Traditionally, the consolidation of media ownership has meant fewer voices and less accountability
If the national election cycle tells you anything, it’s that proper reporting and accurate facts coming from an independent source are the last line of defense in a democracy.
We’re a month from the election, and it is really hard to think about anything but that ballot. But equally significant is this: Independent media is critical to our economy and our cherished political system. It has never been more important than it is right now.
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Some important changes have just happened in the world of media and Hollywood, moves that require taking notice, grasping the implications and responding accordingly.
Last month, the nearly century-old rivals The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, along with Billboard and Rolling Stone, merged, coming under the singular ownership of Jay Penske, who also owns more than a half-dozen other publications that cover the entertainment space.
True, it is just the latest in a wave of media consolidation — rollbacks and roll-ups and shutdowns — that don’t augur entirely well for diversity of speech. (For a stunning not to say nauseating list of those cutbacks, check out Poynter.)
But here in Hollywood, you might think it doesn’t really matter. After all, as Penske assured the staff of MRC — the parent of The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard — in a town hall meeting last Friday that nothing is meant to change under this dramatic merger. At the meeting, Penske told his staff he was committed to “running the brands independently,” according to one person who was there. He assured the nervous editorial employees that “the best was yet to come.”
The best for whom, I might ask?
The reason I started TheWrap in January 2009, quitting my job at The New York Times and dumping my kids’ college money into a high-risk start-up, was because I recognized that the internet was changing everything. That media was at a crossroads — adapt or die. I wanted to adapt, because I believed that it was critical that independent journalism survive.
At the time, The Hollywood Reporter was a shell of its current, glitzy incarnation. And Variety was a daily trade rag that was full of “ankling” and “helming” and “inking.” (I banned all those non-verbs at TheWrap.)
Hollywood needed a smart, muscular and knowledgeable independent voice, one that was adapted to the digital age. That meant reporting news in real time, not waiting for some sleepy print deadline. That meant reporting the truth no matter who was upset by it — and some people are always upset when you report the truth. That meant reporting all sides of every story, not just rushing out a blog post from one juicy source, but giving the subjects of our coverage the opportunity to respond.
With blogs at one end of media and dusty print editions at the other, there was a crying need for professional journalism adapted to the digital age. Independent, and fearless. Because, as a video that I put together at the time from producers, writers, executives and others observed, “entertainment matters.”
Since then, and with no small thanks to us, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter learned how to cover breaking news in real time — something they certainly did not do in 2009 when we launched. Both outlets evolved substantially under new ownership, growing digital chops, shifting their print editions to weekly.
But TheWrap has thrived too, growing into a healthy, multiplatform news organization, complete with its own glossy awards-season magazines, live screenings, festival video studios, business conferences, nonprofit initiatives and industry thought leadership.
I am glad that I resisted an early bid to sell TheWrap to the investor group that had just acquired the Hollywood Reporter. (I told them I did not believe in their business model, and it took a full decade for the flaws in banking so heavily on print played themselves out.)
And I’ve met Jay Penske in person exactly one time, shortly after he bought Deadline in 2009, when a mutual friend arranged for us to meet for coffee in a small café in Marina del Rey. “I’ve got your Sharon@penske email ready,” he said to me, always charming and brazenly acquisitive. I laughed and told him that wasn’t going to happen.
None of us really knows exactly the long term effects of this merger. The joint venture with MRC, a Hollywood production company, brings the conflicts of interest that plagued THR — which covers the business and therefore shouldn’t be in the business — into the Penske fold. Producers who compete with MRC’s Asif Satchu and Modi Wiczyk cannot be pleased that their partners are now Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Those conflicts became fodder for conflicts or perceived conflicts, whether the many Emmy ads in THR for MRC shows like “Ozark,” or the blow-up over coverage of “Knives Out,” the Lionsgate movie produced by MRC.
These conflicts aren’t going away, since Penske has a major stake in a second joint venture with MRC to set up film and television projects. On Monday, Penske partnered with a producer to create a TV around its real estate column, “Dirt.”
Traditionally, the consolidation of media ownership has meant fewer voices and less accountability. It brings a tendency toward groupthink and top-down decisions rather than individualized, critical thinking. In this case, it also brings a curious duplication to coverage of the movie, television and music industries, along with a host of potential business conflicts.
What does that mean for us? More than ever, we at TheWrap know our role in Hollywood is essential. We are proud to remain the last independent trade covering the entertainment industry.
We remain, as before, fearless and accountable only to the facts. And to you, our readers.