Bonnie Fuller and Dina Sartore-Bodo on the Continuous Evolution of HollywoodLife

by Lindsay Valdez

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“the greatest challenge is to remain open to learning and evolving all the time. You just can't stop.”

Join Bonnie at BlogHer Creators Summit as she moderates the RepresentHER Awards. This award is given to women in the entertainment industry, either in front of or behind the camera, who are revolutionaries in their craft, as well as in their philanthropic ventures. These awards will be held on Sept 18th, at 4:30p on the main stage. Panel consists of Annie Weisman, Violett Bean, Shahadi Wright Joseph & Yvette Monreal.

Over the last few years, HollywoodLife has seen their fair share of woes with the “Google gods” as their Managing Editor, Dina calls them. But after several years worth of traffic struggles for the brand, 2019 has seen consistent growth in the right direction. I’ve had the privilege of working with the HollywoodLife team on their SEO since January of this year. This is an incredibly smart, eager team and it’s been exciting to see their content efforts pay off in a big way.

Last week, I sat down with Editor-in-Chief, Bonnie Fuller and Managing Editor, Dina Sartore-Bodo to talk about the history of the brand, their careers and how they’ve managed to keep the site changing with the times.

Tell us about the history of HollywoodLife.

Bonnie: Wow, where to start?! We’re getting close to our 10 year anniversary, we launched just before Thanksgiving 2009. What we wanted to do was to create a destination for young women to get all of their entertainment, celebrity style and women's issue news and to have a very personal, friendly and engaged relationship with the readers. And one of the ways that we knew we were going to approach the news was from the viewpoint that celebrities are really role models for our readers, for young women in all aspects of their lives. And this is still true today. They identify with what celebrities are doing, both the positive and the negative and then they make decisions about their own lives. We’ve also realized over the years that our readers depend on us not only for celebrity news content, but for coverage of all the major news events that happen in the world. And because they’re already on HollywoodLife, that content performs very well for us.

What are some ways the celebrity news space has changed since HollywoodLife began?

Dina: I joined the HL team 5 years ago, about half way through. When I came on, HollywoodLife had really established itself as a destination for millennials to get celebrity news in a fresh way, as so many of the traditional magazines were still not putting as much stock in their websites. HollywoodLife was very much at the forefront of that. So then, I think the biggest change for us in the last five years has been how celebrities want to be a part of the narrative. Five years ago, Instagram was just a fledgling; everyone was still on Facebook. Twitter was really starting to take off as a means for celebrities to have a voice in telling their own story in the media.

Dina (cont.): Take the Kardashians, for example: they lived and died by what the paparazzi put out there of them. Now, they completely control their visual narratives. Their vacations, their kids -- they show the pictures first now. I remember, the first picture of North was shown on Kris Jenner's talk show, but the first pictures of Saint and Psalm were on a Kim's Instagram. So they, like many other stars now, are controlling their own narrative and we, in turn, end up playing ball with them — and it’s to everyone’s benefit. We incorporate what they are saying about themselves into our coverage. It gives us more access than we've ever had before because they're so ingrained with telling their own side of the story.

Bonnie: It used to be that celebrities were still trying to “protect” their private life. Whereas today, celebrities are sharing everything, the first pictures of their babies, their wedding photos, their engagements, everything. They’re trying to include their fans in their lives.

Such a great point, what are your thoughts on the celebs who want to keep things private?

Dina: There is an interesting divide between young millennial stars, as some understand that this gives access to their lives in a way that they can control and they want that. But others don't want to have to deal with it at all. They don't care what we or anybody writes about them. They'll do the interviews that they want to do. They'll go to the events that they want to. But beyond that, they want to keep themselves very private, very isolated. I think there’s something to respect about that — it adds a level of mystery to them and in turn, elevated interest in them from the audience.

Bonnie: I kind of disagree. I don't see a lack of interest in people that share a lot about their lives. I think if anything that fuels even more interest.

Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve experiences with Google over the last few years.

Bonnie: Something that we've learned is that you really have to have excellent SEO practices. And a step further, outside of the SEO practices, you have to make sure that your technology is modernized at all times. You can't just build the site and then just leave it. You have to be aware of the updates that you need to do. Google is constantly looking to deliver the best user experience and it seems that some of their requirements have changed over the years. It's very important to keep up with what they are favoring and disfavoring. And to always think about what makes for a great user experience both on mobile and your desktop.

Think about yourself as a reader. If you're a reader, do you want to go on a site that, that is blocking your ability to read the story because it's got pop-up ads and pop-up newsletter subscription boxes that are hard to click out of? Do you want to run galleries that don't have captions? That's not a good user experience.

Dina: One thing we’ve learned from the challenges we’ve faced is that, as editors, you have to really look at where you can deliver your content outside of Google. I think of it as a three prong system: There's Google, there's social, there's partnerships. There have been times when we weren’t having luck with Google giving us position on a story, but then Facebook picked up the slack or one of our partnerships took us over our projections for the month. So, while there's always going to be SEO and Google, you don't want to neglect your other avenues of reaching your audience. It's foolish to do that.

Share with us some ways that HL has elevated their brand reputation.

Dina: For us, it’s been a balancing act because as a brand, part of who we are, is giving the reader an emotional thread line to these celebrities that speaks directly to them. We are not CNN; we are not The New York Times. We have a young, vibrant, intelligent audience that likes to feel personally connected to this content. So, a lot of the changes that we’ve made came out of a need to balance between delivering news in our own, unique HollywoodLife way with keeping the SEO tight enough that Google understands how to process our content correctly. There are so many outlets covering the same thing, we had to find a way to deliver something interesting and unique to our reader, while still delivering what we need to Google.

Bonnie: The other thing we’ve really focused on over the last 3 years is exclusive content. By either breaking news stories or getting our own exclusive interviews with talent, we want to ensure that when a reader comes to HollywoodLife, they’re getting stories they can’t get in other places. We have our own sources and they are able to give us really credible information on what's going on in a particular event or can give us a new story about a celebrity. News exclusivity is much more important to outlets now! We used to see ourselves as both an aggregator and a breaking news site and while aggregating stories is easier, we now do so much more of our own reporting. First of all, we want to confirm the coverage is true so we verify with our own trusted sources. And also, we’d just rather give our own information.

Bonnie, you’ve had quite a career, can you share with us some of the highlights?

Bonnie: Landing my first Editor-in-Chief job was pretty fantastic! That’s where I really learned how to look at a publication as an overall picture and really plot issues. To think about the visuals as well as the written part of magazines. Aside from that, launching Marie Claire magazine in New York in 1994 was really exciting. That was my very favorite magazine job and it was the best time to be in magazines, a golden era. We had a very different take on fashion because we wanted to show affordable fashion, which at that time was new for fashion magazines. It was a big success right from the start.

Bonnie (cont.): And because that went well, they promoted me to be EIC at another Hearst property, Cosmopolitan. Cosmo needed to be completely updated and revamped. From there, I became the EIC at Glamour. After that, I really wanted to get into something newsier. I’d always admired the weekly European magazines that covered celebrities and royals but at the time there wasn’t anything really like that in the U.S. I’d heard Jann Wenner was revamping US magazine after turning it into a weekly so I interviewed. That’s how I made the jump from fashion to news.

With a career like that, you must have seen your share of challenges! What do you think the biggest challenge has been over the years?

Bonnie: The biggest challenge in any career and certainly in this field is to continually be learning. You can't just sit back and go, hey, I know it all. I feel like almost every day I learn something new, especially now having crossed over into digital. The digital requirements of dealing with Google, with social media, the evolution of it all is challenging to keep up with. You have to keep up with the opportunities that now come your way to showcase the brand in different ways on different platforms and deciding which makes sense for us, which doesn't. There’s a lot that doesn't make sense for you to spend time doing.

But again, the greatest challenge is to remain open to learning and evolving all the time. You just can't stop.

Alright, last question! What would you tell the next generation of digital content creators?

Dina: Be ready to work. As a millennial, I recognize that there is a stigma about my generation and I have spent my entire career railing against it. I have also always looked for that willingness to put in hard work in other people, especially when I’m hiring new talent. We are journalists. There is a wide spectrum of what is considered ‘news’ today, and the lines are continually blurring. The New York Times covers ‘The Bachelor’; we write about the Democratic Convention. It's a time that if you want to make it in this industry, you have to put your nose to the grindstone, because the competition is fierce and there are so many voices to compete with.

Dina (cont.): We have such a diverse, incredible staff writing for HollywoodLife right now; probably the strongest team that we've had in the five years that I have worked here. We have writers and editors who have been here as long as I have, and in some cases even longer, that are still pushing themselves so creatively, even now. They are not resting on their laurels. They're not just saying, “I’ve done this for five years, I can just do what I've been doing and get away with it.” And all their hard work, it shows. It’s celebrated and it’s helped to elevate our brands. And the newer staffers, the ones just hired over the last year or so, I brought on people who were open to learning and gaining the kind of experience that they can carry with them throughout the rest of their career.

So my advice is be ready to work. Put in long hours. Work late into the evenings and early in the morning, because in the end, it will make you a stronger writer. It will prepare you for every step going forward in your career and with every word you write, you’ll be developing your voice. You'll just be better for it.

Bonnie: And I would say you've got to still have the basics. You have to be able to spell, you've got to have good grammar. You've got to remember the five W's of journalism, who, what, why, where, when. Those basics take you a long way in being a good journalist. You have to be able to write a good lead sentence and headline. And yes, we cover a lot of topics that are fun and a lot of people don't consider celebrity news, seriously. But we take it seriously. We take everything that we write seriously and we really want to have good factual, well reported stories.

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