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October 15, 2009

Sharon Waxman Takes on Hollywood

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/sharon_waxman_takes_on_hollywood_20091015/

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In August, when Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein gave his first on-the-record interview addressing the widespread speculation that his company was failing to a New York Times reporter who had written little about Hollywood, Sharon Waxman was, well, pissed.

Waxman is one of Hollywood’s leading entertainment journalists; she is the founder and CEO of The Wrap, an entertainment news Web site that went live in January. She also has been a longtime newspaper reporter covering Hollywood for The New York Times, and before that, the Washington Post for over a decade. So when she saw the Weinstein interview, Waxman gave vent to her grievances online.

“Leave it to The New York Times to take 5,000 words to give us a small amount of new information about the ailing Weinstein Company, which David Segal (um, who?) does in Sunday’s business section…” Waxman wrote on her Wrap blog, Waxword. “And leave it to the ever-crafty Harvey Weinstein to tell his tale of woe to a reporter who has never written a word about him or his company, or his previous companies….”

If Waxman sounded personally offended, it was not only because she wasn’t the one to get the coveted interview. Her relentless inner journalist also was insulted that the article failed to dig deep enough. “There should have been some hard-headed reporting in there,” Waxman said in an interview a few weeks later.

Aided by her newspaper pedigree and a belief that Hollywood is long overdue for what she calls “more sophisticated coverage,” Waxman launched The Wrap as an alternative to major newspapers and the trades, as well as the glut of celebrity coverage on blogs. She promises an “intelligent, critical and forward-looking” take on the industry, including both hard-news reporting and opinion. With Waxman at the helm, The Wrap attempts to strike a balance between old-school style and new-media relevance. Along the way, Waxman has managed to brand herself as an authoritative voice on the business and psychology of Hollywood, inserting herself — as an editor — into the rough-and-tumble world of industry journalism.

“We’re not here to make a quick killing in news,” Waxman said in a conversation from her home office in Santa Monica. “We’re here to help reinvent viable journalism in the age of the Internet.”

In the nine months since The Wrap hit the Web, it has created competition not only for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter — the dominant sources for industry news over the last century — but also for blogger Nikki Finke, the widely feared and well-read specter behind Deadline Hollywood Daily, a must-click site for Hollywood insiders salivating for business news and scandal.

The Wrap is finding its niche somewhere in between the publicist-primed tips in the trades and the vitriolic tone of Deadline Hollywood. On any given day, The Wrap’s headlines run the gamut from hard-hitting (“Comcast About to Buy Universal”) to human interest (“George Clooney: Oscar Contender or Just Another Schmuck?”) to somewhat puffy (“Twitter: 50 TV Insiders to Follow Right Now”). Last month, The Wrap signed a content-sharing agreement with MSN.com, though Waxman will not disclose the terms.

Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times columnist and author of The Big Picture blog, said The Wrap is fast becoming a must-read in the industry. “What Sharon is doing at The Wrap is the unofficial Hollywood newsletter. The trades are the authorized version, and [The Wrap] is the unauthorized version. You’re getting stronger opinion and analysis.”

Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, who works closely with many major media outlets and says he “can’t afford to discriminate” in his news appetite, said he reads The Wrap several times daily. “Sharon is a true journalist, and she has great sources and often breaks interesting news that’s important,” he said. Waxman is well known among executives in the industry, Bragman added, and “nobody underestimates Sharon.”

She has a reputation for being tough, smart and aggressive, and she isn’t one for soft-peddling facts. When it comes to Hollywood, she is also fiercely critical: During our in-person interview, she admitted feeling bad about the scathing tone she’d taken towards the writer of the Weinstein piece (only after blasting the reporter did she realize he had been a colleague of hers at the Washington Post), but even as she spoke, she didn’t refrain from further lashing out.

Waxman’s aggressiveness may be a necessary evil for anyone working in Hollywood. As in Washington, Hollywood is a closed society that doesn’t welcome prying eyes, and, often, wresting information from insiders, especially when the stakes are high, requires a certain amount of chutzpah. This comes naturally to Waxman, who says she doesn’t idolize Hollywood. “Because I have no interest in selling a project, all I ever want to do is tell the truth.”

Waxman grew up Modern Orthodox in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Hebrew school from kindergarten through 12th grade. She spent a year studying in Israel before attending Barnard College, and continued her studies at Oxford University, where she received her master’s degree in Middle East studies. She is fluent in French, Hebrew and Arabic, which helped her snag her first journalism job with Reuters in Jerusalem, where she covered the first and second Palestinian intifadas. Waxman later moved to Paris, where she continued writing about international politics, the economy and culture, before taking up the Hollywood beat for the Washington Post.

Although she is no longer as religiously observant as she was during her childhood, Waxman said this wasn’t the result of anything specific; she and her husband, Claude Memmi, a French Jewish businessman, have educated their three children (two teenagers and a pre-teen) at Jewish day schools (Sinai Akiba and Milken), and Waxman said her family is committed to some aspects of the tradition, like celebrating holidays. When asked about the predominance of Jewish people in Hollywood, she said, “It’s a culturally Jewish industry. If you have that cultural background, you have an advantage without knowing why or without being able to name it specifically — it may not be fair, but I think that it’s true.”

Now that Waxman is in charge of her own site, she’s also under added scrutiny.

A few weeks ago, The Wrap broke the story that Comcast was in talks with General Electric to acquire NBC Universal for $35 billion. Moments later, an updated post that portrayed the deal as finished set off an Internet firestorm, with Finke calling the report “bull——” and The Huffington Post leading with a full-page rebuff under the headline, “Tide Turns Against Waxman Report.” Later that night, Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable provider, issued a denial to The New York Times Dealbook blog. Waxman stuck to her guns, though details in the story were fuzzy, and (like many reporters on the Web) she later updated — some say backtracked — her story. (Comcast and GE are currently “in talks.”)

Waxman’s launch of The Wrap comes at an uncertain moment in journalism, when news organizations around the country are trying to adapt to an increasingly digital age. Out in the wild, wild Web, citizen reporters with no journalistic credentials are commanding broad attention on blogs and YouTube, and outmoded newspapers are scrambling to establish online presences.

But journalism’s move from print to Web brings with it another set of challenges. Die-hard reporting standards like accuracy and fact checking, let alone ethics, are often compromised in the rush to get news up fast. Waxman admits the pressure can be overwhelming.

“You have to be first, and you have to be right,” she said. “Because if you’re wrong, you’re eroding the credibility of whomever you’re working for.”

At times, Waxman’s own error count has called her reporting into question. In 2003, during her first year at The New York Times, Waxman’s high productivity (she published 356 stories in five years) and her penchant for breaking news, led to some mistakes, mostly in misspelling names and job titles, she said. Addressing the lingering rumors about her journalistic reliability (a recent profile of competitor Finke in the New Yorker said Waxman’s “reporting has occasioned a number of corrections”), Waxman admits to her early errors, but defends her current record: “If there are people who make issue of our credibility or take issue about being treated fairly and accurately, you would see that in people deciding not to work with us.

“If my reputation was anything but strong, we wouldn’t attract the talent we’ve been attracting,” she said, referring to members of her staff, like Lew Harris, former editor-in-chief of Los Angeles magazine and a founding editor of E! Online, and Josef Adalian, a former TV editor from Variety.

“If people thought I was not trustworthy, how in the world would we be breaking news?” she said.

One of Waxman’s challengers is the audacious Finke, who is one of the most well-connected journalists in Hollywood. At one time, the women were close friends (Waxman threw Finke a 50th birthday party; Finke has taken Waxman’s daughter shopping), but their relationship has since dissolved. Finke told the New Yorker that their falling out occurred when Waxman started The Wrap, telling Finke it was going to cover politics. Waxman denies this and attributes their rift to a turf war. “From my perspective, it comes from the fact that Nikki is not happy that there is a competitor in a space she considers to be her private backyard.”

The two writers have made a habit of hashing out their dispute online, where they often rebut one another’s sources and stories. But while Waxman’s column has literally screamed Nikki’s name, Finke has avoided identifying Waxman or The Wrap by name, referring instead to either “the blogger” or “the blog.” Finke denies this so-called feud and sees her part as correcting what she believes are journalistic inaccuracies.

“The sniping has been all on her side,” Finke said in a phone interview. “She has gone after me personally, which is unforgivable; she has reported inaccurately about my business, which is despicable. And she has done this without so much as calling me ahead of time for comment. She is a very poor excuse for a journalist; her traffic is tiny, her writers and editors keep walking out the door, and she has made little impact in the entertainment community.”

“She has sharp elbows,” Waxman said of Finke, “but the news flash is, I can have sharp elbows too. When she takes shots at me, I’m not going to be quiet. She is a big bully, and bullies have to be pushed back.”

“I think it’s a pretty one-sided rivalry,” said the L.A. Times’ Goldstein, who is also on the outs with Finke. “Nikki is very threatened by the fact that The Wrap is seeming to make a dent in everybody’s daily dose of Hollywood reading, and anything that Nikki sees as a threat, she will go out of her way to trash.”

Whether or not The Wrap is an actual threat to Deadline Hollywood is hard to say. According to Finke, her Web site had 831,000 unique views last month — more than twice that of The Wrap — though Finke has been around longer. In July, Finke made a piece of blogger history with the sale of Deadline Hollywood to Mail.com. The sale’s price has not been disclosed, but rumors run from $400,000 to $14 million.

Bernard Weinraub, a former New York Times Hollywood correspondent said of Finke: “I think she stepped into a vacuum in terms of reporting in Hollywood. She’s a very, very good reporter, very dogged, very professional and very tough, but she gets news.”

Finke’s sale was significant, coming at a time when online media sites are only guessing at how to turn a profit. Waxman raised $500,000 in seed funding for her site, though she said she’s raised more since then, from Maveron, a venture capital firm based in Seattle and co-founded by Dan Levitan and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. But even as Waxman has seen growing readership and increased Web traffic — she claims The Wrap received 400,000 unique views last month — she cannot claim a profit.

“No start-up companies are profitable in their first year; it just doesn’t happen,” Waxman said.

But if there is one topic that draws visitors to a site, it’s the entertainment business. And while there was a moment when Waxman thought she might abandon Hollywood and return to covering international culture and politics, that didn’t stick. “What pulled me back in was the opportunity to be part of this transformational time in media, because the movies and television are going through the exact same transition as newspapers, in a different way.”

Waxman said she isn’t interested in the glamour of Hollywood, but believes in its economic power and influence on culture.

“I care about what this industry creates,” she said. “I do believe that entertainment matters. I’ve been a foreign correspondent and I’ve seen firsthand the impact that popular culture created by Hollywood has across the globe. It’s not inconsequential.”

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