Pulp Friction

Time was, Hollywood had two “trades” that covered all things entertainment. Now it has has four, and the competition for news, ads, and readers is down and dirty, 24 hours a day

Finke and Waxman have fought Gladiator style since The Wrap first entered the fray. In a post earlier this year Finke, who routinely calls Waxman’s Web site “The Crap,” wrote: “Sharon Waxman and her revolving-door staff have been writing inaccurately about me for years, and doing it to drive traffic to her failing website.” Waxman has responded in kind, tweeting: “Nikki Finke is so wildly jealous that everything she writes about The Wrap is like opposite day, as in—the utter reverse. Threatened much?”

I visited Waxman in her office above a Starbucks in West L.A. Outside her door the newsroom is populated with about a dozen of the Web site’s 30 employees. Waxman has had a string of high-profile hires who didn’t stay long: ex-Newsweek columnist Johnnie Roberts, TV writer Josef Adalian, and former L.A. Times editors Lisa Fung and Jon Thurber. Waxman’s site has also been accused of cutting journalistic corners. Just ask George Clooney. In early October he did an interview with Waxman about his hit film Gravity, in which he mentioned—ever so briefly—that he was still trying to find the right tone for his upcoming directorial effort, The Monuments Men. Later that month, after the release of Monuments was postponed until 2014, Waxman ran an “exclusive,” using Clooney’s old quotes to explain the film’s difficulties. Her headline: “George Clooney Struggles with Tone of ‘Monuments Men’: ‘It’s Been a Bit of a Dance.’”

Clooney wasn’t happy, and he got on the phone with Deadline’s Fleming to call Waxman out: “She writes the piece that the movie is in trouble over tone. She doesn’t call me, and it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Of course Fleming worked the star’s name into his mischievous headline: “Clooney Sets Record Straight on Tone-Deaf Journalists.”

When I raise this with Waxman on the phone several weeks after our meeting, she is adamant that her two-week-old, out-of-context Clooney quote could still be labeled an exclusive (“Because the information was, to me, still exclusive!” she barks). As for Clooney’s saying he was misquoted, she says, “He wasn’t. I didn’t take anything out of context.” In person, she is barely more restrained. When I’d asked about the time Finke accused Waxman of pummeling her sources as much as Finke does, Waxman almost levitated in her black swivel chair. “I’m not going to dignify her with a response,” she growled. “Not everybody in this town operates like a mafioso. The day Nikki Finke gives me journalism lessons is going to be a cold day in hell.” (What does Finke say to that? “I am very proud that my boss nicknamed me ‘The Don.’”)

Waxman’s built-in conflict—serving as The Wrap’s top editor and chief businesswoman—has led to charges from studios that she browbeats them about buying ads while she’s also reporting on their films. “It’s a really uncomfortable situation,” says one studio executive. “One minute she’s pumping you for a story, and then suddenly she’s pumping you about advertising. At least at Variety it’s not the reporter who bugs you about advertising all the time.”

Waxman insists that she is always clear whether she’s acting as a reporter or a rainmaker. “I keep the editorial and business conversations very separate. I wear many hats in this organization, and I do it for the people out there,” she told me in her office, pointing at her employees. But isn’t it challenging to write tough stories about studios when those same studios are shelling out money to serve as promotional “partners” to Wrap events? At this she began to levitate again. “That’s completely ridiculous,” she snapped, dodging the point of my question while glaring at me. “This is a competitive business. If you’re not out there competing for the business side of the pie, you’re not going to get it.”

The Wrap has been “profitable for the past 18 months,” Waxman says, but it’s virtually impossible to tell which trade is turning a profit and which is disguising its losses. In terms of digital traffic, The Wrap comes in last of the Big Four, with 3.5 million unique visitors a month, according to the October Quantcast numbers. Variety and Deadline each averaged 4.3 million that month. The revamped THR site, which does not report to Quantcast, consistently leads them all with more than twice that number, according to other analytics. Digital traffic has real value; THR’s publisher, Lynne Segall, says it is projected to make nearly $10 million this year from digital advertising, or five times what it made two years earlier. But traffic doesn’t always reflect profitability.

This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now