December 3, 2022

Groundbreaking journalist and entrepreneur was tough but generous

Nikki Finke. In Roger Friedman’s obit of the reclusive Finke, he wrote, “There is exactly one photo of Nikki. You’re going to see it everywhere today.” That was right.

Nikki Finke was a totally fearless journalist and so unique a human being that her passing warrants usage of the ungrammatical “so unique.” She invented modern Hollywood internet journalism, bringing speed and toughness to a beat that relied on glad-handing and access. But she was a real journalist, not a gossip, and the many who disliked her and the even more who feared her—the most powerful men in Hollywood—knew that she had integrity and real backbone.

Nikki reached out to me privately when I became editor of the New York Observer in 2013. Nikki was pure Hollywood by that point, but she had grown up on Long Island and retained an interest in her hometown. She had written a great column for the Observer during Peter Kaplan’s editorship and the paper had dubbed her “Media Mensch of the Year.”

She had all kinds of “issues” with what she perceived to be Jared Kushner’s running of the paper (mostly bs and conspiracies), but she still wanted us to succeed. (Doree Shafrir has a nice Nikki story on that note in her Buzzfeed obit for Peter Kaplan.) Nikki detested Donald Trump, and didn’t accept my insistence that he had zero to do with anything in the paper. And she also had beef with one of our star young journalists, Hunter Walker, who she had mentored a bit when he was a cub reporter in LA. But Nikki admired Hunter, and so did I, and I needed guidance and she had opinions. And shared them. Nikki Finke knew everything about everyone and was impossible to bully or intimidate, and everyone tried, from movie moguls to the people she worked for.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Sometimes, Nikki would complain to me about Jay Penske, who had bought her baby, Deadline, and also owned all would-be competitors so she couldn’t even credibly threaten to bolt for the competition. I would listen and then gently tell her that whatever she was raging about didn’t seem all that awful to me, and she would basically tell me I was as bad as Penske but half as smart and much poorer. True.

In his statement, Penske kind of nailed it. “At her best, Nikki Finke embodied the spirit of journalism and was never afraid to tell the hard truths with an incisive style and enigmatic spark. … It was never easy with Nikki, but she will always remain one of the most memorable people in my life.”

Memorable is right.

Nikki would give us tips or help steer our reporters when we lost the scent.

I’m looking back through this million email chain with her and I’m stunned to re-read some of them. At 8:30 pm on Oct 6, 2015—more than two years before this blew up—she wrote me an email with subject heading “Harvey.”

“Everyone’s saying Ashley Judd’s harassing mogul is Harvey. She refers to a NYC literati party for Double Jeopardy and Mitchell Fink’s column in NYDN lists him as one of attendees.”

Nikki was helpful with “how Hollywood works” type stuff that’s so hard to navigate from New York. We did a big feature on Mark Ruffalo and even commissioned a great photographer and video. We didn’t understand the mechanics of drawing attention to this kind of thing and she steered us toward people who’d appreciate it and help promote. One of the people whose work she admired was Roger Friedman. In his tough-but-fair obit today, he wrote, “It was impossible to be friendly with her.” I didn’t find that to be the case, and I hope Roger knows that he was one of the people she deemed worthy of befriending and hiring.

Nikki and I corresponded constantly and talked on the phone from time to time, but never met in person. She didn’t like to meet anyone in person. In his poignant remembrance, Nikki’s colleague Pete Hammond describes the rarified air of an in-person audience with her.

“[Nikki] had an air of mystery about her, which is always good for a Hollywood career, but she consistently denied she was a recluse, instead chalking it up to her insane work ethic. Still the fact is I worked directly with her for four years before she left and only once did I ever meet her in person, and that was in her final year at Deadline. She invited me and my wife Madelyn to her apartment on Doheny Drive for dinner (delivered by The Ivy). To my mind, this was akin to meeting Garbo. I cannot describe how nervous I was about the prospect, but after some very awkward moments, what I really discovered was she was as big a fan of classic movies as I was. Nobody loved Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, even Garbo more. Who knew?”

I respected her a ton and she knew it.

As far back as 2013, we talked about finding a way to work together. She put me in touch with her representative, Peter Levin, and we got pretty far down the path, but she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do or if she wanted to be in business with such devils. I now realize it would never have ended well, but gosh it seems like we could have had some fun blowing stuff up.

In 2015, Nikki wrote me, “What if I wrote a column about books and book publishing? It’s the world’s most backwards industry.” She was right, but I had already learned the hard way that barely anyone read the Observer’s book coverage and the publishers wouldn’t advertise with us no matter what. I responded, “No. We hate books. You’re right, but there’s absolutely no sales there. I mean a one-off column, sure, but not a recurring thing.”

We kept talking and she gave me some advice when I was getting defenestrated in 2016 for wrongthink (and, I admit, wrongbehavior, if that’s a thing). Even as her contempt for Jared and Trump and presumably me grew alongside 2016 politics, she remained a valued advisor. The thing I hate and fear most about the coming decades is that there’s less and less room for someone like Nikki Finke. An uncompromising, razor smart, tough and righteous individual. Who happens to be a great journalist.

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