February 6, 2015

On Thursday, Amy Pascal announced she was stepping down as co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, ending one chapter of the ongoing saga sparked by the hacking of the company in November.

The Hollywood press jumped on the story. Deadline got there early with a brief (since updated) timestamped at 8:56 a.m. The Hollywood Reporter responded minutes later with a longer story including details from Pascal’s professional career and the hacking scandal that brought her down. It was authoritative and detailed and put the breaking news into context.

That’s because it was written months ago.

Most of it, anyway. Hollywood Reporter Executive Editor Matthew Belloni tells Poynter that the bulk of the story was compiled by senior film writer Tatiana Siegel in December, when it became clear the fallout from the hacking scandal jeopardized Pascal’s position at the company.

This practice — compiling background matter for high-impact news events — is common practice at The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni said. When staffers get wind of top executive moves or new movie projects, they sometimes write story skeletons to get ahead of the news.

In this case, The Hollywood Reporter published a a story in January evaluating Pascal’s chances of survival as co-chairman at Sony Pictures Entertainment. And in recent weeks, Belloni said, the magazine had “gotten some indication” that her tenure at the job might be coming to a head.

“This was one that we knew could happen at any moment, so we were prepared,” he said.

The magazine took a similar tack in 2013, when Jay Leno left the Tonight Show, Belloni said.

News organizations have long written obituaries in advance for newsmakers in the realms of entertainment, politics and sports. In an August feature for Times Insider, New York Times senior writer Margalit Fox said her colleague Robert McFadden had written 235 obituaries in anticipation of their subjects’ demise. The Hollywood Reporter’s obituaries department employs the same practice, writing advances for prominent Hollywood icons like Lauren Bacall ahead of time.

“If you’re over 80 and you’re a big Hollywood person, we’ve probably got your obituary ready,” Belloni said.

Several outlets have been burned before by accidentally publishing unfinished stories. In November, The New York Times published a draft peppered with “TK” — journalism speak for “to come” — a blunder that was reported widely. Belloni says The Hollywood Reporter has never published an advance story in error.

When deciding whether to write an advance for a news event, the staff at The Hollywood Reporter takes two factors into account, Belloni said. First, how reliable is the rumor? There’s a lot of gossip in Hollywood, and editors have to make a judgement call about its veracity. Second, is the probable event noteworthy enough to justify putting in the extra time? In Pascal’s case, the preparation was worth it, Belloni said.

“We want to be authoritative and we also want to be first,” he said. “Those are two sometimes competing goals. But in this case, it matched up pretty well.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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