From The Editor: The Case For Independent Entertainment Web Sites

Post by: Rick Ellis 24 September, 2020

"There's inevitable resentment between the bloggers and Variety," Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart said. "If someone has a big story in the entertainment business, the first thing they are going to do is get it to Variety. They are not going to start saying, 'Which bloggers can we feed?' "

A lot has changed in the entertainment industry since Bart made those passive-aggressive comments in 2008. But one thing that hasn't changed is the power of the old-school industry trade entertainment publications. Despite the rise (and fall) of a number of competitors, as well as the launch of well-funded entertainment publications owned by larger media companies (see: Vulture, Decider), the handful of older, more established entertainment titles still are considered the publications of record in large portions of Hollywood. 

So when it was announced on Wednesday Penske Media Corporation (PMC) and MRC have announced a deal to create two joint ventures in publishing and content, the news made a number of people in Hollywood uncomfortable.  While the announcement stressed that the publications owned by the two companies would still retain editorial independence, it's not unreasonable to see this move as the one that will eventually lead to the merger of the two companies.

PMC and MRC own nearly every important entertainment industry trade publication, which will likely make it even more difficult for upstarts to compete for ad revenue and news stories. PMC owns Variety, Rolling Stone, IndieWire, TVLine, Deadline, Sportico, SheKnows, WWD, Hollywood Life, Robb Report, BGR (Boy Genius Report), ARTnews, FN (Footwear News), Gold Derby, Variety Business Intelligence, Spy, Dirt and several event production and content creation studios.

MRC Entertainment owns The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Vibe, as well as a large number of other production studio and content creation assets.

Combined, these two companies have an outsized influence on entertainment journalism and even before this deal were known to use their longtime position in the industry to wrangle news tips from studios. Back in the early days of the personal computer, the phrase most commonly used in the computer industry was "You'll never get fired ordering IBM." The underlying meaning of that phrase was that while IBM might not be the most innovative or even the best choice for customers, it was the safe choice. If it didn't work out, you could always fall back on the fact that IBM was considered to be the industry's most acceptable risk.

And to a large extent, that's the role played by the large industry entertainment trade publications. Lots of people are unhappy with aspects of their coverage. From WGA members who suspect the trades take the side of the studios for business reasons to studios who feel as if they're being pressured into giving up exclusives, there are a lot of reasons to encourage the growth of competition. And there are some well-funded companies that have sprung up to cover entertainment - from Vox & Buzzfeed to verticals such as Vulture and Decider. But none of them have the influence or reach in the industry of the trade publications.

That's not to say that these trades are making a lot of money. While the finances of the individual sites aren't generally available to the public, sites such as The Hollywood Reporter have been apparently losing impressive amounts of money. That has led to layoffs, a lot of clickable content that isn't directly entertainment industry related (the incessant AP stories about Donald Trump) and pages that are so crammed with autoplay video and sponsored content that it sometimes feels as if QVC has launched a news web site.

All of this leads up to something I admit that I have a very vested interest in promoting: the increasing need for vital, independent entertainment industry news outlets. 

If you are a publicist and being judged on where you get stories placed, then it's worth focusing on getting a mention in Variety or THR. But the reality is that if you're hoping to reach engaged consumers who are the most interested in the show you're promoting, then focusing some of your attention on smaller, independent outlets is likely a lot more effective. For that to work, however, those sites need to be able to stay in business. 

From a strict bang-for-your-buck standpoint, getting me to write a lengthy piece about your show is probably going to get a lot more attention than some short blurb in a trade or even a publication such as Entertainment Weekly.  THR might get 20 million-ish visitors per month while AllYourScreens only gets 1.7 million or so. But it's an audience that is easier to reach and more open to smaller projects and networks. In fact, AllYourScreens has built a niche as the television equivalent of the cool video store clerk of the 1990s. We're less interested in talking about the hits and more excited by the cool stuff you might have missed.

And we're not the only small independent news site doing this. While there are fewer TV-oriented sites than ones covering the movie industry, those of us that have survived are spunky and motivated. We have an entirely different editorial mission than the big trades. And because of that, I think we serve an important role in how the entertainment business is covered. We don't live or die financially by the relationships we have with studios, producers or stars. We'll publish uncomfortable stories because we can. We'll write about the shows we feel passionate about, even if they'll never win an Emmy or get a cover story in People Magazine. What we do matters, but it's increasingly harder to do our jobs in an industry that is becoming ever more consolidated and insular.

So what can you to support independent media? Aside from the obvious things such as reading the journalism, it comes down to money and access. Support the sites financially, whether it's through a donation, subscription or just clicking on one of those ads we all hate. Money matters, no matter how large or small the site.

But access also matters as well. If you are promoting something, carve out some access for a few smaller web sites. Save a small piece of casting news or tidbit to share with a smaller site. They'll promote the heck out of it, which might not be as glamorous as a mention in Variety. But it might end up getting your project more attention. And rather than complaining on social media about how much you hate the trades, take the initiative to reach out to small sites you respect. The most effective way of getting the big boys to do a better job is by encouraging competition.

One unintended consequence of so much television being available to viewers is that it doesn't take much of a bump in audience to make a big difference in the fate of a show. So if you want to reach those viewers you need to survive, may I suggest working with the outlets that don't see you as primarily a source of ad income or potential guests for some moneymaking TV Festival.

The small, increasingly endangered independent entertainment news sites are run by people who do it because they love it. And that love will translate to coverage that highlights every project in the best possible light. 

Last modified on Thursday, 24 September 2020 05:07