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David Poland

By David Poland

How Variety Got Its Groove Whacked

Oh, it’s funny how things change…

Five years ago, The Hollywood Reporter was on death watch and Variety was going in for the kill. Variety scooped up Anne Thompson and others, cockily pecking away at whatever good meat was left on a dying carcass.

Three years ago, Sharon Waxman, the hated and hacky former New York Times industry reporter, started The Wrap, with funding from Howard Schultz, amongst others, and the support of Charlie Koones, who had left his gig as Publisher of Variety a year earlier. The Wrap started off with an interesting list of former Variety staffers, but ran through most of her start-up capital and the patience of most of her veteran writers in just over a year. She got another round of financing, but has never quite overcome the failure to launch. Her strongest internet asset, the relentless and funny Joe Adalian, covering television, moved on to NY Mag’s Vulture, and since then, the only interesting element of The Wrap has been Waxman’s hustle in trying to keep it alive.

Three months after Waxman launched, Jay Penske decided to purchase and fund Nikki Finke’s LA Weekly-based psychodrama, aka Deadline Hollywood. And Nikki turned around and in one of her few shows of insight, realized that she was 2 reporters away from being a trade. In early 2010, she hired Mike Fleming, who was the highest paid reporter at Variety, and soon after, Nellie Andreeva from the Hollywood Reporter and, to this day are the trio that must generate at least 85% of the page views for Deadline. They also reportedly make more money than any triad of reporters in the business.

While Finke was hiring away Mike Fleming, Variety was erecting a paywall and firing Anne Thompson, Ben Fritz, and others (and soon after raping the budget for critics, Variety cut Todd McCarthy loose as well).

Five months later, The Hollywood Reporter hired Janice Min to resurrect the dying paper and brand.

That was just 22 months ago.

Since then, the two wannabe trades and the two long-standing trades have gone in four different directions, trying to find The Answer to a dying business model. Like most Old Media, the trades were heavily staffed, well edited, and operated on a rigid set of deadlines. People were well paid. People had health insurance and even pensions. This kind of stability and weightiness was critical to doing the most professional work. Still is.

But the evolution of the last three years brought the dirty secret of the trades to light. As competitive and intricate as the work of operating a news room that was also in the daily business of timing the news to fit the needs of sources, there wasn’t a lot of serious journalism going on at the trades. And there was very little news being broken in the entertainment business. 90%+ of what was/is being printed is not a matter of ferreting out information, but having a source with a vested interest choosing one outlet or reporter over another with whom to break the news.

And no one who wanted any of this information much cared where it came from. They just want the information as soon as it becomes available.

So do you:

A) Try to keep rolling along as though we were still in 1995?
B) Try to find a niche that is part trade/gossip and part a high-gloss insider’s Vanity Fair?
C) Sensationalize as much as possible to get someone’s attention?
D) Hire two people who have been amongst the most trusted reporters for sources to plant info with for years and then have the boss set off on a rampage of threats and lies combined with rarely adding much thought to what the sources do give you, in order to get as many people as possible to make you the first stop with info, whether out of fear or advantage?

I’m not going to even bother with a key to which of the four outlets is which. If you don’t know, I am shocked you’ve read this far.

Moving on… you now have 4 trades or wannabe trades trying to come up with new revenue streams. Variety, now hidden behind a paywall, announced that it would become the brand for entertainment industry forums and meetings, that business being better than publishing in this era. The Reporter focused on bringing high-end non-industry advertisers on board. The Wrap, after getting nowhere with ads, scaring many by being a blazing headline outlet, decided to try out the forum business also. And Deadline struggled mightily with advertising until Nikki realized what everyone else knows… the money is in awards season.

Retail shopper that she is, Nikki threw a barrel of money at Lynne Segal, who had been at The Hollywood Reporter forever before going to the LA Times and rebooting their Oscar business with an unreadable but potentially profitable pull-out section called The Envelope. It took Lynne a few minutes to get Nikki to create her own hideous print edition and to hire on Pete Hammond, a very bright, very nice, very professional friend of the industry to be their Oscar frontman. (None of Nikki’s other hires have moved the bar a millimeter.)

The Wrap followed with a bad print book of their own.

And The Hollywood Reporter, which had decided not to pander to the season with special issues and wrap-around covers soon changed their mind.

Meanwhile, Variety, still printing daily, but hidden behind a wall on the web, making whatever immediacy it was offering a non-issue, had lost its identity. The Wrap failed to ever establish one.

But Deadline, fronted by Nikki and her tabloid “Toldjas” and name-calling, had a distinct identity. And they had an increasing percentage of stories planted by publicists there first. (They call them EXCLUSIVES. I call them maize.) By dint of Nikki’s harassment and willingness to run anything that her self-motivated sources told her and the solid trade-style work of Fleming & Andreeva, Deadline not only became the top trade… it really became the only trade. If you want to know who booked a pilot or who is changing agencies, Deadline is the first and perhaps the only stop. If you want premature, ignorant, studio-written box office coverage, Deadline is there. If you want to know what the studios want the rest of the industry to think, no where better to land than Deadline.

And The Hollywood Reporter also established a real identity. They hired a lot of the best people in town and let them loose. There are various murmurs of discontent from inside, but the checks are still clearing and starting with THR, Esq, some of the brands inside of the brand have become standard bearers.

Thing is, identity and image are not objective metrics. To quote Variety guys tweeting today: “This week, Variety broke 37 film stories, Deadline broke 18, and The Hollywood Reporter got a LOT of web traffic.” I don’t doubt these numbers. But no one really cares. Of those 55 Breaking Stories this week, a grand total of, maybe, 6 that anyone really gives a damn about. Finke has done a really good job of making the idea that being first is the important metric. But it’s not. Not amongst anyone but journalists counting “scoops.” More than ever, people are looking for perspective. The information is not sacred… at all. Why? Because it’s not news… it’s publicity parsed into news. I remain respectful of Josh Dickey and his Variety team and the work they do to achieve their goals. But I still rarely see any story that anyone actually dug up. Being in touch and hearing the rumor about who is being fired or promoted and following it up… sorry… it is hard work… it does force information release at times… but it’s not really news.

Really, take Josh and 3 people of his choice and keep the brand going and they could come back and outdo Deadline and everyone else in a year. Deadline isn’t doing anything great. Bring down the paywall, Reed, and at worst, you’ll raise the price on your sell.

Conversely, I would love to see – or whatever it’s called this month – buy Variety and to see what it’s really like to run a daily that is more than 3 people deep.

That said, the bottom line remains… none of these businesses are very good businesses. Nikki claims profitability, but people paying for her ad space have added up the numbers they know and looked at what she’s paying writers, and come up with red ink. The Reporter continues to be plagued with rumors that they are running a deficit. No one seems to know how The Wrap continues on, though they did a low-dollar deal with Reuters that no one else wanted and that has raised profile… and agita around Reuters, which has to deal with the errors that get run. And now, Variety is going to go to the bidder… maybe one of those guys on “Storage Wars.”

The bottom line is that journalism – even trade journalism – has been diminished in this era. Finke has no interest in actual journalism and her fake honesty is more dangerous than simply being an easy placement (which is one reason why she is a good person with whom to place stuff). Waxman still doesn’t understand much of anything about the industry and has pissed off a shocking number of people who used to support her in concept (though she has turned out to be a good VC wrangler… she should move forward in that career)… The Hollywood Reporter can’t afford to be a trade much longer… and Variety is a dinosaur, any way you cut it.

If you’re wondering, the LA Times has fallen back from the old days… but has got some strong writers who are still worth reading… more so than many of those mentioned above. But now they have a paywall and that will strangle their best writers in a matter of months. Again… even when they have it first or even best, it will soon be in the New York Times and THR and Deadline and all over the damned place if anyone cares. And it will be the same info over and over and over again.

And the rest of us… not really in that game. Sorry, Indiewire, but you aren’t anything close to a trade now, not even for indies. Great stuff, often. But the focus isn’t there and the range isn’t there. Three focused people can be a trade. Six unfocused blogs are not.

I guess that’s my way of saying, in the parlance of Shark Tank… I’m out.

6 Responses to “How Variety Got Its Groove Whacked”

  1. alynch says:

    The paywall at Variety is such a joke. The people in charge have to be aware of just how insanely easy it is to get around, right? NY Times too.

  2. scooterzz says:

    just push the ‘x’ button… i’d do it more often but who really wants to read ‘variety’?!?…

  3. nickp says:

    Variety put its online content behind a “paywall” in early 2010, ending an experiment with free online content that it began in October 2006.

  4. Ray Greene says:

    Absolutely superb analysis David, and I agree with almost all of it (I read you more than I read Deadline or the Wrap so I can’t really comment on their personalities the way you can).

    As someone who used to run a niche trade, my biggest Amen is for your trenchant analysis of what journalism is and isn’t. Being the first mouth the spoon feeds is a good branding opportunity, but if the story was framed, parsed, and packaged by a vested interest and then handed to an outlet, it’s no more hard journalism than a weather report on a sunny day.

    And don’t get me wrong. I like weather reporting, because it helps me decide if I’m going to take the PCH if I want to get to the beach. But Woodward and Bernstein it ain’t.

  5. carter g. says:

    Smart analysis but you’re completely ignoring the KEYS to the ‘golden age’ of trade journalism, David: a monarchy (Variety) and a healthier economy ($$$). Studios had no choice but to advertise big for airing their dirty laundry. Nowadays, Variety, THR, and Deadline are in the pockets of the studios b/c the playing field has changed so dramatically and they can’t afford to do so otherwise. (i.e. notice how nobody is asking for Rich Ross or Big Iger’s head after the epic fail of ‘John Carter.’)

    Finally, I agree with you on IndieWire being utterly useless but I’m sorry– the Los Angeles Times is NOT worth reading. It’s basically another incarnation of the new THR: a combination of pop stories and re-written trade exclusives, only instead of Captain Obvious he/she has a real name. For example, “Should Kim Kardashian return her wedding gifts?”

    And don’t get me wrong–Ben Fritz is a good writer but when was the last time they dug up something better than Deadline or Variety? Unless, of course, you’re referring to the hard-hitting saga detailing how many white guys there are in the Academy (crowd gasps)…

  6. Abigail says:

    Actually, Deadline’s awards season print editions are far from “hideous.” Within the confines of this type of pandering journalism, there was actually quite a bit of solid content & interviews.

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