Peter Bart stays ahead of the curve

After 20 years, <i>Variety</i>'s editor-in-chief looks to more change

In this political year, the buzzword is “change.” But that can mean many things. Some people thrive on new experiences, while many fear upheaval and prefer to embrace old habits.

When Peter Bart arrived at Variety in 1989 — only the fourth editor Daily Variety and Variety ever had — he reminded us that sometimes radical change is necessary to maintain steadiness — in Variety‘s case, that meant major changes to stick to the original mandate of serving the readers.

There are a few of us in editorial who preceded Peter Bart here. Army Archerd, of course, and John Dempsey in the New York office. Todd McCarthy preceded me by about six months, and Brian Lowry followed a few years later. In the L.A. office, Todd, Brian and I were “the kids,” surrounded by editor Tom Pryor and a slew of reporters who’d been at their beat for decades, some starting in the 1920s.

I don’t like nostalgia, but on occasion I will tell co-workers about life at Variety when I started: reporters in rumpled shirts pounding out stories on manual typewriters, sometimes with a cigarette dangling from their mouths. Critics were paid $5 per review, there was basically no retirement plan, and out-of-town correspondents often sent in “breaking stories” via mail.

When I mention these things, I get a look from the listener that says “Jeez, how old are you?” Well, I’m not that old. These details may conjure up images of “The Front Page” and 1930s journalism, but in fact Todd, Brian and I started in the 1980s. However, the paper was still using a style that was a holdover from the old days.

In the 1980s, when every high school newspaper was using computers, owner Syd Silverman (who’d inherited the paper in the mid-1950s) was asked if we would ever get newer technology than typewriters. “We’ve looked into computers,” he said, “but they’re just not cost-efficient.”

We had a librarian who carefully cut out stories from the newspaper and placed them in manila folders, placing them in file cabinets under “Subject” or “Personality.” The former category was for companies, the latter for individuals. He made himself indispensable by creating a filing system whose logic made sense only to him: He was the only one who could find anything.

He happened to be out sick the day that Grace Kelly died. Three of us searched for details of her career under the clippings, but to no avail. Finally, someone accidentally came across the Personality file “Grace, Princess.” Similarly an extensive file on religious films was under the Personality file “Christ, Jesus.”

One of the reporters was known to have a three-martini lunch habit — the ad guys in “Mad Men” weren’t the only heavy drinkers and smokers in a bygone era. One day after lunch, that reporter turned in his story. But the story was illegible because he’d written the whole thing with his fingers on the wrong keys. “Don’t you ever look at these stories before you turn them in?” asked one of the copy editors. “Nope,” he shrugged, and staggered back to his desk.

It was a different time with a different set of journalistic ethics. Reporters in D.C., for example, knew of JFK’s sexual activities, but nobody wrote about them. Similarly, Daily Variety never wrote about the astonishing budget overruns of the 1963 “Cleopatra” or about the forged checks from studio executive David Begelman. It just wasn’t something to be discussed.

Sime Silverman had started Variety in 1905 in New York. It was basically a small-town newspaper, but the “town” was the entertainment industry. Those early pages are filled with anecdotes about vaudeville, travel plans of the stars, publicity stunts, etc. It was designed to keep folks in the biz informed.

Daily Variety started in 1933 in Los Angeles and carried on that tradition. But Tom Pryor wanted more business coverage, so there were statistics on box office grosses, TV ratings, etc. (And, reflecting the times, there were reviews of Ice Capades, “nitery acts” and each one of Bob Hope’s multiple NBC specials.)

When Peter arrived, he knew that the paper had to change if it was going to survive into the 21st century. He worked with the new owners Reed to update the pay scale and to inaugurate a decent retirement plan. He was affronted at the $5 for reviewers, so changed that. And, shock of shocks, he hired a lot of women in key roles as reporters and editors, which was a daring innovation. Well, at least daring to Variety.

And, typical of Peter, he championed the use of computers. I say “typical” because Peter is not a personal fan of computers. (He once grimaced that emails are “too time-consuming.”) But he put his own tastes aside because he knew computers were an absolute necessity for us.

The biggest change was attitude. Peter still bristles at the term “the trades.” He knew that the entertainment business had changed and so had our readers. Every mainstream newspaper by this point carried box office figures and Nielsens. He knew readers wanted to know not just facts but what was going on in the industry and in the world.

In weekly Variety and Daily Variety, we have covered the Burning Man Festival, the running of the bulls in Pamplona and we have even written about other publications (which was long considered a taboo). In 1996, I covered the Republican and Democratic conventions for the first time for the papers. When I asked Peter what he wanted, he said, “Cover them as if you’re covering the Cannes Film Festival.” I knew immediately what he meant.

In the past 20 years, we have added color, photos, charts, graphics. I know, these may sound like obvious additions, but these were radical changes. The goal was to return to Variety‘s original mandate: Keep the readers informed, and do it in an entertaining way. The slanguage and the snappy headlines remained, but the content is very different.

Unlike the “Cleopatra”-style silence, Peter likes to be the conscience in a town that seems to have no conscience. His memo columns are a signature in which he likes to take jabs at notables in the industry — including his pals.

In the past 20 years, Variety has increased from a handful of special sections annually to about 250. The Web has gone from a new-fangled ancillary to a key part of the news operation.

Peter is the face of Variety, in the way that Penelope Cruz is the face of L’Oreal and Halle Berry is the face of Revlon. As a result, some people think Peter single-handedly puts together the paper, picks every photo and writes all the headlines. He’d be the first to admit that it’s a group effort. And that group is also responsible for a new attitude, in the newsroom and in print. The staffers sometimes drive me bonkers, but I admire their hard work and their tireless search for the truth. And some of them have become close friends. We’re all working for a common goal.

Changes haven’t always been easy, because changes never are. As Variety has moved into the 21st century, there have been tears, tempers, frequent rethinking and a constant imbalance in our adrenaline. But there’s also satisfaction that we are working to make things better for the reader.

Peter has goaded, pushed and tested reporters and editors, including me; he’s also encouraged and taught staffers through the years and given us many opportunities we never would have had if it weren’t for him.

Dorothy Parker was once asked if she liked writing. “I hate writing,” she said, “but I like having written something.”

That’s how I feel about change: I sometimes hate going through it, but I like having completed the process. Peter has affected all of us at Variety. And I like to think the papers are much better because of this. I also like to think Variety will continue to improve. One of the things Peter taught us is the Chairman Mao philosophy: Constant revolution.