The New York Times missed out on a potentially lucrative deal to adapt its reporting on the GameStop stock-market drama into a feature film, thanks to infighting between the paper and one of its high-profile business reporters.
Earlier this year, according to multiple people familiar with the matter, top figures at the paper got into a days-long dust-up with a Times reporter over a GameStop movie project they were set to pursue. Ultimately the dispute dragged out so long that the studio pursuing the movie lost interest, leading to frustration internally about a major missed opportunity.
New York Times finance and technology reporter Nathaniel Popper is currently on leave to write Power Shift, a book about the January 2021 GameStop stock frenzy and the “the broader power struggles behind it, in which the future of Wall Street and Silicon Valley hang in the balance.” Before the book was even written, Paramount Studios expressed interest in adapting it for the big screen, offering Popper a six-figure sum through Pilar Queen, the reporter’s representative at powerhouse talent agency UTA.
But the deal received a less-than-enthusiastic response from Times management. When Popper told the paper about the agreement with Paramount, assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick, who oversees the Times’ film and audio departments, “freaked out,” according to three people familiar with the situation.
“New York Times journalists uncover the most important and compelling stories in the world, and our editors, producers and many other colleagues work hard to make sure Times stories land with as much impact as possible,” a spokesperson for the paper said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We have a clear process for evaluating reporters' requests to work on outside projects.” Popper and Queen did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
According to people familiar with the matter, Dolnick told Popper he couldn’t proceed as the paper was already talking with producers and production companies to ink their own deal for a film adaptation that would have been based in part on Popper’s reporting.
Popper and Queen made moves to salvage the Paramount project, offering to partner with the Times, but the newspaper had other ideas. The paper approached Paramount to lock in their own deal that would have leaned on the GameStop reporting printed in the Times rather than rely on the material reported independently in Popper’s book.
However, by this stage, the GameStop film bubble had already begun to burst. Almost a dozen projects about the stock-market saga had been sold, and Paramount ultimately decided the market was too crowded and opted not to greenlight a Times-related project. (Aside from Popper’s and the Times’ competing deals, several other GameStop projects include: Queen’s husband Andrew Ross Sorkin—a high-profile Times columnist, CNBC anchor, and Billions co-creator—developing a scripted feature for HBO with horror producer Jason Blum; and the Wall Street Journal producing a documentary called This Is Not Financial Advice.)
Popper was furious, people familiar with the situation said, and fired off an angry note to Dolnick and others he blamed for the project falling apart, but was told by his editors that he was being “insubordinate,” and that his behavior had the potential to jeopardize his book leave.
The reporter apologized but brought the matter to his colleagues’ attention in a series of notes on Signal, an encrypted messaging app, arguing that this power struggle with Times management was just the latest in an example of thorny issues surrounding intellectual property at the paper. The Times Guild members are currently bargaining a new contract with management and one proposal they have put forward would boost journalists’ control over the rights to their reporting.
In recent years, film, television, and book deals have become tantalizing secondary revenue sources for high-profile reporters looking for a lucrative paycheck on top of a journalist’s salary. But traditionally, media organizations retain ownership rights over reporters’ stories and the right to turn them into films, television series, or other projects.
Earlier this month, Universal Pictures announced it purchased the rights to She Said, the book co-authored by Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about their journey to uncover the numerous sexual-harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Television projects are also in the works based on New York Times reporting on disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, and a second season of an Amazon series based on the paper’s popular “Modern Love” column was also recently greenlit.
The clash over film rights is indicative of a growing tension at news outlets over who has true ownership over and the right to profit from the reporting that catches the eyes of book publishers and film or television studios.
In 2019, following the smash-hit success of his book about the blood-testing company Theranos and the rise and fall of its founder Elizabeth Holmes, Wall Street Journal writer John Carreyrou left the paper in part because of its longtime policy prohibiting reporters from doing paid speaking engagements.
And earlier this month, Wall Street Journal staffers criticized the publication for tightening its rules around shopping intellectual property. Journal reporters now need to seek permission from editors before approaching talent agents to shop book and movie/TV deals, and have to license their reporting to Dow Jones before including it in potential books.
“We have received a steady stream of feedback today from concerned members, some of it quite angry, over the company’s proposed new approach,” the paper’s union said.
“Consistent with our longstanding policy, journalists from The Wall Street Journal may proceed with initial discussions about a potential outside project or projects that stem from their work for the Journal. However, they should inform their managers early on in any discussions aimed at pursuing a specific project,” a Wall Street Journal spokesperson said.
“Once a project looks like it may proceed, journalists should receive permission for the project from the editor in chief before sending a proposal, or entering formal talks with an agent, production company or publisher. The Journal approves the vast majority of book projects based on work performed at the Journal, which are then published by a wide range of book publishers, and that is not expected to change.”
The Times itself has attempted to better codify its growing film, book, and TV rights processes. The paper signed a non-exclusive film and TV rights licensing deal with Anonymous Content in 2018 with the hopes of taking a more active role in projects adapted from its journalism (the paper previously had deals with Storied Media Group and talent agency ICM).
In an email sent shortly after the Popper incident, the paper announced it was creating a new process for evaluating outside projects in order to “avoid outside projects that could be competitive with The Times or conflict with [journalists’] core work,” establishing an oversight committee to review projects.
“We have heard reasonable questions as to whether our policies are always being applied fairly or consistently. Journalists have also expressed confusion as to how to navigate getting projects approved and ensure they’re operating in accordance with our guidelines,” the email reviewed by The Daily Beast stated.
“At the same time, The Times has been expanding its business in a wide array of multimedia activities, raising the chances that outside projects may compete with The Times itself. And the scale of some outside projects raises the risk that they could conflict with or distract from work for The Times.”