re in one
of those Internet phases in which ideally no one quite notices we’re

But gawker.com, the media-gossip site that tends to sharpen the hatchets at the mention of Mr. Wolff, did notice. “It’s Yahoo!
News without the exclamation point,” Choire Sicha, managing editor of
Gawker, wrote in an Aug. 2 post. “It’s the dullest thing I’ve seen all
day, and I’ve been staring into a jar of pennies for the last half

But Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the best selling “Freakonomics,” was impressed with Newser, writing on freakonomics.com that “there’s a new news aggregator in town” and “it looks like one of the best I’ve seen.”

Wolff, meanwhile, remains oblique. Asked if he has an ownership stake
in newser.com, for instance, he replied: “I can’t answer that. I
literally wouldn’t know how to answer that at this point.”

He did
say the site will always be free, and that it will earn its revenue
through advertising. But since there is none yet, except for some small
Google advertisements, that gives newser.com a burn rate of nearly 100 percent.


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