Author Topic: Wolff: Meltdown of a Hollywood media queen  (Read 1204 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Wolff: Meltdown of a Hollywood media queen
« on: November 04, 2013, 09:12:20 pm »
Wolff: Meltdown of a Hollywood media queen
Michael Wolff, USA TODAY 8:21 a.m. EST November 4, 2013
There's cautionary tale in feud between Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood and its owner.

Nikki Finke is one of the first mainstream journalists to leverage her offline reputation into the digital world. She built a personal website of almost minute-by-minute dispatches about Hollywood news a site without constraints on her aggressive methods and behavior into one of the most significant media outlets in the film industry.

But now, just as more and more journalists try to move their personal brands to the Internet NSA reporter Glenn Greenwald departing the Guardian, tech reporters Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg out at The Wall Street Journal, data wunderkind Nate Silver breaking with The New York Times, all making new digital plans Nikki Finke may be the first journalist to melt down here, too. Spectacularly so.

Her public contretemps with the investor in the site she founded, Deadline Hollywood, and the drama involving her future virulent tweets, work stoppages and an attack on her by her own site have seemed something like the professional equivalent of Britney Spears shaving her head.

Before maximizing her name and clout on the Internet, Finke, like many of the journalists seeking new digital lives, long chafed under the demands and politesse of traditional media.

As a columnist for New York magazine, Finke had almost pathological trouble meeting deadlines (in one year producing only a handful of columns). Her resistance to authority meant continual disputes with editors. What's more, Finke was more and more turning into a recluse people who know her well report never having seen her.

And yet, the obsessiveness of her reporting, her taste for conflict, her talent for writing in quick, trenchant, staccato bursts (and difficulties writing in long form), and her self-dramatizing, which turned out to be extraordinarily effective self-promotion, was perfectly suited to the Internet's need for immediacy, high drama and breakthrough voices. And the Internet let her work at home.

Deadline Hollywood quickly became an industry power not least of all because Finke's independence made her even more fearsome in a town that largely operates on fear. And it helped hurry the decline of Hollywood's two already near-moribund media outlets, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

In 2009, Deadline Hollywood was bought by 29-year-old Jay Penske, a would-be media entrepreneur, and the son of Roger Penske, the billionaire trucking magnate and former race car driver, for a payout to Finke somewhere between small change and $14 million (how much she actually got is subject to great debate) and a long-term employment contract.

Now investors are often part of the problem in new ventures, a cautionary note for the many would-be branded journalists when it comes to their new backers. Not only was Penske without experience in media and technology and in dealing with talent like Finke, but he had his own personality issues, leading to an arrest in 2012 for urinating on a woman in Nantucket.

But the problem too, for Finke, has been that the traditional media world did not acquiesce so easily. In 2010, the remnants of The Hollywood Reporter were bought by an investor group. (I briefly worked with this group on another of their acquisitions, the media magazine Adweek.) The investors hired the able editor Janice Min, who'd previously revitalized US Weekly. In short order, Min turned The Hollywood Reporter into a slick, power-focused, visually appealing package of Hollywood news and gossip, with a website whose skyrocketing traffic levels suddenly changed the Hollywood trade publication model.

Last year, Penske, in a defensive measure, bought Variety, with a plan to revitalize it and compete in the new glossy wars, leaving Finke, whose granular focus seemed out of step with the larger opportunities, on the sidelines and gaining Penske, he no doubt hoped, some distance from her personal histrionics.

But here is the cautionary note for investors: People with their own brands can bite back. The same skills that propelled Finke to brand singularity meant she had the wherewithal and temperament to endlessly and publicly torture Penske. Their feud is now one of the main Hollywood business news stories.

Penske surely has a problem, beyond even the daily sturm und drang and the high toxicity levels of being Finke's enemy. Internet media is a businesses of individuals Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post, Henry Blodget at Business Insider, Nick Denton at Gawker, Matt Drudge at the Drudge Report, to name a few. Finke is Penske's calling card and asset.

He can't live with her, and quite likely not without her. More damaging, on the Internet a personal brand can set up shop across the street. That's Finke's threat.

But the playboy Penske may not be a complete fool: Although she has largely stopped working (she claims to be taking the near limitless vacation time she's stored up), he seems to be doing everything he can to hold her to her contract, causing Finke further paroxysms of venom, outrage and scabrous tweets. They will shortly begin mediation.

Penske's game seems to be to let Finke dig her own grave by making herself repellent to investors, life being too short for anyone to want to suffer her.

Finke's game is to make herself even more famous than she already is and to reduce Deadline Hollywood, as she said in a recent telephone interview, "back to where The Hollywood Reporter and Variety were when we put them out of business." She will snuff Deadline and set herself up again.

Arguably, it is just another comical turn for still-struggling Internet media. Digital economics call for distinctive voices and one-man bands, but, so often, this means, egomaniacs and obsessives, with an absolute and unbending sense of their own value and righteousness, always willing to self-destruct if you cross them.

A fine fix.