This month I’m excited to bring you Will Lee. Will runs content and programming for all of digital for People and Entertainment Weekly, and was a key member of the founding team at TMZ. Will shaped and changed the way we sell and consume celeb content for over a decade and counting. From being part of the team that got the Mel Gibson scoop to helping shape the Kardashian dynasty, Will is the wizard behind the screen.
Ben Smith: Let’s start with the TMZ days. As part of the founding team at TMZ, you really changed the way that celebrity news is packaged and sold. Were you aware of that going in? Or was it a natural and organic process?
Will Lee: I think kind of like a lot of the best startups, you feel like you are changing the world. At TMZ we really felt like we were changing how the celeb news product was sold in 2006. If you think about what TMZ was at the time, it was a video first product. Digital video was happening. I think what we were really trying to do was to not cover red carpets. A lot of it was a reaction to the way celebrity had been covered until then, which was very reverent, and all about red carpets. It was all about the things that everybody, like the publicists and PR told you about stars.
We felt like there was another side to celebrities. We were going to cover it. Like a lot of startups, we had internal rules and manifestos. One of ours was to never use any red carpet shots ever. We did not talk to PR, ever (except to check facts). We didn’t pick up any other outlet’s stories. We only ran our own stories. Those are pretty difficult rules to follow, because so much of the early web was about curation and still is today. Back then, it was just about picking up other people’s stories.
We didn’t really think about how we were changing the landscape until the Mel Gibson DUI story. As the person who actually published that story in the TMZ cms and made the story go live, I can say we really did not know what would happen. We thought that this was either going to be a big moment for us or it would be a brutal beating for us
Ben Smith: Was the Mel Gibson story “the big moment”?
Will Lee: Yeah. The big moments until then had been the Paris Hilton DUI, the Lindsay Lohan fire crotch, and Woody Harrelson beating up our photographer.
But this was an actual news story that was pretty explosive. Ten years ago, Mel Gibson was probably one of the biggest movie stars in the world, probably one of the top three male movie stars in the world, an Oscar winner, as an actor, producer, and director. It was a pretty big deal. That’s what started everything. Then Michael Richards happened and we started getting everything.
The real difference for us though was being a video first destination. That ultimately changed the way you wrote news digitally, and in turn dramatically changed the velocity of news in a pretty significant way. Not just for celebrities, actually I have to say. When something like Anna Nicole Smith’s death happened, I think I wrote 25 stories in one day on that one story, on that one topic.
Ben Smith: Wow.
Will Lee: That day, we probably did 60 stories, which at the time was a huge amount. At the time, it was basically me and two other guys writing everything. I think probably the most telling moments was watching MSNBC. They were covering Anna Nicole Smith. They were reporting about one of her hearings after her death. I typed a headline in and wrote four line of text to get our article out the door. 90 seconds later, on the MSNBC scroll, you saw “TMZ reports….”.
Ben Smith: That’s incredible.
Will Lee: That’s how we became a de facto source for all of that news. I remember when Tim Russert died, the NBC News guy. We were not the first. We were the second by probably 40 seconds or maybe just over a minute. I remember how slow everybody else was on the story. All the other competitors in the celebrity space were 20, 30, 40 minutes behind. I just remember thinking how can you operate like that? The news is out there. Why would you wait around?
Will Lee: When I joined, People was fourth in the entertainment news category. It was TMZ, Yahoo Celebrity and E! Online as one, two and three. To me, it was three things. Mentality, metabolism and messaging. The mentality was we’re not just a magazine website anymore. It’s not about People.com. It’s not about some simple version of the magazine online. We had to break ourselves off that mentality.
Then the metabolism part of it is okay, we’re not going to do like 35 or 40 stories a day while the Daily Mail is doing 900 and Huffington Post is doing 600. We don’t have the staff like they do but we’re going to increase the production a lot. We quintupled the production pretty soon after I arrived. This is just the basic calisthenics of content production, the metabolism. We are a 24/7 newsroom. We don’t work on weekly things anymore.
And the messaging part it is, let’s not get fucking beat by E! Online. Get a little goddamn competitive and don’t let E! Online beat you because nobody loves E! Online. I’m sorry. They just don’t, right?
Ben Smith: Right. I love that. It’s true, so true.
Will Lee: You have a brand like People that is beloved. There’s a certain degree of addiction there. It’s a brand that people care about and you’re letting E! Online beat you on the internet every month? The message internally was that’s not acceptable. We have to be much more competitive. We have to look at ourselves as the category leader. Very basic stuff.
Ben Smith: How have the rules changed this time around? At TMZ, you guys clearly rewrote the rulebook. Ten years later, you have Instagram, and celebrities that all go direct to consumers. Has that changed the way People puts out stories?
Will Lee: Yeah. We say all the time that our biggest competition is Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Celebrities can control their own message. I think because they can control their own message, they also want to work with outlets and brands that help define the conversation. People is that brand. If you want to really tell your story, you’re probably not going to do it just on Instagram. You don’t really control what happens once it’s out there.
If you come to People, we can really shape the narrative. If it’s something pretty significant, like some life relationship change or something that you really want to be able to tell, it’s important to have an outlet that people trust.
Ben Smith: That’s amazing to me. You guys concede breaking news to Instagram and Facebook, but the idea of storytelling and narrative, that’s People’s job. Is that right?
Will Lee: 100% correct. What we talk about is the job of People in the new digital age is to humanize screens. We want to humanize screens because People’s mission since it started in 1974 was extraordinary people doing ordinary things and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I think that still holds true. There are so many possibilities for us to own storytelling for celebrity and human interest for celebrities and civilians both across every platform.
Ben Smith: Branded advertising has been taking a lot of heat lately. Predictions for how your industry is going to continue to monetize?
Will Lee: We are going to have to figure out how to get people to pay for great content. I think People and EW have a much better chance than anybody else does because there’s this level of addition to the content.
Ben Smith: Do you think People will ever do 360 deals with talent? Will you take a stake in some of the talent?
Will Lee: Let me put it this way. If you look at what’s happening with everybody from Jessica Alba to Blake Lively, to Reese Witherspoon, they’re all entrepreneurs. If you were a celebrity, why would you not want to potentially incubate your business in that realm with People, right? I think if we do our jobs right in the next 18-24 months, you will see our relationship with celebrities change in a very significant way.
Ben Smith: What are you personally betting on over the next 12 or 18 months personally? What is Will Lee betting on?
Will Lee: I think under the rubric of addictive, immersive experiences, VR is important. If you think about our access and the way we tell stories and present celebrities, that’s probably the one area in which People can connect audiences to celebrity in a way nobody else has before. To be very blunt, I think VR is an important thing for us.
Ben Smith: How long do you think the Kardashians can keep going?
Will Lee: Limitlessly. I think as long as there are content platforms, the Kardashians will endure.
Ben Smith: They are the Ford Motors of social media basically.
Will Lee: They power the web. I’d really like to see Kris Jenner’s Gantt chart, her roadmap. Her product roadmap is a very long and it would be the envy of every good startup...