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March 3, 2010

Editor Interview: Sharon Waxman, TheWrap

This is the first in a weekly series of interviews with editors.

Waxman headshot.jpg

Sharon Waxman made her name as a journalist in the print world. The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times and New York Times have carried her byline. She is also the author of "Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World," about illicit antiquities, and of "Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System," about the 1990s generation of auteurs. Now Waxman is editor in chief of TheWrap.com, which launched in January 2009 and covers the entertainment business. You've known editors like Waxman: high-energy, hardworking, forward-moving. She's not only editor at TheWrap. She's also a reporter and the CEO. I caught her between a celebrity funeral and a Los Angeles dinner party, at the height of Oscar season. As they say in her town: It was all good. And I got to edit her this time -- that is, what follows is an edited version of our phone conversation.

When you decided to make the leap from reporter to editor, what was that like?

Becoming an editor absolutely seemed like a natural thing to do at this stage in my life because it's very hard for young journalists to find a place to learn about how to be a journalist and to have someone who can teach them the things they know. And I'm in a stage where I would like to give over what I know. I'm also concerned about the fact that, as newsrooms disintegrate, there are very few places for people to learn the basics of journalism, to make mistakes and to have someone help them avoid some mistakes that can become career killers.

Where else do you think they can learn that? For instance, I think about Harvard's Nieman Foundation narrative conference going on hiatus. That was an event journalists could attend by the hundreds. Where can they go now?

I don't have the answer to that. The only thing I have to say is what we do isn't rocket science. It basically takes a good moral center. You've got to be pretty smart. People figured out how to be journalists before there were newsrooms. And I think that's happening. Still, at the same time, there is something that is lost. We're very much in a transitional period. The way things are now is not the way things will always be. We're in transition. We don't know where we're going to end up. There's a lot of hand-wringing going on, which is legitimate, but I don't think we have to presume that the end is what we're seeing.

Do you think we can hang our hat on new media?

That's what I've done. I made my bet. That's the future. Or it's not the future; it's the present. Those people who don't adapt will not be doing journalism.

Is arts journalism having to find its way in an even harder terrain?

As the editor of TheWrap I very consciously built a news organization around a subject that had an endemic advertising category. I don't think that's the same for the opera, the ballet, the orchestra. I've been a culture writer, an arts writer, a political writer, a foreign correspondent, and I've written about Hollywood. Hollywood falls in between. It's culture. And very occasionally it's art. But most of the time it's a business. I'm not trying to be negative, just realistic: At the moment, as somebody who set out to start a news organization where I wanted to prove there is a business model that would support high-quality journalism and original content that wasn't just aggregated, my premise has been to find the category of information where you're giving people news and analysis which is essential for them to do their business. That could, of course, be true for the fine arts just as it is true for popular culture, but there's not the same ad base to support it. TheWrap, as we grow, is meant to be the business of movies, the business of television, then the business of music, the business of games, the business of new media -- all of those things related to what we broadly refer to as entertainment. Right now, we focus on one hub: mainly movies and television and a little bit of music. Is it potentially possible to appeal to the people who are in the business of fine arts? Yes. But I think it's a hard place to start.

Are we in a climate in this country where the arts are starting to build a momentum because they provide 5.7 million jobs a year and also because people are looking toward the arts to humanize business?

That's a very good argument for the arts that I hadn't thought of. But that's the argument I made for why people should invest in TheWrap because this business provides as many jobs as sports and provides as much of the connective tissue of society in terms of how we communicate and how we perceive ourselves.

Where do the arts fit into your world now?

I just wrote a book about museum culture. I went to Dubai last year and wrote a cover story for ARTnews magazine. I'm very much an arts writer as part of my life. I lived in Paris for six years and wrote about every blockbuster art exhibit that opened. I have a great interest in that and in seeing that sustained.

I feel like there's a big "but" there.

The "but" is: How big of a news organization can you support as a business and as a commercial enterprise? That's the "but." That's the question. Maybe we'll decide that arts journalism is a luxury. Because, by the way, as we're thinking of the future of journalism, we have to prioritize. What's the most important thing to save? Clearly, covering our government has to be the most important thing: holding politicians accountable, informing society. But in terms of the categories that are challenging to find advertisers in an ad-supported model, what you have to do is find the core audience that cares about this content, get it to them in the way they want to read it in a timely manner. That's the same for lovers of opera or lovers of football. But how do you find the kinds of content those people will pay for? If you combine that with an advertising model, then you've got something. 

What's successful about TheWrap? How's it going?

It's going really well. It's incredibly exciting. It's definitely the biggest adventure of my life -- and I've been lucky to have lots of adventures. You get to use all the skills you have acquired as a journalist, as a reporter, and apply them to creating something that basically hasn't existed before. To be able to expand my learning at this stage in my life is really, really fun. And it's really, really hard. Creating something from scratch is extremely hard. Anyhow, I'm not going to dwell on the hard part. It's frigging hard. We get it. I asked for it. Nobody told me to do it. The great part is when you see your audience build. Our credibility with this organization was immediate. That's unbelievable. It takes how many years to build a brand like The New York Times? Today we have the incredible gift that we can create a brand almost instantaneously because the barriers to entry are only: "Can you get the news out, and can it be right?" We've been breaking stories from the first day we've existed, and we've broken bigger and bigger stories through the year. Our audience has grown to a million unique visitors a month. We have robust advertising. But what I'm really most proud of this year is that I've managed to build a really top-quality editorial team of people who share my vision, and who are in it to do what I'm here to do. It's so cool to see people adopt your vision and expand it and make it better. That's this team of 13 people who exponentially add to the success I am trying to build because you can't build it by yourself.


(Photo courtesy Sharon Waxman)

March 3, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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