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Updated Sep 3, 2023, 6:58pm EDT
mediaNorth America

Jay Penske’s Hollywood Media Empire faces a moment of truth

Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for The Hollywood Reporter
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The Scoop

It’s a hard detail to leave out of a profile of Hollywood’s dominant publishing figure: In 2012, Jay Penske was arrested after allegedly peeing on a woman’s shoes in the parking lot of the Nantucket Yacht Club.

But Penske, the billionaire auto scion who has bought up The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Deadline, Indiewire, and others, preferred the detail not appear in the April cover profile in LA Magazine, which he does not own.

As the piece was preparing to publish, there were a flurry of calls between the entertainment mogul and his spokesperson, and the magazine’s editor, Maer Roshan. Roshan removed the detail, and the cover, “Citizen Jay,” was a largely complimentary list of Penske’s recent acquisitions and achievements. “From print to late night, the media is in dire crisis. Does Jay Penske have the cure?” Roshan asked in his editor’s note.

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It was fortuitous timing for both parties. Roshan had been pushed out of LA Mag by the publication’s new owners. And Penske had been displeased with the direction of THR, telling people that there had been editorial slippage at the iconic magazine. The top editor, Nekesa Mumbi Moody, a former entertainment editor at the Associated Press, had been hired by the magazine’s previous ownership after the leadership clashed with the hard-charging former EIC Matt Belloni. While Moody was well-liked personally by much of the editorial staff, she was a New York transplant who had previously primarily focused on music. Penske wanted an editor with the Hollywood presence of some of the magazine’s former leaders. A source close to the company pushed back on this assessment, noting that Moody was involved in the hiring process, and interviewed Roshan for the position.

Two people familiar with the offer told Semafor that last year, the media mogul attempted to woo back Belloni to serve as THR’s CEO in a role that would’ve overseen both the editorial and business sides of the publication. Belloni declined, but after Roshan was pushed out of LA Mag, Penske decided to offer him a similar role as co-EIC.

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Max’s view

The decision by Penske to layer the head of the most prestigious publication in his media empire is a reflection of both the power and the vulnerabilities of Penske’s Hollywood news media empire.

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With its acquisition of the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard in 2020, Penske united nearly all of the Hollywood trade publications under one roof and became the biggest player in entertainment industry news media — a near monopolist in the lucrative business of “For Your Consideration” awards advertising. While the Hollywood trades have dimmed in influence with much of the rest of print media, they remain the go-to sources for business coverage of America’s most glamorous industry. It doesn’t matter that much whether the top editor of THR is Roshan, Moody, or both. Most of the editorial competition for Hollywood trade news are the other Penske Media Corp publications located on nearby floors of Penske’s Hollywood offices.

The arms race and concomitant awards competition were a boon to Penske. Federal regulators were worried enough about PMC’s domination in this space that after the THR acquisition, they looked into whether Penske’s Hollywood media empire was anti-competitive.

But the end of the streaming boom has hit PMC hard. Two sources told Semafor that Penske has hired an outside agency to assess why web traffic has fallen dramatically across several publications, though another source familiar said that the company regularly employed SEO consultants to assess traffic. One person with knowledge told Semafor that THR missed its first quarter revenue goals by at least 20%. The misses have forced cost-cutting measures: THR decided not to do its “Most Powerful People in Media” event this year, a glitzy who’s who of news media held every year at the Pool. The Wrap, the independent trade rival of PMC, reported earlier this year that PMC missed its revenue targets, forcing layoffs and a hiring freeze across several of the publications.

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The protracted writers’ and actors’ strikes could further damage the companies from the business and editorial sides. The Hollywood trades rely on a steady stream of exclusive promotions for shows and movies, some of which has dried up as production has ground to a halt and as writers and actors have stopped promoting their work.

Further complicating the picture, the small-world power dynamic runs both ways in the cozy study business. Three people familiar with the matter told Semafor that Amazon pulled a million-dollar advertising buy from THR after Kim Masters reported on internal tensions and issues within the tech company’s streaming studio.

The company is hoping to put a positive spin on Roshan’s arrival. In a hastily announced video meeting late Wednesday afternoon, Moody told staff this was a long-planned, positive move. But some employees felt that it was bizarre for Moody to be announcing her own layering without her new partner even on the call.

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Room for Disagreement

In a statement to Semafor, a PMC spokesperson acknowledged that revenue had been impacted by the strikes, but said that since the company’s acquisition of the brand in 2020, the magazine had “achieved the strongest revenue and profitability in its history.”

“Our revenue has grown solidly in both 2021 and 2022 under Nekesa’s strong editorial leadership,” the spokesperson said. “Any attempt to diminish her achievements and experience is disappointing. The business continues to be solidly profitable in 2023. We will continue to invest in the business, exemplified by Maer’s hiring, further demonstrating our commitment to long-term growth. Nekesa was an integral part of the recruiting and interview process for the Co-Editor-In-Chief role.”

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Notable

  • Penske has shown shrewd instincts in the face of negative press. While other media and entertainment companies quickly ditched the Saudis following the government’s murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Penske, which had just received a $200 million investment from the government-backed Saudi Research and Media Group, was not publicly fazed.
  • The company is also trying to diversify its sources of revenue. Earlier this year, PMC announced that it was launching a women’s health brand with the goal of tapping into pharma ad dollars.
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