I’ve always loved the news business. When I was a kid, I would walk a mile to the deli in order to grab a copy of The New York Times, or sit in the library obsessing over old issues of The New Yorker or Spy. Later, when some of my favorite publications began to experiment with putting their journalism online, I was an early believer in the promise of the digital revolution to spread information and provocative ideas far and wide. And I’ve remained an optimist about the media’s future—even amidst the usual sky-is-falling proclamations, such as that nobody reads anymore or nobody will pay for journalism. I would politely disagree, and I’d like to think that my success belies the shortsightedness of media cynics.
Of course, nothing is ever static in this industry—nor should it be—and it’s important for journalists, like entrepreneurs, to recognize the pitfalls and emerging opportunities of the information economy. That’s why I joined Puck. In short, I believe that the old magazine model, having been disarticulated and stripped of context by social media, is in the process of being reconstituted in the form of new subscription businesses. Farsighted creators are bypassing tech platforms to own the relationship with their audiences. And consumers are looking for proximity to the inside conversation that they can’t get anywhere else.
About a decade ago, Matt Belloni hired me to write for The Hollywood Reporter. It was my second stint at THR—or, perhaps it was a third, but that’s a longer story—and yet it was a singular experience. Back then, Matt focused my attention on two directives: delivering exclusives, and showcasing, as he put it, the insider’s view of the entertainment business.
That initial challenge turned out to be transformative. My initial breakthrough as a reporter was figuring out how to know when something important was being filed in court or at some regulatory agency. This might not sound as sexy as Woodward and Bernstein-style journalism, especially to anyone who presumes that scoops are synonymous with leaks. But in fact, there was a gaping hole in the market for this kind of coverage. When it comes to lawsuits and legal dramas, there aren’t usually press releases or news conferences. What’s more, our nation’s judicial bureaucracy is intentionally abstruse to outsiders. If you read about someone in entertainment or media getting sued these past 15 years, it’s probably because there was someone, like me, who dug it up. (Likely, it was me). The document was public, somewhere. But it was hidden, too.
Reverse engineering the judiciary to get first crack at just-filed papers gave me plenty of scoops, as Matt had expected. Eventually, I also heard from sources who either respected my work and were excited to share even more of the behind-the-scenes context—or who had resigned themselves to the knowledge that I’d be discovering their legal adventures anyway, and hoped to get in front of the story before it broke. That led to more exclusives.
This was engaging work, but it wasn’t always satisfying. After all, by the dawn of the aughts, scoops had become commodities with ever-diminishing returns. Their contents could be instantly aggregated and spread across Twitter. Many readers didn’t know or care who had originally published the information. And their work often lacked the magazine-style texture and nuance that drove me to the business in the first place.
So what did I do? First, and foremost, I aimed to satisfy Matt’s second directive as best I could—not just breaking news, but also offering the inside conversation surrounding the material that I uncovered. I wanted to ensure that my articles reflected the legal strategy (and ulterior motives) that had gone into the filings in the first place. In the process, my stories began earning renown for including a rather sophisticated analysis of business issues, the legal process, and, more often than not, the larger-than-life personalities involved. In February 2019, for instance, I broke the story of a hugely controversial and complex profit participation dispute over the TV series Bones, wherein an arbitrator had awarded $179 million to the stars of the show and slammed 21st Century Fox executives for “reprehensible” fraud.
The settlement was the second largest in TV history, and there’s enough right there to carry any story, but I also knew that the case itself was a far more complex Gordian knot that also perfectly encapsulated the industry’s economic upheaval. After all, this drama went down just as Rupert Murdoch was selling his 21st Century assets to Disney, and the industry was moving to streaming. Plus, top executives had been caught in a massive lie upon the transition. My long article, which included secretive testimony behind closed doors, became a top industry talker, as they say in Hollywood, for quite some time. The depth of the reporting also caught Disney by surprise. Bob Iger had to issue a press statement offering the dreaded vote of confidence in a couple of the executives named.
I tried to distinguish my stories in other ways, too. As the web’s attention span diminished, I zagged in part by including source materials with my articles. Many in the entertainment industry and legal community found extraordinary value in having immediate access to such documents. I didn’t just attach legal fillings to my articles for readers; I did so for other journalists as well. I wanted to make it easier for them to find the same information. I wasn’t afraid of copycats; I welcomed them so long as it elevated the discourse at large.
Over time, however, I’ve become increasingly concerned that groupthink has become a crisis for modern journalism. Often, for my stories, I’d quote a not-so-obvious line midway through some legal brief that would go on for dozens of pages. And guess what? Other reporters would quote the very same line. It didn’t matter that I was essentially giving them the key documents and essentially saying, Go read it for yourself and form your own judgment about what’s important here. Few were interested in independent thinking. I’m not even sure they were actually reading through the documents they were ostensibly writing about. Many media critics talk about ideological biases among reporters, but I wonder whether the greater sins are insularity and conformity.
Social-media context collapse is particularly insidious when it comes to the legal world, which has its own arcane language and internal logic. But for those interested in telling the inside stories about the people and institutions in power, context is everything. It requires doing lots of reading and listening to multiple perspectives. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s to question assumptions and go to the source. Don’t take anything for granted.
Which brings me to Puck. This isn’t a company that is chasing clicks with a derivative version of the same old story that everyone will pretend you won’t also see elsewhere. Instead, it’s striving for high quality and engagement with its readership. The incredible reporters who have made a home here—Matt Belloni, Julia Ioffe, Baratunde Thurston, Dylan Byers, Teddy Schleifer, William D. Cohan, Tina Nguyen, and Peter Hamby, among others—are all phenomenal talents whose mandate is to provide a clarity that’s rare in media today. What they do is simply inimitable. I’m now adding my voice, bringing an insider’s legal perspective to what’s really happening behind closed doors in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and elsewhere.
That’s my promise to you—to treat genuine insightfulness as something that’s worth investment. Real storytelling holds immense value. People will seek it out. And they’ll pay too. Yes, I’m optimistic. That’s why I’m joining Puck.