Producer and author Bill Flanagan is executive vice president of the Viacom Music Group and editorial director of MTV Networks. He has been contributing essays to CBS' "Sunday Morning" since 2001.
Among the TV series Flanagan created and executive produces are "VH1 Storytellers," which has been on the air since 1996; "CMT Crossroads"; and "Stop/Watch," a series of 60-second songs which premiered in the summer of 2013.
Among his past credits are "Legends," "Hotel MTV," "VH1 Archives," and "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ...," as well as specials starring Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks, Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey and Prince, and two live concerts from the Clinton White House.
Flanagan was one of the producers of "The Concert for New York City" after the 9/11 attacks; "The Beatles Revolution" for ABC; and "Elvis Lives" for NBC.
Flanagan has written for the Boston Globe, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Spy, Men's Journal, Entertainment Weekly, GQ and many other publications. From 1985 until 1995 he was executive editor and then editor-in-chief of Musician Magazine.
He is the author of six books: "Written in My Soul" (1986), "Last of the Moe Haircuts" (1986), "U2 at the End of the World" (1995), and the novels "A&R" (2000), "New Bedlam" (2007) and "Evening's Empire" (2010).
Among Flanagan's contributions to "Sunday Morning" are appreciations of the music of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Levon Helm; a guide to music that helps the listener transcend loss and sorrow; a grammar lesson on the proper uses of I and me; and an obituary for Hostess Cupcakes.
Flanagan was born in Rhode Island, graduated from Brown University, and lives in New York City with his wife and their three children.
When MTV News was rebooted at the beginning of 2016, it was heralded as nothing short of an uprising. “What we are about to do here is about the most revolutionary and forward-thinking thing that we can try to do for music journalism,” new editorial director of music Jessica Hopper told the Huffington Post that February. MTV was excited enough about the project to feature Hopper at its upfront a month later—an annual event put on by TV networks to pitch advertisers on their current and upcoming programming. Hopper delivered a eulogy for the recently deceased Prince and explained how MTV News was going to usher in a new era at the wayward network. She would later be followed by Kendrick Lamar, who capped off the night with a five-song performance.
“As someone who came up in a time where music criticism was basically the dominion of 38-year-old white men, who all agreed on the same canon of what was good and who was allowed to say what about what artists,” Hopper further told the Huffington Post, “the fact that we could have such a young staff, such a diverse staff, and that that be considered fundamental to our success here, is [my] editorial dream and my dream of the world.” In the same interview, she said it was her goal to “take pop music seriously,” noting that the staff “have the full institutional weight, history, and support of MTV from the top down.”
The site’s editorial director Dan Fierman, who previously helmed ESPN’s literary pop-culture site Grantland before it was shut down in October 2015, echoed this sentiment. The goal of the new era of MTV, he told the Huffington Post, would be to deliver “really smart criticism of the culture through a music lens.” That MTV News had formally and publicly announced a desire to break the conventional music canon as established by white men at institutions like their own, and instead rebuild it in the image of a more diverse demographic and workforce, was seen as an exciting prospect from the outside.
As Fierman and Hopper saw it, the task required a “radical tonal shift” toward high-minded cultural criticism and “prestige journalism” for MTV News, and by extension its parent company. That meant moving away from empty-calorie posts about celebrities and trends and toward longform reporting and essays. This, in turn, led to significant staff turnover, with resources shifting to newly hired editors and writers who Hopper and Fierman believed could best execute what was a compelling vision: a high-visibility legacy brand bankrolled by Viacom that would publish quality work across various platforms at a time when the industry seemed to be moving towards inane, disposable video content.
In order to lure those writers, sources say Hopper and Fierman pitched prospective hires on editorial freedom, resources, a relaxed work schedule, and a large readership. The website’s traffic outstripped that of many of MTV’s ostensible peers in music coverage, promising a bigger audience to writers who may have been accustomed to smaller platforms. The new iteration of the site also hoped to diversify the landscape of pop culture journalism, and to that end they were successful. Many of the writers hired by the pair would go on to land celebrated jobs and assignments after leaving MTV. Carvell Wallace, a Hopper and Fierman hire, recently wrote GQ’s cover story on Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali. Hazel Cills, also hired by the duo, recently left for Jezebel and broke a story on sexual assault allegations made against indie darlings PWR BTTM. The site was named a National Magazine Award finalist in the “Columns and Commentary” category thankstothree essays by staffer Doreen St. Felix, who recently left to become a staff writer for the New Yorker website.
But the MTV News revolution has now been quashed. Hopper announced earlier this month that she would be leaving the company to take a job at Spotify. Fierman had unceremoniously departed MTV in April, a move that signaled the beginning of the end for an endeavor that hoped to fast-forward an old television network not just to the present, but into the future. Seeing the writing on the wall, a handful of the site’s writers left for new jobs or began writing for other outlets, while those who remained felt as if they were riding out their contracts while waiting for the other shoe to drop. (Earlier in February, the staff of MTV News had entered union negotiations with the Writers Guild of America, which were in progress through this period.) Though MTV News continued publishing articles after both left—and ambitious articles at that—MTV announced yesterday that the Fierman and Hopper era of the site was ending. Staff report that at least twelve people were laid off, both from inside and outside the MTV News team, with severance negotiated by the union for its prospective members. MTV has not provided a hard number of how many people were let go.
SPIN spoke to over a dozen former writers and editors of MTV News who have been granted anonymity by request for fear of reprisal, as well as corporate representatives at MTV. SPIN also reached out to Hopper and Fierman several times over the past two weeks with a request for comment on the claims presented by sources quoted in this piece—both declined to comment on the record.
The dissolution of this micro-era of MTV News in just over a year and a half leaves us with several questions: Can a behemoth media company like MTV succeed in reinventing itself from within simply by creating a “prestige journalism” arm? Further, what kind of journalism does a company like Viacom—which is largely reliant on friendly artist relationships for its financial success—support and allow? And what even was the intended outcome? Fierman and Hopper both came to MTV News from publications—Grantland and Pitchfork’s longform print magazine, respectively—that had not been economically viable from the perspectives of various suits. Why would Viacom want to attempt it again?
For a period of time, at least, Viacom did allow MTV News the resources to produce ambitious multimedia journalism. Writers traveled for long profiles that upheld the site’s mission, which were accompanied by videos made for both social media and television. MTV was on the ground during the 2016 election interviewing teen Trump supporters, and at concerts in Las Vegas. But when it came to Hopper’s music section, Viacom would prove extremely sensitive to writing that could potentially damage the network’s relationships with artists. The result was a site that published in-depth pieces about wide swaths of music and culture, but rarely turned a truly critical eye on its subjects. Fierman, Hopper, and their writers would learn this the hard way.
In September 2016, MTV News published a story by writer Hazel Cills titled “Kings of Leon Waste Their Moment.” The post was a short review of the band’s new single, “Waste a Moment,” which argued that Kings of Leon had failed to cash in on the promise they showed on earlier albums. “Their sound today is no longer just middle of the road,” Cills wrote. “It’s almost aggressively anonymous.” She concluded by stating that the song “plays like an imprint of the last five years of music—neither a return to Kings of Leon’s svelte roots nor a reinvention worth investing in.”
It was a fairly gentle critique of a band who, pretty much anyone would agree, is no longer putting out its best music. Still, the article became an immediate source of trouble for MTV and it was quietly deleted after the band raised concerns with executives at the network. The band has not returned SPIN’s request for comment.
Hopper called a staff meeting two days later to discuss the situation. According to an ex-staff member who attended the meeting, Hopper explained that the band became aware of the article and threatened to remove itself from the MTV Europe Music Awards. The complaint over the article went straight to executive-level corporate management, and an agreement was reached that MTV News would, at least temporarily, cease the publication of reviews under 500 words. This was because executives at MTV associated those kinds of blog posts with snarkiness and criticism, both of which were deemed detrimental to the network’s broader ability to work with artists who may be the subjects of such posts.
It happened again the following month, when then-staffer David Turner wrote a concert review that focused on the “emotional disconnect” he felt while listening to Chance the Rapper’s new album Coloring Book. (In December, Turner, who was no longer working at the site, posted the article to Medium without noting that it once appeared on MTV.) When the story was featured on MTV’s Snapchat Discover channel, it caught the eye of Chance’s management, who subsequently contacted MTV and allegedly said that, as a result, he “was never working with MTV again.”
On October 21, Hopper explained that the network’s Music and Talent (“M&T”) division requested that the article be deleted. SPIN obtained screenshots of messages sent by Hopper in private channels of the music team’s office Slack. Several MTV employees affirmed their authenticity, and of those that will appear later in this piece.
Regarding Chance the Rapper, Hopper said:
since some of you know a little about this already, just wanted to explain why we took down David’s Chance piece, for the sake of transparency. This information is to stay in this channel, this group. Chance and his management became aware of David’s piece via the repost on Snapchat Discover and subsequently told MTV, amid high level negotiations for linear specials, that he was never working with MTV again because of it. M&T asked us to unpublished and scrub it from social media as they attempt to repair this with him and his management. It is upsetting for obvious journalistic reasons—we stand behind everything we publish. Right now, we are unsure how it may impact Chance-related projects both in and outside of News if the relationship cannot be repaired. Everyone agrees it was a fair and reasoned piece of criticism, a rare note of dissent in the face of six other positive pieces of coverage—and so we are hoping for a reasonable outcome. If you have any questions, all of you have my email/DM/phone, please do not hesitate to reach out.
SPIN reached out to Chance the Rapper for comment about this incident. His manager Pat Corcoran replied via email:
Upon the publication of the article, Chance and I got together & both agreed that the article was offensive.
When we brought our concerns to MTV, our rep agreed that the article was “a harsh shot” & took ownership of the editorial misstep.
From there, MTV chose to, on their own volition, to remove the piece.
We have a long history with MTV, which we cherish.
You may notice, Chance will be appearing in the season opener of Wild ‘N Out tmw night (6/29) on MTV.
Conversations between senior staff and artist representatives on the topic of what would be accepted on the site happened with some regularity. On July 5, 2016, Hopper told the staff that MTV was attempting to book DJ Khaled for various unknown projects, telling the staff that they might have to “nix” any writing on the producer “unless it’s like, KHALED IS GREAT.” Elsewhere, interference from artist reps was so pervasive that some MTV News editors spent part of this past New Year’s Eve haggling line-by-line with a chart-topping, platinum-selling, Grammy-winning female pop star’s publicist over a post in which MTV’s editors eventually agreed to cut one sentence.
Hopper also told the staff in October that “from time to time we do show [articles] to the heads of music and talent departments so they can sign off, or answer any questions about concerns they might have,” explaining that MTV News existed in an “ecosystem” where blowback from artists due to critical articles would land in the laps of other departments at the network. In turn, this meant the editors consented to arrangements that stepped outside the standard practices of journalism. In March of this year, MTV News published a story by editor Hilary Hughes theorizing that Kanye West might be releasing a new project based on a mysterious package that was delivered to MTV’s office. But the post was taken down after West’s team defiantly denied any involvement, even though the story had already been picked up by outlets like NME, Teen Vogue, and FACT. It’s not uncommon for publications to drastically amend or update articles due to factual error, but MTV broke from industry standard by not announcing to its readers that any of the above pieces had been modified in way.
When we reached out to MTV News for comment on the input of artists on editorial and the deletion of posts, they replied:
We do not comment on internal matters or talent relations.
This tension—the natural inclination of writers and editors to publish pieces that reflect their opinions versus their bosses’ desire to protect business relationships with celebrities—exists at every pop culture publication. Editors and executives must balance the need for access to artists with the reality that criticism necessarily angers those same artists and their publicists, friends, labels, collaborators, and so on. It is a fact of life for everyone in the industry, including us at SPIN. But at MTV News it was a consistent and looming dogma, one that inherently conflicted with the site’s mission statement of a journalistic revolution.
MTV News’ music coverage under Hopper’s direction was inconsistent when it came to at least one of the core tenets of journalistic integrity–publicly standing by writers when they wrote freely and truthfully about the people they were tasked with covering. Sources high up in the staff say that neither Hopper or Fierman felt they had much say when push came to shove on articles that network brass wanted deleted, with both being made to feel that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t comply. Other staffers echoed a familiar sentiment: While the staff believed it did “amazing work,” MTV “lives and dies with its relationships and talent” which meant that critical journalism and voice-driven opinion writing “never really had a shot” there.
Though Hopper and Fierman may have been attempting, in her words, a “radical tonal change” of the network’s website, they certainly weren’t the first. MTV has a history of funneling money into projects in the hopes of reimagining and bolstering its web presence only to quickly abandon ship. Earlier in the decade, an endeavor called MTV Hive was tasked with bringing in-depth, longform journalism to MTV, but it was never fully integrated into the company, and was eventually left to wither. In 2015, the network ended a vertical called MTV Iggy, which it initially hoped would diversify the site by covering music outside of America. This newest iteration of MTV News had more resources and was given more of a publicity tour than those initiatives, but it was cycled through a handful of direct superiors and fell victim to the same wayward impulse within MTV to perpetually reinvent itself.
“There’s always this anxiety that they’re not going to be able to keep up—that they’ll never be able to regain that relevance,” explains Jessica Suarez, a former editor at MTV Hive. “There’s these weird moves—let’s listen to teens—all the stuff you do when you’re worried about your relevance. They’re not going to disrupt anything.”
Unsurprisingly, turnover at the top was constant during Fierman and Hopper’s time at MTV. The two were overseen by five bosses in their 16 or so months at the company, with Doug Herzog, who brought Fierman on while president of MTV, leaving the company a year into an endeavor that he primarily helped usher in. Herzog and others at the network at the time believed the new journalistic endeavor would be a key component to the company’s future success.
“There’s big opportunity for MTV and MTV News—especially on digital platforms,” Herzog told The Hollywood Reporter in January 2016. “Now it’s about defining our point of view. Certainly Vice, more recently, has done a good job around that. With Dan coming in, it’s an opportunity for MTV to refocus itself to a more specific point of view than it’s had.”
Sources on both sides admit that the writing was on the wall when new president Chris McCarthy returned to MTV from VH1 last month, though writers and editors felt the end was imminent dating back to Herzog’s December 2016 departure. Under McCarthy’s direction the network has decided to reverse course, almost completely abandoning longform writing in favor of funneling resources into videos it hopes will attract millennials. In announcing the “new” strategy, MTV cited numbers it says proved that the site under Fierman and Hopper was hemorrhaging traffic—a 64 percent reduction in unique viewers and a 59 percent decrease in time spent on page, figures that ex-staff dispute. According to comScore, MTV.com showed a steady average loss of three to five million unique viewers in the United States per month (the standard measurement used to measure audience and readership for online publications), with one big spike around the VMAs in August 2016.
As the response to MTV’s announcement showed, Hopper and Fierman did a good job of selling their vision of prestige journalism and radical tonal change to the public. But inside the building, it was received differently by the MTV News staff who were around when the pair took over.
A widely read and controversial article about MTV News in The Nation relayed several unflattering stories about Fierman, including one in which a holdover writer was reportedly asked by Fierman, “Why would I trust you to report when I could hire Wesley Morris?” (Morris, the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic who also worked with Fierman at Grantland, was instead hired by The New York Times.) In an interview with SPIN, the former staffer who relayed that anecdote to The Nation stood by her story, despite Fierman’s denial in a since-deleted tweet that stated the exchange never happened. The former staffer said that in December 2015 she approached Fierman asking what she might do to keep her job, and he instructed her to assemble a portfolio of her best stories, as well as a memo about the ways in which she’d contribute to the site in the future. It was after she submitted the memo that she says Fierman made the alleged comment about Morris.
“I know I’m not the world’s most perfect writer, but I’ve done a lot of work that I’m really proud of,” she told SPIN. “He was saying he wouldn’t trust me to write a longform feature, which is just ridiculous. Clearly, I know I’m not Wesley Morris. He’s amazing. I read him. But that’s just a really rude thing to say to somebody.”
Multiple sources who spoke with SPIN confirmed that the MTV News staff believed that exchange to have been reported accurately by The Nation, and that it reflected a fractured and unequal newsroom that was exacerbated in particular by the way in which Fierman was perceived to have carried himself—with a confidence that bled into arrogance and which conveyed a disdain for the work that was being done before Fierman and Hopper took over. These sources described meetings about editorial direction from which existing staff felt they were excluded, as well as limits placed on writers who were previously encouraged to write long or reported articles. One former employee claimed that Fierman communicated with the staff via two separate Slack channels: a private room they described as for the “premium writers,” and another for everyone else.
As was also reported first by The Nation, and was confirmed to SPIN by multiple sources who were working at MTV News when Fierman took over, an early editorial meeting featured a Powerpoint slide about “essential staff.” The implication, according to these former employees, was that many staffers were non-essential, and would soon be let go—in fairness, a not uncommon occurrence when a new editorial director is hired to revamp a publication. This meeting set what one source described as an “ominous tone.” Holdover writers believed they “never got an articulated view of what [Fierman] wanted to do, because he was busy hiring all these people to replace us,” the source said.
“One thing that became clear, as soon as he was hiring [new staff], was a stark division between new and old,” the source added. “It definitely felt like a kind of Lord of the Flies. It created a division immediately, and it created paranoia amongst a lot of the staff.”
A month later, as reported by The Nation and confirmed by sources who spoke with SPIN, half of the holdover staff was laid off.
The editorial ethos that Hopper and Fierman sought to build was ultimately not particularly unique to MTV News, or even to their previous endeavors. Longform journalism is an established brand now, and it has a certain, if cynical, function to executives who aim to make money off of it. Longform is a tasteful, and almost always safe, product which can be paired with advertisements that share those qualities—the belief goes that advertisers will pay premium prices for “premium” readers reading “premium” writing. But when MTV News’ longform threatened other, presumably larger amounts of money for the network—see: the Chance the Rapper fiasco—Viacom decided that the site was no longer providing a merely safe and inoffensive product. As such, executives who have loyalty only to dollar signs moved quickly to erase those articles from memory, and the editors who published them did not—or could not—stop them. And when a new executive decided that longform journalism had no marketing value to his company, he discarded it along with the employees who produced it.
Other issues faced by MTV News were also not particularly unique to the site. Hopper outlined a “dream world” in the press that may very well have been a fantasy, but editors overselling new sites in the hopes of drumming up excitement—and thus an audience—is part of the deal. Constant high-level turnover is also common across this tumultuous industry, with one executive hiring a group of editors and writers and then leaving them in the lap of another. New hires are often assured by their bosses that they will be given a certain period of time to see a new endeavor through, only to have it be cut short months early. Both Fierman and Hopper also came to MTV from places where prestige journalism projects were unable to be sustained—Fierman at Grantland, which was beloved and had readership in the millions, but was deemed no longer useful to ESPN once it jettisoned Bill Simmons; Hopper at Pitchfork, where she helmed the bulk of the issues of the Pitchfork Review, its boutique print magazine that stopped publishing soon after she left. In the context of MTV, too, this MTV News experiment met a routine and familiar death.
“There’s this cycle that happens, that I was a part of. Someone gets the idea that they want editorial, and then a couple editors who all know the other editors are like ‘Come here, the faucet is on’,” Suarez said of the state of the industry. “And everyone runs to that faucet and it attracts the attention of higher-ups who realize there’s too much money coming out and shut it down. Then somebody you bring to your faucet gets their own faucet, and so you run over there.”
Nonetheless, the end to this new MTV News experiment does not portend good things for online media, which continues to be conglomerated and corporatized as executives hope to wring the last drops of profit from online writing. There is one outlier that provides an interesting parallel to MTV News: Bill Simmons’ The Ringer, which, like MTV News, absorbed a sizable portion of Grantland’s staff. Unlike MTV News, The Ringer has investment money from HBO but no direct corporate overlords, yet it has had its own struggles. The site will soon shift platforms from Medium to Vox, and according to at least one report, is not yet bringing in the sort of traffic that would likely keep it sustainable in the long run. But, at least, it exists.
After yesterday’s announcement that MTV would be pouring its resources back into video, there was a widespread belief among journalists that readers—or maybe we should say… consumers?—prefer the written word to video clips. Data seems to back this up, but it’s also besides the point—advertisers want to put their money behind video, and advertiser money is what keeps the journalism industry afloat, even as it continues to take on a dire amount of water. This was elucidated most baldly earlier this week by Jamie Horowitz, the president of national networks at Fox Sports, who laid off a large portion of that company’s web journalists as it, too, goes all-in on video. In a memo to staff, Horowitz wrote:
We are listening to our advertising partners. Our advertising partners want to be presented alongside premium video across all screens, so we will now focus on delivering high quality sports video content to support their efforts
This desperate marriage to video has specifically affected music publications, too. When the Complex Network was purchased by Hearst and Verizon, its potential as a “video-focused media company” was touted as the reason it was acquired. Since being acquired by Conde Nast, Pitchfork has noticeably increased its video production. When SPIN reached out to MTV to ask about their plans for the future of MTV News, they provided the following comment:
With MTV News, we’re doubling down on where we’ve seen our biggest successes in youth culture, music and entertainment. While we’re proud of the long-form editorial work from the past two years, we’re returning the editorial operation to its roots of amplifying the audiences’ voices and shifting additional resources into short-form video content more in line with young people’s media consumption habits.
Many journalists and readers do believe that prestige, longform journalism experiments like the one hatched at MTV News can, and do, succeed—but the time to convince executives feels like it’s running out. How many more faucets are going to be turned on?
Additional reporting by Andy Cush.
Correction: This article originally stated that an ex-MTV staffer approached Dan Fierman about what she could do to keep her job in December 2016. The incident happened in December 2015.