By Dana Harris | Indiewire October 9, 2012 at 1:42PM
So when the trade mag industry went into nosedive in 2008 and Reed Elsevier put all of RBI up for sale for $2 billion, Variety was screwed: That outsized sense of importance meant no one could or would meet the sale price. And when Variety couldn't/wouldn't be sold, individually or as part of the RBI package, the hard numbers of online publishing froze Variety in amber: How do you make a $50 CPM a more appealing business than, say, a $30,000 print ad? You can't -- unless you accept the fact that radical change is better than the alternative (i.e., death).
Internally, there was a lot of talk about change, and a lot of talk about how people didn't give Variety enough credit for having changed. But if those are common topics of conversation, it's all but assured that you aren't even close to change. Real change is exhilarating, exhausting, and all consuming; if you're really doing it, the last thing you'll want is to talk about it or complain how others aren't noticing it.
And here's the real story, albeit one that everyone in publishing knows already: Variety not only failed to change, or to change to a sufficient degree, but to accept the painful fact that change, both seismic and small, must be embraced as a permanent condition. That means, there is no showbiz bible. That boasting about creating showbiz lingo will only make you look old -- language itself is an agent of change and never more so in the age of urbandictionary.com. (Not to mention all that slanguage is gobbledygook for SEO.)
And -- I think this was the hardest idea for Variety to accept -- remaining relevant in the 21st century means constantly acknowledging, if not actually seeking confirmation, that your approach might be wrong. That mindset can be painful, both on the pocketbook and on the ego, and neither Reed Elsevier nor RBI nor Variety wanted to hear it.
Now that the Variety deal is closed, the attention will shift to Nikki herself. She's yet to weigh in, although it's hard to imagine she won't -- and easy to imagine that when she does, the tone will largely be determined by whether she's allowed to have a voice in Variety's future. (Also easy to imagine: A duck-and-cover civil war at Penske until it's resolved.)
Could this have ended any differently? Sure. You can imagine a world where, five or 10 years ago, decisions were made to analyze the Variety business in the current environment rather than the one it formerly occupied, envision the cost structure and resources it would demand, then either take action to meet those goals or to exit the business with a realistic price tag (one that certainly would have been a lot higher than the $25 million-$30 million that's been reported). But that vision requires a lot of fantasy, not to mention the clarity of hindsight.
However, the underlying lesson -- change, die or risk being owned by the National Enquirer -- is one that should have currency for every publication, including Deadline. No one, not even Nikki, can afford to claim or believe in their unfailing dominance.