Matt BelloniThe Hollywood Reporter’s Empowerment In
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Matthew Belloni resigned as editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter due to intense conflicts with Modi Wiczyk and Asif Satchu, the co-CEOs of the trade’s owners, Valence Media, over their attempts to meddle with the publication’s editorial independence.
Valence had been trying to convince Belloni to give them a head’s up about stories that negatively impact their business interests, according to a knowledgable insider. There was also a growing frustration at Valence’s attempts to use the publication to push projects that it had invested in or backed. Valence owns Dick Clark Productions, Billboard and Media Rights Capital, making its constellation of business partnerships both tangled and expansive. Billboard-The Hollywood Reporter Media Group president Deanna Brown also reportedly pushed Belloni to dial back on coverage that was snarky or harder hitting. In a memo to staff, Belloni alluded to tensions with the publication’s ownership even as he called his exit “100% amicable.”
“Journalists being journalists, some may wonder: Why now,” Belloni wrote. “No, the current global situation didn’t play a role in my exit. (In fact, it makes it even harder to leave this team when we’re rising to the occasion and covering the crisis as well as we are.) Today’s announcement is the result of a series of conversations I’ve had for a few months with Modi about the direction at THR. Some may want to read into that, but I’ll just say that well-meaning, diligent, ambitious people can disagree about fundamental priorities and strategies.”
There were a series of high-level tele-meetings in recent weeks as THR staff worked remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. Valence enlisted Kelly McBride, senior vice president of The Poynter Institute, 18 months ago to enact ethics training for the editorial brands and senior leadership, Valence confirmed. McBride said training has been held for both THR and Billboard, though the company’s executive leadership was not given ethics presentations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The THR call with McBride contained “a lot of drama,” according to a second insider, with staffers balking at Valence’s meddling.
Sources said Wiczyk and Satchu wanted to come up with a list of people and institutions that it might be problematic for THR to cover, something that Belloni believed was untenable. He was told to embrace the new order or resign.
“We are committed to our publications and to journalistic integrity. We are, and have been for the past 18 months, in the process of working with the Poynter Institute to follow modern best practices and maintain optimal editorial independence,” said a spokesperson for Valence Media. “We have implemented many of Poynter’s recommended changes and recently opened up the discussion beyond our leadership teams to all editorial staff.”
The tension between Belloni and the Valence executive leaders started to increase over the past several months as THR made plans to move out of its mid-Wilshire offices and into the MRC building in Beverly Hills. That move has been delayed by the work-from-home mandate.
THR employees also grew concerned about the access that Satchu and Wiczyk enjoyed to their internal communications, said one individual familiar with Valence Media. All of Valence’s brands and entities share a sole Slack application, meant for internal instant messages, giving Satchu and Wiczyk a direct line into THR’s story plans and reporting tips, said the insider. The lack of separation from the two men who run a content studio and also oversee an editorial operation that reports on Hollywood, caused outrage among staffers such as editor-at-large Kim Masters, the source said.
THR staffers were called into a series of meeting on Monday to discuss Belloni’s departure with the company’s senior management, sources said. Brown was present for the call and pledged to answer questions from rattled staffers as best she could.
In a senior management meeting, no succession plans or temporary workarounds were laid out, to the chagrin of managers who believed that the Belloni decision was handed down as early as Friday, said one person familiar with Brown’s contribution to the meeting. On the editorial call, Brown also informed staffers she had no clarification on imminent layoffs or furloughs, as a result of the leadership shakeup or cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic. Valence is not expecting to promote someone to replace Belloni, but will likely try to tap an outsider to come in and take charge of the magazine.
Belloni was well liked by the newsroom and was seen as a capable, albeit demanding editor. His exit has hit staffers hard and may lead to other resignations. The publication was in cut-back mode even as COVID-19 upended the entertainment business. Roughly a half-dozen editorial staffers were laid off in recent weeks and there are mutterings that Valence is looking to trim the headcount across its numerous holdings.
The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard together lose millions of dollars a year, and losses have been increasing over the last two years, according to a company insider. Some top-level salaries are particularly high, given the current media environment.
Brown has sought to stem the losses, but Belloni and publisher Lynne Segall have been protective of the publication, the source said. Belloni “had a tumultuous relationship with Deanna,” the insider said. “She wants her own people.” The source said that Valence’s other businesses depend on good relations with talent, and the Hollywood Reporter could make that more difficult — which was another source of friction.
“The business interests don’t align,” the insider said. “No matter what they say, of course there’s going to be conflict.”
A lawyer by training, Belloni has been at THR for 14 years. He took over as the top editor of the publication in 2016 after Janice Min left. Under Min, The Hollywood Reporter embarked on a dramatic and expensive re-design to transform itself from a daily newspaper into a weekly, glossy magazine — one that focused on both the glamour and business of the entertainment industry.
In addition to running THR, Belloni co-founded THR, Esq., and served as the magazine’s managing editor and executive editor. Belloni, Masters and Valence Media did not immediately respond to a request for comment.