IQ News: Insider – Beyond The Stars




When Halle Berry filed for a divorce, Lew Harris, then entertainment editor at People, experienced an existential crisis. “It became a three-page story and two days out of my life,” Harris says. “I was thinking, Halle Berry is getting a divorce. Why am I working these hours for this?”
Harris quit after six months. He is now editor in chief of E! Online, and rather than getting people to buy a magazine cover, he’s working overtime figuring out how to get them to navigate through Web pages.
Harris, 53, had just become interested in interactive media when the offer came from People. He loved the medium’s speed and immediacy. He loved the idea of creating a new format. And readers seemed more connected to what was on screen rather than what was on the newsstand.
“When you look at the interplay between reader and publication it seemed this was where things were heading,” Harris says of the Internet.
In May, 1996, Harris returned to Los Angeles from New York to run E! Online. (His family hadn’t even moved to New York yet.) At home in L.A., Harris had spent 20 years at Los Angeles magazine, the last five years as editor in chief.
He began working with CNET, which then owned half of E! Online. (E! Entertainment Television later bought out the CNET interest.) Almost from the start, the Web audience began mainstreaming, transforming from a teenage tech-geek crowd into a user base that included more women and more older people. Today, almost two years into its existence, E! Online’s reach has grown to 1.8 million unique monthly users.
For Harris, the Internet changes celebrity journalism. Instead of doing a straight story on Kate Winslet, for example, E! Online takes an irreverent approach: In an Oscar game called Sink the Titanic, Steven Spielberg tries to shoot down the ship. Likewise, E! Online has created interactive takes on Hollywood with online celebrity greeting cards, quizzes and polls.
Harris is happier molding celebrity journalism into an online format than he was chasing the story for a flat page. He doesn’t mind feeding into other people’s celebrity obsessions, though for him it’s not about going to premieres and the Oscars.
“I’m fascinated by the form we’re able to do this in,” Harris says. “It isn’t so much that I’m fascinated with celebrities. It’s being a part of the Internet at this stage of development. It’s made having a Web site obsessed with celebrities palatable.”