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.
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.
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.