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FROM THIS EPISODE

I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

For years and years, the business has been the happy battle ground of two trade papers – Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. But in recent years, the fight has stopped being between the two rivals, and turned into a fight for survival.

This is not just a battle being fought by the Hollywood trades, of course. The very concept of a trade paper – which covers the very industry that pays to keep it in business – is a strange one. The Hollywood trades are blamed for being the studios lapdogs, but the traditional purpose of a trade paper is, in fact, to promote the interests of its industry. One could argue that being constructively critical is in an industry's interests, but that's a topic best left to each business.

Hollywood's trades have always been in an especially untenable place. No other trade papers are so heavily dependent on advertising for products produced by its industry…and then turns around and is supposed to be critical of it. Exxon does not take ads out for its new unleaded-96 in Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, nor does Petroleum Intelligence Weekly review Exxon's gas. See what I mean?

Which is why, in part, it made sense for Variety to can its film reviewer as it did a week ago. Some folks were up in arms about Todd McCarthy's dismissal after 32 years at the paper, but I think they did the right thing given the mission of a trade: say something nice or don't say anything at all.

For years, there have been calls for the trades to do just the opposite: to take on the industry, to strengthen the firewall between the people who write the paper and the folks that sell ads, and to stop conceding the big, critical stories to the general interest papers and the web.

I think that if they go that route, they will only end up like most newspapers today, which is to say, in the bone yard. I say that the trades can survive and thrive if they just do a better job of being who they are; that is, purveyors of timely, accurate information about the business.

And that includes Hollywood most coveted and vital information – the rumor. The trades say they can't print facts that haven't been verified, to which I say humbug. First of all, a trade by definition is not an objective journalistic entity and should not be held to those standards. Second, the sites that often beat them to these stories are often staffed by ex-trade reporters, often rely on the trades pay-to-play ad tactics and are often less objective than the trades. And if the trades were to report rumor as such, they actually will be doing sites like Deadline Hollywood one better, since they often print rumor as fact.

Saying that they can't keep with the web is an excuse to explain away why the trades – like their general interest big brothers – have missed the digital boat to relevance.

But the truth is, they have valuable information for people in the business but they've done a lousy job of capitalizing on it, especially on the web. Variety's site, in particular, is so slow and it's search engine unhelpful, that it's become an industry punch line. If I want box office information, I go to BoxOfficeMojo.com. There's StudioSystem for production information and FilmTracker for script tracking. WireTap is the best aggregator of Hollywood news, and WireImage the source for pictures. What do these sites have in common? None of them is the Hollywood Reporter or Variety.

With the huge interest in the business outside the business, the trades also have opportunities to make money by packaging and selling their special access to a larger audience. Why not an AP-type news service for Hollywood news? Or Variety retail products that trade in on the famous name like a glossy at the checkout stand or a web site for the rest of us?

Of course, they'll always have to print the standard edition. How else will people know you're in the business when you're sitting at Starbucks?

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's Business Brief or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.

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