Hollywood Reporter Editorial Director Matt Belloni announced Monday he is abruptly stepping down after 14 years at the publication in the wake of recent clashes with the company’s leadership over editorial issues.
Asif Satchu and Modi Wiczyk, co-CEOs of Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group parent company Valence Media have recently butted heads with Belloni and others in an escalating dispute about newsroom practices, two individuals with knowledge of the situation told The Wrap.
According to one insider, Satchu and Wiczyk have pushed the editorial staffs at its publications to not run stories, to spike unfavorable stories about friends and to overpromote Valence-owned businesses like Dick Clark Productions. Belloni opposed these moves, according to this individual. An individual close to Valence denied that any stories were spiked.
In addition, the insider said Satchu and Wiczyk have directed Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter to not write any story that negatively impacts their business interests in any way — a position that Belloni and editor at large Kim Masters actively opposed.
A spokeswoman for Valence told TheWrap: “We are committed to our publications’ journalistic integrity. We are and have been for the past 18 months in the process of working with the Poynter Institute to follow modern best practices and maintain optimal editorial independence.”
Hiring Poynter’s Kelly McBride came in the wake of the ouster of Billboard President John Amato. In July 2018, Amato stepped down as CEO of The Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group two months after the company launched an investigation into whether Amato interfered in stories about former Republic Records president Charlie Walk, who was accused of sexual harassment.
Wiczyk and Satchu offered no reason for Belloni’s departure, nor did they announce a successor. “We respect and like Matt a great deal,” they said in a statement. “It has been enjoyable to work together, and we greatly admire his commitment to impactful journalism. He has pushed the team to hold itself to a high standard, and we are proud of the work he and the entire editorial group have done these past years.”
Masters did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday night.
News of the firing hit the editorial staff as a bombshell on Monday morning. “Everyone is really upset,” said one reporter on condition of anonymity. “Matt had the full support of the editorial department.”
Belloni declined to comment for the record but sent an email to staff on Monday announcing his abrupt exit and hinting at the tensions that led to his ouster.
“Well-meaning, diligent, ambitious people can disagree about fundamental priorities and strategies,” he wrote. “My 14 years at THR have been the greatest of my professional life. It’s been a privilege to lead this group of amazing journalists — a nonstop, 24/7, nerve-wracking, gray hair-inducing, often absurd and hilarious privilege — and most of all challenging and rewarding.”
Insiders said that tension had been brewing in the last few months. Recent attempts to resolve the editorial-business tension resulted in an editorial meeting with THR President Deanna Brown two weeks ago via teleconference, with Poynter Institute’s McBride hired by senior management to help guide the debate. Brown is regarded by the editorial staff as “a data person who doesn’t understand the nuances of media,” a second individual with knowledge said.
“This came out of a lot of conversations that people were having with Modi and Deanna about a lack of protocol,” the second individual said. “Kim Masters was among those upset. Kim’s radar is pretty high on this stuff. She took a lead in some of these conversations.”
The individual said the tension did not involve pay-for-play with the magazines, or trading of advertising for promised editorial coverage but more with expectations that clients of Dick Clark might get special treatment by the news publication, for example.
Belloni’s abrupt exit also comes just as many media companies are facing financial troubles as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down the industry — and impacted revenues sources from advertising and live events.
At all-hands meeting two weeks ago with upwards of 600 people in the company — including those from THR, Billboard and Nielsen — Satchu and Wiczyk reassured the staff that they were in the business for the long haul; there was no mention of layoffs or cutbacks of any kind despite the economic pressure from the pandemic, a senior insider who was at the meeting told TheWrap.
Belloni, a former entertainment attorney, joined The Hollywood Reporter in 2006 and was promoted to editorial director in February 2017, replacing Janice Min and overseeing the publication’s online, video, print and television operations, along with a live-event business.
In a major media shake-up in 2015, Guggenheim Partners, along with multiple other investors, spun off The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard Magazine, Adweek, Dick Clark Productions and Mediabistro to Guggenheim president Todd Boehly, who is now chairman and owns a controlling interest in all of those properties.
The properties were split into three companies — THRB featuring The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard; Mediabistro featuring Adweek, the Clio Awards and an array of niche sites, like TVNewser; and Dick Clark Productions as its own company.
The Hollywood Reporter, the crown jewel of the spun-off publications, lost $6 million in 2013, which isn’t a small amount considering that revenues totaled $15 million, TheWrap reported in 2015. Executives with knowledge of the company’s finances said the overall losses have mounted as high as $30 million annually.
According to two individuals familiar with the company, Boehly’s mission was to shrink the company’s annual losses down to $20 million.
In January 2019, Billboard and THR laid off 22 people as Valence Media underwent a restructuring of its business operations. An individual familiar with the situation told TheWrap that the cuts were about retooling the business strategy and not economic decisions.