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05.26.10

Can Janice Min Conquer Hollywood?

Headed west to edit the venerable Hollywood Reporter, the former Us Weekly star will face a challenge from upstart websites. But she tells Jacob Bernstein she’s up to it—and shares her plans for the paper.

“What a f------- coup,” said Kent Brownridge, former general manager of Wenner Media and the man who was once in charge of Us Weekly. “Janice is the best.”

Janice, of course, is Janice Min, the magazine’s former editor in chief and the woman who was tapped Wednesday as the editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter.

“I realize you have to break small stories to break big stories, but it’d be nice to start flying 30,000 feet above the minutia to broaden the appeal,” Min says.

In June, she will take over a publication that has appeared in recent years to be in a death spiral. Classified advertising has migrated to Craigslist, while websites like Nikki Finke’s Deadline and Sharon Waxman’s The Wrap have chipped away at THR and its main competitor Variety’s subscriber revenue with free content and the ability to write critically about Hollywood without fear of losing prized “For Your Consideration” ads during Oscar season.

Before Nielsen sold the publication off last November to an investor group called E5 Media, there were multiple rounds of layoffs, none of which really did the trick.

Why would Min think she could save it?

“A lot of the competitive landscape in the industry press,” she said by phone, “feels almost like a race to break the smallest news: ‘I hear rumblings that so and so is unhappy at CAA or William Morris Endeavor’ and stories involving dates being pushed back on movie releases. I realize you have to break small stories to break big stories, but it’d be nice to start flying 30,000 feet above the minutia to broaden the appeal.”

She’s heard the conventional wisdom that nothing can be done, but she just doesn’t buy it. “All it takes is good edit,” she said. “People moan and cry about how no one’s reading this or that and why did this magazine close, and I think a large majority of the decline can be attributed to the fact that sometimes, it’s just not a very compelling edit, given the options that are out there. I think there’s always a market for compelling information.”

Already, she’s heard from detractors who say that overnight, she’ll turn the publication into Us Hourly—or worse, a clone of the gossip website TMZ.

On Wednesday, Deadline’s Finke took an early swipe at Min, saying, “I am saddened to see Hollywood lose yet another source for business news, since this hire clearly shows that won’t be the focus of THR any longer.”

“The thing I would say about Nikki Finke and Sharon Waxman,” Min said, “is that they’ve shown that there is a lot of interest in the category. They’ve shown that the category everyone says is moribund and over actually isn’t. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

And while Us Weekly under her direction may not have saved the country from going to war, it’s worth noting that it was great at breaking stories about Heidi and Spencer, and Brad and Jen (and Angelina).

Moreover, Min is clearly no idiot.

She had what she once told The New York Times was an “extremely ordinary childhood.” Her father was a college professor at the University of Georgia, then went to work at a medical supply company. Her mother was a revenue agent for the IRS. After growing up in Littleton, Colorado, she moved to New York, where she got a degree in history at Columbia, then went on to get her master’s at the institution’s prestigious journalism school.

Why shouldn’t she be able to help a publication that deals with hard news?

"Janice can put out a weekly, she can put out something that comes out more often than that,” said Brownridge, who also calls Min an “astoundingly good manager,” a boss that “everyone loves” and a person who knows how to be tough (particularly with Hollywood publicists and suits that call to complain) when the situation requires.

“She’s a complete pro,” Brownridge said, recalling that at Us, she took just five days off after she had her first baby. “Five days and she was back sitting at her desk. And within a day she was calling in and talking about covers and cover heads.”

“I think it was more like three weeks,” Min countered. “And I’m not sure whether I was calling him within a day. I think he was calling me.”

One place Min could be a very difficult employee was when her contract with Wenner was being negotiated (or renegotiated).

When she was offered the editor in chief job at Us, she was the magazine’s number two, a former alumni of People and InStyle who was relatively unknown.

Her boss, Bonnie Fuller, who had reinvented the magazine and grown the newsstand circulation by 55 percent in the first year, had just quit to become the editorial director of American Media, which publishes Star and The National Enquirer.

Fuller was making overtures about hiring Min to take over Star, and Wenner was desperate not to lose Min as well. “She was so hard to sign a contract with,” Brownridge remembered. “They argued over every single thing, all of which amounted to money. It just went on and on. I think it took three or four weeks to get it signed.”

A big part of her salary was in bonuses if newsstand sales reached beyond a certain level, and Min knew exactly how to make sure she got what she wanted. “It was hard to describe what exceptional performance payoffs were, which is the way Bonnie and Janice got a lot of money,” Brownridge said. “Bonnie didn’t understand it, she just wanted a high number. Janice understood that the degree to which she could sell on the newsstand depended on how many racks we had up and how many copies we put out. Because you can be the greatest editor in the world, and if you don’t put out enough copies you’re not going to soar to the heavens. Then you’d ask Janice about something having to do with that in the contract and she would say, ‘I don’t have anything to do with these things, I’m anxious to get it signed too.’ She was going over every word.”

As the magazine’s newsstand sales soared from 500,000 to around 1 million copies a week—an enormous amount for a weekly publication—Min raked in millions. In its best years, sources say her total compensation was in the ballpark of $2 million a year, roughly in line with the reported salaries of legendary editors like Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter.

But by 2009, she was itching for something else. “With Us Weekly, I’d been there seven years, I personally could not have done anything more with it,” she said.

Further, with the publishing business in a tailspin and her contract up again for renewal, the publication’s owner, Jann Wenner, began to drive a harder bargain about her compensation, say sources close to the publisher.

In July 2009, Min announced her resignation to her staff.

Over the next few months, the editor received a couple of offers to edit other women’s magazines, but she wasn’t particularly interested in any of them. So she and her husband, Peter Sheehy, a former teacher at Horace Mann, sold their downtown loft for what published reports stated was more than $7 million and prepared to move out to Los Angeles.

When Richard Beckman, the hard-driving former publisher of Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily, called her about taking over THR, it seemed somewhat fortuitous.

Then she went to meet Beckman at the Bowery Hotel for breakfast and liked him immediately.

What’s more, she said, “I thought he had a very clear grasp of what kind of editorial changes would be needed to transform the business.”

Min was also encouraged to hear Beckman talking about expanding the business at a time when so many other publications were trimming their overhead. “Nielsen [which had formerly owned THR] basically had this whole strategy of cutting to win. It was ‘cut, cut, cut, and somehow we’ll come out ahead.’ And it was really appealing to me that this was now going to be a place where a significant investment was poured in, that there was going to be an increase in staff as opposed to a decrease, that there was going to be an expansion of its online presence. It was just really exciting.”

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.