Laugh at Nikki Finke All You Want, But She Did the Journalist-Led Startup First


No one will likely ever know what’s going on in the ongoing saga of Nikki Finke vs. Everyone Else, Especially Her Ex-Employers. Something appears to be happening, though. Finke’s made noises about striking out on her own (again) since her ouster from Deadline seven months ago. According to a few artfully crappy Photoshops, will go live on Monday, and her Twitter bio proclaims the tip line’s now open. Considering that her contract with Penske Media Corp. isn’t anywhere near expiring, the June 2nd rollout may or may not actually happen. Regardless, an eponymous site would simply be a more straightforward version of what Finke did eight years ago: found a standalone publication based on her work and reputation alone, without the prestige of a larger, older publication. The difference is that will come after that practice hit the media mainstream, not years before.

The Internet’s changed the writing/reporting/publishing game in too many ways to count, but one that’s gotten an awful lot of ink in the last year is the ability it affords individual journalists to accrue reputations separate from that of the paper, magazine, or site they write for. When Ezra Klein’s “Project X” for Vox Media (later called, anticlimactically, Vox) added itself in January to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept — John Cook later signed on as editor-in-chief, but Greenwald was the initial, big-name hire — three made a trend. The overwhelmingly pale ‘n’ male cast of journalism’s latest all-star teams hasn’t escaped criticism: there’s been a lot of writing this spring about the disconcerting similarities between the mastheads of old media dinosaurs and the upstarts that aim to “disrupt” them.

Admirable as the measured backlash has been, however, it’s been missing an important point. As Reason‘s Peter Suderman astutely pointed out on Twitter, the phenomenon of a reporter turning the power of their #brand into a forum where they’re judge, jury, and executioner writer, founder, and editor-in-chief isn’t a new one. Finke (a woman) started Deadline in 2006; former friend and current competitor Sharon Waxman (ditto) began her own entertainment-business site, The Wrap, three years later. Deadline later added staffers and shed its founder, but it began as Finke’s baby, an uncensored outlet for her brutal, omniscient, often hearsay-dependent style of covering Hollywood.

Maybe it’s because entertainment news is considered “softer” stuff than the national security coverage and health care explainers that populate the current wave of journalism start-ups, but however much publicity Finke’s gotten for her outsize personality and legendary reclusiveness, her name’s been strangely absent from the record of journalists who’ve gone out on a limb and built something from scratch. Finke took a considerably bigger risk than those who’ve followed in her footsteps, too: where Silver and Klein had the backing of ESPN and Vox Media, the big-money bids came only after Finke had developed Deadline into a formidable industry presence.

Finke’s hardly a paragon of journalistic ethics, and her eccentricities are glaring enough to deserve all the attention they’ve gotten. In an endlessly entertaining New Yorker profile from 2009, newly inducted New York Times editor Dean Baquet described her as “a power broker described as a journalist,” and many a Hollywood staffer has recounted (always anonymously) her legendary phone calls, most recently to BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur: “One publicist interviewed for this story imitated a shrieking Finkean bellow: ‘You didn’t give me this story so I’m going to ruin you!'”

Still, if the journalist’s job really is to afflict the comfortable, the relief Aurthur describes among Finke’s former sources, subjects, and competitors doesn’t make a case against her return, but for it. At the very least, it speaks to the impact a single writer was able to have via a platform she created herself.