Finke: harsh, dogged, feared

Get ready to exhale, Hollywood.

Nikki Finke might be leaving the building, if only for a moment.

The controversial Internet journalist who, for better and worse, has changed the way the entertainment industry gets its news, claimed this week to be taking a five-day vacation. Finke, notoriously reclusive, informed readers she might even "frolic."

That could make this week the first time in more than three years -- other than a couple of illnesses and a death in the family -- that Finke has more than briefly capped the gusher of news, gossip and vitriol that often makes her Deadline Hollywood Daily the talk of The Industry.

It remains to be seen whether the 55-year-old former newspaper reporter can really drag herself away from her keyboard. (She told me she sometimes wished she didn't have to sleep, so she could work 24 hours a day.)

But regardless of her short-term plans, Finke reached a crossroads late last month with the sale of her one-woman operation to a digital media outfit, Mail.com Media Corp., an event that has reporters from Vanity Fair, the New York Times and the New Yorker pondering what it all means.

In immediate terms, Finke will continue in her role as editor in chief (and now general manager) of the website and plans to add a second editorial employee, an East Coast correspondent.

Although the sale shows there is some market for digital media sites, it's unlikely many others will duplicate Finke's relentless tactics, with the attendant low overhead and niche appeal.

One can only guess how many in Hollywood respect Finke versus how many fear and revile her. Those emotions sometimes commingle in the same individual.

"She wields a lot of clout and is feared. Facing off with her is fraught with danger," said one television executive who, like most people I spoke to, insisted they not be named, lest they incur Finke's wrath. "At the same time, it's amazing to see how far she has come and the entrepreneurial spirit that makes that thing work."

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Surprise, Hollywood remains enamored with the bottom line and was impressed that Finke got at least a seven-figure payday and a contract that keeps her in charge of the site she calls DHD. (Though a person familiar with the terms told my colleague Ben Fritz that it's likely to come out to be considerably less than the $14 million originally reported by Finke's frenemy and fellow online reporter Sharon Waxman.)

Finke -- who worked at the Los Angeles Times and New York Observer, among other publications -- has made herself must reading for many by breaking news or uncovering the amusing one-off.

Finke got the scoop, for example, when William Morris and Endeavor merged to form a super talent agency. And Hollywood wallowed in the "guilty pleasure," as one exec called it, when she posted the "goodbye" e-mail of a departing William Morris Agency assistant chock-full of funny and salacious details about odd and assorted Hollywood types.

But Finke also can turn seemingly the most mundane postings into summary executions, as when she wrote about a change of publicists and in the process portrayed Nicole Kidman as an ungrateful wretch who threw her old rep "to the ground." The scribe attached her convictions that the actress has "zero charisma onscreen" and is "sexless."

I didn't ask about the Kidman item but about a harsh tone that prevails in some Deadline Hollywood Daily commentary.

"I am like a dog chasing a fox. I go under fences. I bump into things and sometimes I forget there are people who may get hurt from this. And I am sorry about this," Finke explained.

For a moment, I thought I might be hearing a bit of a mea culpa. Until Finke concluded her thought: "But would I change anything I wrote? No. It was the truth and sometimes the truth hurts."

Many blog reports, including some from this newspaper, contain raw or not fully reported information. That partly explains the difference in tone and approach found on sites such as Deadline Hollywood Daily. But some competitors have been left shaking their heads at something that goes beyond style to substance, including instances when Finke got something wrong and refused to admit it.

Times Big Picture columnist Patrick Goldstein wrote this spring about a particularly egregious example, when Finke claimed to know who would be named as the director of the third "Twilight" vampire film, only to be proved wrong.

Goldstein and Bill Wyman of the Hitsville blog showed in detail how Finke subsequently rewrote her original post in an attempt to make it look as if she had always been equivocal about the selection of the director. (Finke posted her own rebuttal and insisted to me that it was The Times and her other critics who got it wrong and owed her an apology. "I talked about an offer [to the director] and I never said every number was nailed down or it was a done deal," she said.

The back and forth became interminable. Readers can follow the links and draw their own conclusions.

A furious response

I experienced the thrills and chills of challenging Finke myself when I asked her about her report in late 2007 that there "appears to be a deal seemingly in place" between striking screenwriters and management.

Finke cautioned in that piece that the "deal" could fall apart. Indeed, it took another 2 1/2 months before writers voted an end to the crippling strike. I asked Finke: Didn't that make it obvious that her source, who claimed a strike settlement was "already done, basically," had gotten it wrong?

That triggered a furious and extended discourse in which she argued that she alone had uncovered this wrinkle in the negotiations. Other journalists were out of the loop.

"Sometimes there were things that were supposed to happen that didn't. Sometimes there were things that weren't supposed to happen that did," she said of the strike talks. "All I can say is that everything I wrote at the time reflected correctly what was going on." Hmm.

Finke's words came faster and faster as she rushed to make me understand her rebuttal. She called back repeatedly about this column, and sought out one of my colleagues, then my editor, to complain that I and The Times clearly planned to attack her.

All the post-sale attention from the media has left her feeling like a "pinata," Finke said. She pleaded for nothing more than "just to be left alone to do my work."

I took that to mean that her triumphs and her nice payday should be acknowledged, but without questions about her slashing form of journalism.

Had Finke even had a chance to enjoy her acclaim, I wondered? I'd heard she seldom, if ever, got out among her peers or the people she wrote about.

"I have never been happier," she responded.

"I told you, I am not a recluse," she said. "I am sorry I don't tell people each time I move, 'Alert the media, Nikki Finke is going outdoors.' "

We could agree on one thing, anyway. That made us both laugh.

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On the Media also runs on Friday on Page A2.

james.rainey@latimes.com

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