It’s open season for open secrets in the media industry. The New York Times’ Ben Smith took down Carlos Watson’s Ozy Media by simply illuminating (albeit in jaw-dropping fashion, complete with its C.F.O. allegedly impersonating a YouTube executive) the sham puffery of a media outlet without an actual audience—a fact that most people in the media already assumed about Ozy. Then on Friday, The Daily Beast revealed The Wrap boss Sharon Waxman to be an insane bully, who presides over a toxic sweatshop that “degrades” employees. Again, something most of us in Hollywood media knew years ago.
It got me thinking about other open secrets in media. Are you familiar with Hits magazine? It’s a well-read music trade publication, probably third behind Billboard and Pollstar. They cover deals, hirings-and-firings, charts and “innuendo” (their word) with a print magazine and web arm called Hits Daily Double. It’s also pretty well-known in the music business that Hits is pay-for-play, meaning it extracts financial deals with companies to guarantee certain coverage in exchange for money.
Listen, I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to the trade press. Having worked at a trade for more than a decade, I know better than most how it works when the subjects of the articles are also the advertisers/subscribers. Back-scratching and sponsored content are common. Music is particularly incestuous, with a history of payola going back decades.
But I’ve never seen anything as explicitly quid pro quo as this proposed contract that was sent by a Hits “research editor” in August to a major talent agency. (The agency says it refused to sign it; it then got passed around as a laughingstock and eventually leaked to me.) For the low-low-low price of $150,000 a year (“billed monthly,” according to the contract), the agency would get:
- One multi-page interview with a major [AGENCY] executive, including team photos
- Inclusion of key [AGENCY] personnel in overall editorial, including online and print news items and analysis and special-issue content such as industry roundtables
- Mentions of [AGENCY] principals in HITS List, where appropriate and guided by [AGENCY] priorities
- Opportunities for inclusion of [AGENCY] clients in our yearly Grammy coverage, which begins early in the cycle with wide-ranging consideration of worthy contenders and strongly influences the conversation regarding nominations and awards
- Representation in our Rainmakers profiles of industry figures
It goes on and on, an amusing 10-point plan of cash for coverage. And I’m told these kinds of deals are pretty common at Hits, with major agencies and labels routinely signing them. Indeed, in an email from the Hits editor to this agency, Hits boasted that competitors had signed such a deal (and the magazine helpfully pointed out that it had just killed a couple negative headlines based on the hope of making a deal). When I asked another agency if it signed a similar contract, it wouldn’t deny doing so. After all, Hits also has a gossip column, Rumor Mill, which sometimes goes after particular people. If I was a music executive or agent, I certainly wouldn’t want them going after me.
I called up Dennis Lavinthal, Hits’ co-founder and publisher, who launched the magazine in the ‘80s after a career in promotion, and asked how long he’s been doing these kinds of deals. In the old, pre-internet days, trades were cozier with their subjects, and scrutiny was light. But social media has made everything more transparent, and media outlets are now held much more accountable for their practices, as Ozy and The Wrap recently found out. Lavinthal politely told me to email him my questions, then he didn’t respond. I guess that’s a no-comment.