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Variety Bleeds Talent, While Newsroom Morale Suffers

Beset by aggressive competitors and shackled by a paywall, Variety has become a shadow of its former dominant self

Will the last person at Variety please turn out the lights?

The departure last week of two more senior journalists – Dana Harris to indieWIRE and Pam McClintock to The Hollywood Reporter – is the latest blow to the once-dominant voice in entertainment trade journalism.

Beset by aggressive competitors and shackled by a paywall in the age of instantaneous news coverage, Variety has become a shadow of its former self.

The past year has seen the newsroom emptied of senior talent. Among those who have left the mid-Wilshire building include writers Ben Fritz, Mike Fleming, Anne Thompson, Phil Gallo, critics Todd McCarthy and David Rooney and editors Leo Wolinsky, Michael Speier and Diane Garrett – with Peter Bart pushed aside for Tim Gray.

A year ago, lay-offs were behind the departure of much talent. Now the talent that remains is voting with its feet.

Read also: Who Left Variety, and Where They Went

Meanwhile, the newsroom promoted three former interns – Justin Kroll, Andrew Stewart and Rachel Abrams —  to reporter status last week, a leap that would have been unlikely under Bart’s tenure.

And all of this is taking a serious toll on the newsroom’s ability to break news in a highly competitive environment.

“We don’t compete on MGM and Lionsgate stories,” said one weary individual inside the newsroom. “And on deal stories, we get our pants kicked by Deadline, TheWrap and THR.” 

Said another newsroom veteran: “You know what it means when a lot of people start to leave.”

Well, one thing it might mean is that people who work there are losing confidence in the company’s future.

Publisher Neil Stiles has managed Variety’s books by slashing costs via lay-offs on the editorial and business side. But to most observers, he has yet to articulate a strategy to adapt to the demands of digital-age news cycles and newly energized competitors.

In addition to erecting the paywall and focusing on print in the past year over growing Variety’s digital presence, Stiles has increased the number of conferences to counter the decline in advertising revenue.  (The website is filled with slideshows from the Power of Women/Youth/Comedy rather than news and features.)

Stiles did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.

But journalists inside the newsroom are frustrated at policies that further tie their hands. For writers eager to have their stories seen, the paywall is frustration enough.

Since the paywall arrived in June, Variety’s traffic has nosedived from a global unique visitors per month of just over a million to a number too small for Quantcast to measure.

What's more, Gray has also stuck to a decision to ignore news that has been broken first by other outlets, despite vigorous protest from other editors.

One insider referred to the editor recently killing stories under pressure from Weinstein co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. Gray’s email response said he was travelling and would be difficult to reach. 

Few insiders were surprised that McClintock left; she had been agitating to cover box office rather than big features. And Harris, once a senior film editor, had been closeted away to work on archival projects.

In the current competitive landscape, a lack of editorial fiber and an unclear strategic direction for the company could be decisive.

The Hollywood Reporter has poached talent with impunity, drawing on its deep private equity pockets while launching a splashy weekly product.

Meanwhile, digital competitors like TheWrap and Deadline dominate news breaks. And TheWrap has also moved into Variety’s traditional territory by launching conferences and other events.

Ironically, Variety still has editorial traction in the area where they once ran second to THR — in television. With Cynthia Littleton, Mike Schneider and Brian Lowry, the trade can still break news and stay on the cutting edge of that news conversation.  

But how long will those veterans choose to stay on a listing ship?

“It’s a place in transition,” said the newsroom insider. Asked what Variety is in transition to, he sighed. “I can’t figure that out.”