Mixing Moguls and Newbies

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Hollywood may be the most scrutinized place on earth, with the possible exception of Baghdad. Countless reporters, photographers and gossip-mongers have their eyes and lenses constantly trained on showbusiness, and it only gets worse around the awards season we're about to enter.

So it's rare for a major Hollywood figure to turn the tables and want to become part of journalism. A big part.

David Geffen, who was a CBS usher in the 1960's before beginning his long climb to the pinnacle of Hollywood moguls, wants to buy the Los Angeles Times.

We've known of his interest for a while, but in an interview last week with Merissa Marr of the Wall Street Journal, Geffen was specific. He said that, if he could get his hands on the Times, he would devote his considerable resources "to building a first-class national newspaper."

"Los Angeles needs a better newspaper," said Geffen, adding that he would do "whatever it takes" to make it so. Forbes magazine estimates that Geffen is Hollywood's richest man, worth $4.4 billion.

Meanwhile, the L.A. Times soldiers on, while advertisers flee to the Internet and readers pick their news from a zillion Web sites.

To drum up some positive publicity, the Times has made much of its 125th anniversary, and published a mass of special sections and stories looking at every possible facet of L.A. life since the paper's founding in 1881.

It made for entertaining reading, much of it bathed in nostalgia for a golden age long past, although some people thought the whole anniversary thing was somewhat contrived.

Bill Boyarsky, a former reporter and city editor at the Times who lectures in journalism at USC, wrote on LAObserved.com that "there was much to make fun of at Hollywood's celebration" of the paper's anniversary.

"Who cares about a 125th birthday?" asked Boyarsky, who was especially amused that, in honor of the occasion, the Times got its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

"A star on Hollywood Boulevard near the one given to the Hollywood Reporter?" Boyarsky asked. "Wasn't the Reporter's ace gossip columnist involved in a scandal a few years ago?" (Yes, he was.)

"And why did the L.A. Times care about a Hollywood Boulevard star? Isn't the Times too big for that? Or didn't it used to be?"

The whole thing, Boyarsky wrote, was a little strange. "The new publisher, David Hiller, was too awed, too loving of Hollywood, too much the visitor to town trying hard to impress... He didn't know L.A. He didn't seem to understand that while a star on Hollywood Boulevard is OK, it's not an Oscar..." What Hiller needs to do, Boyarsky wrote, is to increase revenue, sell more ads and win more subscribers.

"If that doesn't work, he'll have to dump more of the talented reporters and editors who made the paper great."

Speaking of the Hollywood Reporter, there's been a bloodbath in its executive ranks, as both the Reporter and its competitor, Variety, gear up for another Oscar campaign season, with advertising fortunes at stake. (This is where I note that I used to work at Variety, and still occasionally write for it.)

In the L.A. Weekly, Hollywood columnist Nikki Finke wrote that just a few years ago, The Hollywood Reporter had profit margins in the 20 to 30 percent range. "But that was then," Finke wrote, "and this is now."

The half-dozen people who were shown the door included Editorial Director Howard Burns. His problem, one of Finke's sources said, was that no one in Hollywood knew who he was, a major failing in a town dependent on image and exposure.

"He never got to know the community because he never attended events," the source said.

In Hollywood, you stay home at your peril.

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan