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Variety Up for Sale: Sad End for a Storied Brand

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by Anne Thompson
March 23, 2012 4:28 PM
20 Comments
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The once iconic trade brand Variety has recently fallen on hard times. Now owner Reed Business Information is putting the century-old trade paper up for sale. Back in 2008 they floated Variety as the crown jewel of all their trade publications, and tried to sell them as a unit, but pulled them back during the economic downturn. Back then, Variety alone would have been worth something. Now it is no longer something to crow about. Several factors led to its decline, from weak leadership to a failure to understand and adapt to the changes in media coverage brought by the Internet. Over the past three years, RBI let go of all its other US business magazines.

Janice Min

When I joined Variety in 2007 from The Hollywood Reporter, where I had launched their first blog, Risky Business, I was moving from the second-rung Hollywood trade to the dominant Tiffany publication. THR had been going through Draconian cutbacks; spending was tight; we all had to account for every penny and earn our keep or face losing our jobs. Variety was noticeably fatter and more expansive, with a larger staff putting out not only five dailies a week but Weekly Variety. They sent a far bigger cadre of editors and writers to Cannes and other festivals. Variety under the leadership of Peter Bart was editorially superior to THR but way behind them in terms of online sophistication. They were late to the Internet and were still playing catch-up. (Imagine where Variety would be today, for example, if they had turned their box office stats into a premium online resource. Now they rely on Rentrak like everyone else.)

By February of 2009, Variety had started its own series of layoffs, eventually letting go of many of their most experienced (and expensive) editors and writers, including me, Kathy Lyford, Phil Gallo, Adam Dawtry, Michael Speier, Daniel Frankel, Sharon Swart, and top critics Derek Elley, David Rooney and Todd McCarthy, among others. They also moved Bart out of day-to-day oversight of the publication. Bart was a tough and demanding leader who was powerful enough to fight with Reed brass for editorial quality; when Bart's second-in-command Tim Gray took over as Variety Group Editor, Variety president and publisher Neil Stiles was running the show.

Variety Signs a New Lease

When Gray hired ex-LA Times editor Leo Wolinsky as the new editor of Daily Variety in December 2009, it sent a message: Veteran. Old-fashioned. Newspaper man. During these trying times for trade publications, Gray's oft-repeated goal has been to solidify Variety's sterling reputation as the trade paper of record. Breaking the news, the mantra went, is less important than getting it right. So they hired an old-school editor who didn't get the internet, or the 24/7 speedy news cycle, who was gone within the year, replaced by Variety's two best editors, Brian Cochran and Cynthia Littleton.

But most disastrously, Stiles moved Variety behind a pay wall. Traffic plunged. In the Internet era, what was once Variety's limited purview--rewriting press releases to look like breaking news, serving as the industry's water-carrier-- suddenly became transparent, as more and more online and media outlets got access to the same instantly transmitted news. And Variety figured out the value of breaking news far too late, long after freely accessible Deadline had grabbed away their territory, partly by poaching Variety's star newsmonger, Mike Fleming. That loss was deadly. And Variety's losses added up, when star TV reporters Michael Schneider went to TV Guide and Joe Adalian went first to TV Week (which closed), The Wrap, and then, New York Vulture.

What Variety did in effect was to seed its competition with well-trained journalists. I took my blog to rising online trade Indiewire, which my one-time Variety colleague Dana Harris eventually joined as editor-in-chief; Ben Fritz was snapped up by The Los Angeles Times; Patrick Frater founded the successful online trade Film Business Asia, which hired Elley; Phil Gallo went to Billboard; Daniel Frankel went first to The Wrap, then paidContent; McCarthy eventually was hired by THR, which under editor Janice Min, rose to such ascendance that they were also able to lure Variety ace Pam McClintock to what was now the trade space's dominant publication.

By contrast, Min's THR spent heavily on talent such as Kim Masters, expertly grew its online traffic, ditched its print daily, and outgunned Variety's skimpy meat-and-potatoes Weekly with a glossy Premiere-light magazine that served reader and advertiser lust for inside celebrity intel. And with the hire of one-time THR exec Lynne Segal away from Deadline, THR gobbled up ads during awards season, the cash on which all these publications, including Indiewire, depend for their livelihood.

While the brand still retains some ruby shoes luster--bestowing power on whoever wears them-- and will likely be acquired, what value does Variety offer now? Nothing like what it could have commanded in the Bart Era. There was a time under the right leadership when they might have been able to compete. But it has always been tough for the complacent leader in a once-successful niche to see its own flaws and change with the times. Adapt or die.

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More: Media, New Media & Technology

20 Comments

  • Eddie | March 27, 2012 12:31 AMReply

    Ever heard of Mark Twain? When the media of his day attempted to bury him prematurely he noted wryly "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." And so it is with VARIETY. My time on the anointed "Bible of Show Business" in New York was admittedly during the height of its life, edited by the legendary Abel Green, and run by a family steeped in its equally legendary founder, Sime Silverman. In my early 20's it was the best job I have ever had in the business. The paper was printed in the Bronx and the entire staff was ensconced at the "plant" every Tuesday to put it to bed reading galleys and then page proofs which Abel ultimately approved. We played poker during the lulls.

    Where else could a kid move from messenger to music chart tabulator to Off-Broadway reviewer, to music reporter to film reporter, all the while reviewing premiere acts at clubs, concerts and other venues, reviewing TV shows and getting to visit the offices of the music and film biz's top execs, lunch with stars at Sardis, and on and on. A bi-liner and review signatory with access to everyone, no matter of title or creative status and still "kid" as Abel summoned me.

    Point is, VARIETY was the greatest experience of my life; it set me up for everything that was to follow. So it's no surprise that I have followed the paper all these years and watched the brand zigzag from its pinnacle as the show biz ultimate authority to a mundane yet still authoritative multimedia publication. Green, unlike Bart, had an ego based on a Runyonesque New York persona. He didn't write memos to the powerful, he edited a paper that spoke to them more eloquently (some would say quaintly) than his latter-day successor. VARIETY had style, its own lingo, and spoke with one voice -- insight. It had a sense of humor along with its often-exclusive reportage and it dominated the entertainment scene in a crowded environment (several trades, newspaper columnists, critics and pundits ... often quoted by them for validation.

    I know this all sounds hopelessly nostalgic in today's digital, virtual media reality. But VARIETY had personality as well as authority. We all loved working there and only moved on when things pointed us in more opportunistic career directions (Vince Canby to the N.Y. Times, for example; others, like me, to greener studio pastures, some to return disallusioned by the results of their decisions. None the less the paper remained the "bible." It was the Weekly that drove the brand. The dailies were less significant. It was New York vs. Hollywood. Then things began to move West, ultimately shifting the show biz capital from Gotham to Tinseltown. Things would never be the same: pulp to glossy, journal of record to regurgitator of old news. The Weekly was quickly becoming an anachronism but managements that replaced the Silverman family, which had lost its way already, continued the slide not knowing what to do about Weekly and Daily redundancy. But the brand remained and still does. It has been mismanaged and mangled but VARIETY is still VARIETY. Forget the obits. Under the right ownership it can pull a phoenix. It deserves to.

  • and the brand played on | March 26, 2012 5:42 PMReply

    But thrift stores don't sell you one part of an outfit (the cover price) and then tell you "for the rest of this outfit visit our web site" — which happens to be behind a paywall.

  • ExprtWitness | March 25, 2012 9:50 PMReply

    The unfortunate truth is that Mr Stiles has been, for the most part, a fish out of water since assuming his role at the publication. His ability to deal effectively with anything less than an optimum business environment is akin to watching his countryman Tony Hayward, of BP, attempt to deal with an environmental disaster. Add the fact that his right hand man, Brian Gott, occupies his position solely on his abilities to brown nose his way up the corporate ladder and you have a leadership team better suited to run a thrift store.

  • bob hawk | March 25, 2012 7:08 PMReply

    I started reading Variety when I was 14 years old (I'm now 74). It's circumfrance was much larger, it was very thick (usually over 50 pages, sometimes almost 100) and had loads of info. It was on low-grade newspaper pulp and at that time cost (I think) 25 cents.

    I used to subscribe, but discontinued as this once major pub got smaller and thinner -- and the price got higher and higher. I'd just read it as a handout at festivals or in the waiting room of someone's office.

    Sure, the internet had made a tremendous difference in how we get our info virtually instantaneously. (And that paywall!) But Variety's coverage also got duller and duller. They lost some of their best writers (espec. critics). And untold damage was done when The Hollywood Reporter radically revamped to its rich and meaty weekly edition. Where I eventually was able to peruse Variety in 5 to 10 minutes, the new HR returned me to the days when it took me several hours to get through Variety.

    Anyway, there's now so much to tap on the 'net (more than humanly possible to exhaust) -- beginning with IndieWIRE -- that I no longer care. And that makes me, for just a moment. sad . . .

  • Nancy N | March 24, 2012 8:39 PMReply

    nicely put...the ruby slippers - not an everyday item - could certainly rise from the ashes in a blaze of glory on the right foot forward...it will be interesting to see who bids for them.

  • Seraphim | March 24, 2012 4:43 PMReply

    Yes, it was the paywall that got me - I had already been getting THR digitally for years, & when the Variety wall went up, I ankled. :) I also work as a coomunications person for technology-based entertainment co's, and Variety was way late to the party when it came to reporting on innovation. THR & online pubs, ITMT, made it a priority to cover our news in a timely manner. It's a crying shame. Hopefully they'll find an owner who can help them rescue the brand.

  • Fred | March 24, 2012 10:53 AMReply

    It's amazing to watch the Variety writers on this one over Twitter. Deadline and THR is beating them and yet they cling to the fact that they break more news than anyone and yet they company's up for sale which is never a good sign. Did it occur to them that maybe they can break the most movie news on the planet and it may not matter? They'll be screaming that from the top of the rafters are their ship goes down.

  • mrEmannE | March 24, 2012 12:14 AMReply

    I remember years ago seeing Jim Backus, a comedic actor of some depth and subtlety, telling a story about his beloved wife Hennie on th Merv Griffin Show. The tag was that before she died, she whispered to Jim these words: "Save the trades". It appears as though that will no longer be necessary, or even possible. Of course I could be wrong. Maybe @HarveyLevinTMZ could be induced to make an investment in legitimacy. Or maybe Entertainment Tonight could start a monthly with it. But who are we kidding? The future of information is on-line, and there the V is as dead as the truly great Army Archard. Bye Variety. Why don't you go on home and watch "Dead Man Walking" on Netflix. What's that? You don't HAVE Netflix?! Oh. O...K...

  • nickp | March 23, 2012 11:54 PMReply

    RBI, a division of Reed Elsevier, has sold or closed down more than two dozen trade publications, most of them in the U.S.

  • Kati Hendry | March 23, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    Well, as a newbie to LA who's been hitting the books and trying her best to follow the industry, I can say I don't use Variety at all. A huge reason? I can't get their RSS feed to work. That alone supports Anne's points about tech savvy.

    Total honesty: I've been perusing THR mostly, as well as the A.V. Club and Vulture. I'll be checking out IndieWire now. These are probably not the best insider sources at all - this is what has captured and kept my attention in the past 3 months. I never gave the industry much consideration before moving, so I'm an alright representative of what a green, stumbling-in-the-dark new audience might look like.

    I really don't think clout and old authority amount to much anymore with most people. Give younger people the impression that you're indie, underground, or underdog and you'll only gain popularity. I'd say it's all about breaking interesting content and having a friendly user interface, with all the social apps that come with that.

    To those working in the industry what's important might be completely different. I guess the publications should really decide on their target audience :\ Good news is if you've been slow adapting, it'll all be different again in a year so you can make a fresh start. Bad news is if you've been slow adapting, it'll all be different again in a year so you'd better figure out HOW to make a fresh start.

  • Dana Harris | March 23, 2012 11:53 PM

    Welcome to LA, and to Indiewire. We're delighted to have you -- and it sounds like you're going to do just fine.

  • Robert | March 23, 2012 10:26 PMReply

    When I was a kid, reading "Variety" (several hundred miles away from Los Angeles) was like finding Aladdin's lamp . It opened a world of industry news you couldn't find anywhere else. But today, when every local paper and radio station from Juneau to Altoona reports box office grosses and industry gossip, what can "Variety" offer that you won't have already seen 7 times that morning?

  • What Happened To Us? | March 23, 2012 7:48 PMReply

    Everyone will say what they will about Variety’s collapse. Everyone will claim that we are dying … when we probably aren’t. Everyone will claim we are in deep shit … when we probably aren’t.

    Variety shrunk to fit the economic barriers that faced everyone. We shrunk the staff, the resources, etc. We kept who we wanted…and we moved on. So did the LA Times. So did the NY Times. So did every newspaper. So in that regard, we are completely normal.

    But there are so many basic questions of leadership and management that nobody can even imagine, and we relate squarely to their adaptability within the Internet world. As a print product, revenue went down as expected, and we have managed that. We still make X amount of dollars every year, and we have shrunk to fit that those parameters.

    But as for the Web culture here, it’s simply, objectively terrible. It’s so old. It’s so creaky. It’s technologically behind every startup and advanced news organization I know of. It doesn’t place value on what the world has become, mainly…quicker and smarter. (And ironically, Variety was once the tartiest of them all.) It relies on editorial leaders who never wanted to embrace change in the first place. And therefore, it never tried to change the game.

    So that begs the question:

    Why didn’t you change, Variety? Why did you never embrace technology? Why? The world turned. Even teenage bloggers reinvent themselves and their sites, let alone major news sources and major companies. The paper looks THE SAME as it did five years ago, give or take some minor changes. The Web site looks THE SAME. Nobody came in and blew anything up. How could that be possible? Isn’t that what we needed to advance? To thrive? To see what worked? To see what didn’t? Didn’t we need to change the way we do things holistically? Didn’t we need to listen to opinions and see how others did it better? Because our editorial leadership making jokes and telling us everything is OK…that’s not working. While you made cracks about Nikki Finke being a shut-in…she kicked our ass and stole our marketshare. How did you let that happen, leaders?

    And yes, we got into the event business. So we get a few points for that. You saw a need, and you filled it. But that was a Neil Stiles thing. Tim Gray – you have a lot to answer for, sir. How did you go from being a great journalist to being someone who does what Neil Stiles says all the time? Did you REALLY want to go into the event business, Tim? Why didn’t you stand up to him years ago and save your paper? Ironically, why didn’t you have the same fervor for news as he did for conventions? Why couldn’t it co-exist? Instead, he “won”…and the paper suffered. People lost jobs. The paper lost relevance/ The legacy lost luster. All because you were “the guy”…and that guy didn’t have any backbone whatsoever. You needed to be a leader, sir. And you have not been. You failed many people.

    As for news, breaking news stories are no longer our domain. That is certainly our right…but we need to stop calling ourselves journalists. I see posts from fellow staffers (on Facebook, etc) using that term, but it fits nobody here. Maybe Lowry and Ted Johnson. They are bona fide popular opinion makers caught behind a paywall. But how is it possible that we have jettisoned so many quality journalists and survived on special reports editors and interns who were promoted? They take releases. They reword them. Or they are given stories. Then they write them in basic fashion. There is no journalism in any of these cases. No opinion. No direction. No shaping of an industry. No angst. No investigation. Where did that go, Variety? What happened to that?

    And please explain to your staff and your readers why Nikki Finke, Nellie Andreeva and Mike Fleming beat you all the time on huge stories. I thought we had the access. I thought we had the resources. They have three people. And then they launched a print edition (successful)…then they launched an Oscar conference (successful). How did you allow that to happen, Variety? Where are YOUR resources? YOUR money? YOUR passion? And your claim that we are “the most accurate” is crap. What basic news alert has anyone put out that is inaccurate? And it’s the goddam Web…if something is incorrect or a little off, we can correct it. Nobody gets upset at that practice. So why didn’t we teach our writers how to use our Content Management System and break news quickly and efficiently? Why didn’t you place importance on that? The Hollywood Reporter (I know, everyone will make jokes)…at least they TRIED. Their blogroll is reasonably successful. They still get the same news and information we do. At least they put in some effort to try things.

    Sports are so indicative of our society. When a team has promise and then declines, it’s time to break things up. And I know we here at Variety are all humans…with nice dispositions and friendships and families and mortgages…but it’s time to bing Variety back…with people who may ruffle feathers (both internally and externally) but who know the entertainment business cold and who can return its name to meaning and stature. Because the team here now is not doing it. And we haven’t been doing it since 2009.

  • Hank | March 23, 2012 7:13 PMReply

    Nice writing. Well put.

  • John | March 23, 2012 5:50 PMReply

    Oh wow, I didn't realize Variety is a Reed property. I work tangentially with the procurement/supply chain sectors and Reed was cursed when they shut down Purchasing magazine, which I understand was profitable but shut down so Reed could concentrate in its European home market. That was frustrating, that they had a solid publication that they would rather kill than sell or make a small profit on.

  • Sergio | March 23, 2012 5:38 PMReply

    Bummer. I've been reading Variety since I was in high school but that firewall move was bone head idea and quickly bough the downfall of Variety. My readership dropped significantly after they started doing it

  • paul_ | March 23, 2012 5:05 PMReply

    Anne, stop being so dramatic. Nothing's over, they're simply going to get bought out a la The Hollywood Reporter. And to say they're behind the breaking news game is funny, considering how many stories your crappy website links to of theirs on a daily basis. If anything, you should be excited that they're going to be injected with more money, you might be able to ask for your old job back! ;)

  • expert | March 23, 2012 5:59 PM

    The above comment was brought to you by an employee of Variety, trying to convince themselves they'll still have a job this summer.

  • Jason | March 23, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    They need to re-hire Charlie Koones, Joe Adalian, Ben Fritz, Todd McCarthy, Michael Speier, Madelyn Hammond, Phil Gallo, Mike Fleming (if he could leave Deadline)...and bring back Peter Bart in a leadership capacity. These people have massive egos, and some of them pissed off a shit-load of people...but they certainly know how to run the fuck out of a newspaper.

  • Heidi MacDonald | March 23, 2012 4:41 PMReply

    Great write up on RBI's plodding decision making that led to this.

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