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Variety Drops Paywall, Kicks Gray Upstairs, Adds Eller for Editorial Troika

Variety Drops Paywall, Kicks Gray Upstairs, Adds Eller for Editorial Troika

The Variety shoe has finally dropped as media mogul Jay Penske has tapped the L.A. Times’ Claudia Eller and Variety staff editors Cynthia Littleton and Andrew Wallenstein as the new editors-in-chief of Variety, charged with leading the 100-year-old trade through its next digital evolution.

Until now the biggest change Penske had made since acquiring the once-Tiffany trade in September was promoting web-savvy Michelle Sobrino as Variety publisher, the first woman to hold the position. Eller and Littleton mark the first time that women editors have run the Variety newsroom. Eller will be in charge of overseeing film, Littleton television and Wallenstein digital content.

As expected, 31-year-Variety veteran Tim Gray has been kicked upstairs for “a leadership role,” Variety reports, “overseeing expansion of international coverage and other special projects such as the recent violence-and entertainment issue.” Gray, like his predecessor and Variety columnist Peter Bart, was wedded to the print tradition, and dismissed the importance of online as he and former Variety publisher Neil Stiles embraced a deadly five-year subscription/paywall print/online model. See Gray’s revealing CBS interview below, in which he describes Variety as “a small-town newspaper,” he said. “The people that we’re writing about are the people who are the readers, and they’re also the advertisers.” He also refused to admit that print was dead. Well, Daily Variety is no more.

Clearly, Penske, whose Penske Media also owns websites Deadline, TVline and Movieline, also agreed with many observers that six costly print editions with an online paywall was a failed strategy.  The revamped Variety website promises more tech bells and whistles and easier navigation on multiple device platforms. “Internally, we’ve been referring to the paywall dropping as ‘the end of an error,'” Penske told Variety. “It was an interesting experiment that didn’t work. We look forward to welcoming back longtime Variety readers when the paywall drops March 1.” Penske continues:

“When PMC purchased Variety last year, we committed to the digital evolution of this great brand. We’re accelerating this strategy by heavily investing in our editorial staff, technology, video production and responsive design — all with the goal of providing the best experience for our dedicated readers. Having three editors-in-chief — Claudia, Cynthia and Andrew, each renowned for their coverage of film, television and digital/new media, respectively — is an innovative approach to address the quickly changing media landscape. It is designed to foster collaboration in our coverage of these three core areas of entertainment.”

Finally, Variety follows The Hollywood Reporter’s move to cease printing daily and focus on one weekly print edition. While the old Weekly Variety will no longer be delivered to industry insiders’ doorsteps on Sunday mornings, the new print edition of Variety, which debuts March 26, will be published every Tuesday throughout the year, with plenty of room for “dozens,” says Sobrino, of lucrative ad-driven special editions, under the continued guidance of executive ediutor Steve Gaydos. This is the ad engine that makes the trades possible. But the trade, with some 20,000 subscribers, will take an initial financial hit, and layoffs are expected. Trimming the staff needed to put out all those print editions may mitigate to some degree the loss of immediate revenue.

Historically, Variety originated as a New York-based weekly publication in 1905, and expanded to a Hollywood-based daily edition in 1933. The last print daily will publish on March 18.USC grad Eller is a respected film industry player who moved from The Hollywood Reporter to Variety (1989 to 1993) –where she was an indefatigable killer reporter willing to scrap with the titans of the town–and then spent two decades at The Los Angeles Times, where she covered the business of Hollywood as a hard-nosed, savvy reporter, columnist and entertainment news editor. The fact that she is willing to return to a trade–albeit in a leadership position–reveals that even the future of the mighty LAT is less sturdy than it once was. Will Penske encourage Eller to unleash her inner Nikki Finke? Let’s hope so. (The future course of Penske’s relationship with Deadline’s Finke is a source of endless speculation.)

I always had my money on tireless Variety deputy editor Littleton to succeed Gray at Variety, a move that is long overdue. I worked with her at THR, when she moved from television editor to editor-in-chief before Bart lured us both to Variety in 2007. Clearly, Littleton played a better game of survivor than I did. I succumbed to layoffs in 2009 which also hit reporter Ben Fritz, who now writes for The Wall Street Journal, and later, Todd McCarthy and David Rooney, critics at THR.

Littleton started out at United Press International and went on to Broadcasting & Cable magazine before joining Variety and then THR. She just published “TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet,” the definitive account of the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, and also co-authored with Susanne Daniels “Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB Network and UPN.”

Variety TV editor Wallenstein joined Variety in 2011 from THR, where he covered TV and tech for eight years. Wallenstein has contributed commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and has hosted TV Guide Channel’s “Square Off.” He has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia and has taught undergrad journalism courses at several universities.

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